Saturday, July 12, 2008

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

If you only read one newspaper article this year about Melbourne's transport woes, read this one from The Age today.

A failure by successive Victorian governments to invest in public transport has left commuters stranded and roads congested. Plan after plan promised improvement, but did not deliver - and time is running out.

LIKE so many Melburnians, Candy Spender wants to do the right thing for the environment. But the system isn't making it easy for her.

In May, the South Melbourne fashion designer and her partner sold their second car, deciding to rely on public transport for short trips. "We were trying to be part of the solution," Spender says.

On Thursday morning, she rose early for a crucial business meeting in St Kilda Road and went to the tram stop, where she was greeted by a string of trams — choked with angry-looking commuters — that didn't stop, because there was no room for more passengers. Spender shivered in the cold, waiting with a growing number of other angry travellers. "Every single tram was just chock-a-block, people squeezed in."

A tram with space arrived 25 minutes later. "Why don't we have more trams? It's so obvious," she says. "This Government, they spout all this rhetoric. But it's just a lot of grandstanding — nothing is happening."

She is by no means alone in her frustrations — Melbourne's commuters have been complaining for years — but now, in the face of rising fuel costs, continuing population growth, ageing transport infrastructure and the looming spectre of global warming, state and federal governments are finally being forced to confront the mess wrought by years of neglect.

Many argue Melbourne's transport woes can be attributed to poor planning, which has led to under-investment in transport. One senior Melbourne public transport official told The Age Melbourne is paying for 30 years of inadequate funding — particularly in public transport.

Recent transport plans have not been a cause for hope. The Kennett government largely neglected public transport infrastructure upgrades in the 1990s, and in 1999 Melbourne transport was not a priority for Labor's Steve Bracks.

By 2004 transport minister Peter Batchelor had a 10-year transport plan; two years later he had a new 25-year plan. And, later this year, Premier John Brumby will likely announce a 30-year transport plan.

All the while transport services in Melbourne have gone backwards. Reams of paper have been wasted printing plans while Melbourne's public transport system has swelled to bursting point and the city's roads have ground to a halt — leaving talk-back host Neil Mitchell to demand of the Premier on Tuesday: "When will you put a shovel in the dirt? When are we going to stop talking about the traffic mess and fix it?"

Planning and investment in Melbourne's public transport system has been woeful for decades. Metlink chief executive Bernie Carolan says patronage is already at record levels. "And there is no sign that any of the many factors contributing to growth are going to diminish," he says.

Massive growth in train patronage — up 30% in three years — has caught planners by surprise. Connex says some train lines will hit capacity this year, while Brumby says some lines are already at capacity.

His own Government's estimates show 28% more passengers will squeeze onto Melbourne's trains by 2011, up from 198 million passengers a year in 2008 to 253 million in 2012. Melbourne's trains are now carrying the passenger numbers not forecast until 2016. It is clear Government got the planning horribly wrong.

Our roads are little better. The Age reveals today declining travel speeds, increased congestion and more delays to come. Congestion on the roads is only expected to worsen if nothing is done, with car travel estimated to increase by 30% by 2031. But despite the woes on the city's road network, motorists are still ahead of neglected public transport commuters. Money spent on new roads in Melbourne by state and federal governments since 1999 has been five times that spent on new public transport connections. Since Labor was elected in Victoria in 1999, $1.7 billion has been spent on new road projects. Meanwhile, just $322 million has been spent on new public transport connections, according to the Public Transport Users Association.

Again, the problems seem to come down to planning. When Batchelor announced the Linking Melbourne: Metropolitan Transport Plan in 2004, he promised a 10-year outline for the development of the transport network. Batchelor said the focus of the plan was to improve the capacity of the existing rail network, and was a "blueprint for funding priorities over the next five years".

Just 18 months later, when it was clear the plan had failed, Bracks announced a new $10.5 billion transport plan: Meeting Our Transport Challenges. It was hailed as the "biggest single investment in the transport system ever undertaken by a Victorian Government" — a 25-year vision. "This major new investment in the state's transport network will connect our growing communities, cut congestion, and deliver a modern and safe system for all Victorians," Bracks boasted.

Two years on Bracks is gone and the transport plan is in tatters. Brumby is so concerned that he is meeting twice weekly with the six-member transport sub-committee of cabinet. The committee includes Roads Minister Tim Pallas, Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, Treasurer John Lenders, Planning Minister Justin Madden and Regional and Rural Development Minister Jacinta Allan.

In response to the transport mess, the Government initially looked to Sir Rod Eddington's $20 billion transport plan for improving travel between Melbourne's east and west suburbs. Yet in shades of past transport fiascos, the Government's reply to Eddington's study has morphed into a whole-of-Victoria transport plan. While such a plan is desperately needed, it is looking very much like policy on the run.

The Government says it will now release a "comprehensive transport plan for Victoria" by the end of the year. But this has surprised some Government insiders, who describe the broad transport plan as "plan B". Another labelled the transport policy development "a mess".

Some MPs were surprised last week to learn that a push by transport groups to "complete" the Metropolitan Ring Road with a new freeway connection between Greensborough and Ringwood, and of plans for an "outer ring road" from Werribee to Craigieburn.

The Government has received more than 500 submissions to Eddington's proposals, but no one was asked to respond to a transport plan for the whole of Victoria — which the Government says it will release in November.

It is public knowledge that Eddington was frustrated with the limited scope of his report, and now the Government is holding secret briefings from transport experts sounding out advice on a wider transport plan.

Despite the deficiencies in the process, some monumental transport options are now on the horizon for Melbourne: a $9 billion road tunnel linking the Eastern Freeway to the Western Ring Road, a $7 billion rail tunnel from Footscray to Caulfield, and a $1.5 billion rail link from Werribee to Deer Park, as well as the "missing link" and "outer ring road". There will be major regional transport proposals as well.

The public's reaction to many of the proposals remains largely unknown because the Government has refused to release the public submissions until after the closing date on Tuesday. What is clear is a big investment in public transport infrastructure is almost certain. Business, transport groups and the public are unified in their call for a big increase in public transport capability — the question is how to fund the $8.5 billion worth of rail projects.

The Federal Government has announced a $20 billion Building Australia Fund, with the new Infrastructure Australia Advisory Council to advise the Rudd Government on how to spend the money. The council is chaired by Sir Rod Eddington and will release a list of priority funding projects in March — four months after Brumby is expected to release his Victorian transport plan.

Brumby has already said he expects $5-$6 billion from the fund — which realistically could mean Victoria receiving $3-$4 billion, judging by the allocation of federal road funding in Victoria.

The Federal Government has already committed $12 million for feasibility studies into transport options identified in Eddington report — including the proposed Footscray to Caulfield rail tunnel and new western rail line from Werribee to Deer Park. Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese told The Age that the feasibility studies were a "statement of intent, not about specific projects necessarily, but about the direction of the Government".

"It is a national tragedy that many working parents spend more time commuting to work in their cars than they do at home with their kids," he says.

The last federal minister to make significant investment in public transport, former deputy prime minister Brian Howe, has welcomed the move. And Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said the Federal Government had to do more on public transport to help tackle climate change. "How much do they (cars) put into the environment in greenhouse gas emissions? Because we have yet to evolve a large, long-term investment into urban public transport systems, with the national government playing its role as well," Rudd said earlier this month.

Other funding options are also being considered for the public transport projects, including increased debt-borrowing by the State Government and private financing. While it is widely expected that new major road projects in Melbourne will attract a toll, private funding for public transport would take many by surprise.

Superannuation funds are particularly interested in making long-term, low-risk investments in transport infrastructure. David Atkin, chief executive of superannuation fund Cbus, said major new rail projects could be attractive investment opportunities.

"It is certainly true that it is quite possible that we could become an investor in something like that, but it depends on how it is structured," he says.

And how financially attractive the State Government makes the investment.

Others are less concerned about the funding model and more interested in the outcome. Daniel Bowen from the Public Transport Users Association says it is time a lasting, effective transport plan is delivered.

"Every couple of years, this Government comes out with a new plan that they say will be the be-all-and-end-all," he says. "Inevitably, people realise it's not going to work, and so work begins on another plan."

The Government has boasted of its target to have 20% of all motorised trips on public transport by 2020. But many public transport commuters are now just hoping their train or tram arrives, and when it does, that they can squeeze on. Victoria's 2008 transport plan will need to improve on those before it or the next may be delivered by a new government.

For Candy Spender, just getting to work on time is all she is after.

"How can it be that when, nearly every headline is about climate change and the price of fuel, the public transport system in Melbourne cannot be relied upon?"

Jason Dowling is city editor.

Clay Lucas is transport reporter.

By 2011, Melbourne trains will carry 28% more passengers, up from 198 million passengers to 253 million.

■30% increase in car travel by 2031.

■Since 1999, $1.7 billion has been spent on new road projects and $322 million on new public transport connections.


Original article at

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