Monday, December 15, 2008

Transport plan? The joke's on us

Kenneth Davidson, as usual, pulls no punches...

THE Brumby Government is having us on. Are we expected to take seriously a $38 billion transport plan that needs $8 billion from a total Federal Government national infrastructure pot that has $10 billion in it and is leaking badly as a result of the deepening recession?

Surely Brumby doesn't seriously believe that he will get the lion's share of these infrastructure funds for multibillion-dollar projects that haven't been subject to a credible environmental impact study or cost-benefit analysis?

The Victorian Transport Plan is just a continuation of Melbourne's real long-term transport plan drawn up in 1969 by Wilbur Smith and Associates. This American consultancy envisaged Melbourne as a replica of car-reliant Los Angeles with freeways, ring roads and a residual bus service for the poor. (An excellent tram service was sold to a trust comprised of the leading car and tyre manufacturers, which then closed the network.)

The trustee in charge of Wilbur Smith's vision is VicRoads, the most powerful quango in the Victorian bureaucracy. Part of the long-term plan is to complete the ring road — a diabolical attack on Melbourne's radial public transport network separated by green wedges. This plan was created by the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, which was Melbourne's de facto planning agency as development was forced to follow the most expensive infrastructure — sewerage and water.

But after the break-up of the MMBW, VicRoads, under a series of weak and incompetent state governments, has been allowed to run riot while planning has fallen into the hands of the developers and water is well on the way to being privatised.

VicRoad's strategy is salami tactics: one slice at a time. The Eastern Freeway becomes a traffic jam at Hoddle Street backing up towards Burke Road in peak periods. Solution? Bulldoze an east-west extension through the inner suburbs to get more cars into Melbourne, even though trains are the only way to get masses of people into the CBD without environmental and economic catastrophe as half the city building will need to be replaced by car parks.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Eastern Freeway-EastLink is the promise of a $6 billion extension from Bulleen to Greensborough to link up with the ring road from the western suburbs.

Why would the Commonwealth finance this when there are cheaper and more environmentally sound alternatives? For example, spending a few hundred million dollars to upgrade the Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane rail link to get freight traffic off the Hume Highway and create a standard gauge link from Dandenong to Dynon Road freight terminal to move freight by rail to all the mainland capitals.

Bulldozing a freeway across the Yarra flats and through historic Heidelberg has never been off the agenda. I addressed 500 people at the Heidelberg Town Hall in November 2002 and pointed out that EastLink was a highway from nowhere to nowhere. It only made sense if it connected to the ring road. Then transport minister Peter Batchelor promised the meeting that the link would not be made in his tenure. Local member Craig Langdon said he would resign from Parliament if the road was built. It was a lesson in political management.

Batchelor also told Parliament that "I put it on record the Government has no such proposal (to link the Eastern Freeway with the ring road) … It is not on our radar … There is no truth in the suggestion."

But urban planner and public transport advocate Paul Mees discovered a document under freedom of information, a recording of a ministerial briefing by a senior planning official dated October 2001 that clearly stated the connection was recommended by the department.

It is impossible not to conclude that the Government hates the idea of extending or improving the rail network. Its technique for avoiding sensible options is to refuse to examine them. This is why it can't afford to undertake serious cost-benefit analysis. For instance, Mees says there is no reason for an expensive duplication and extension of the rail network because there is a bottleneck in the city underground loop, which can be resolved by a better timetable.

This should be subject to expert inquiry as Mees' proposal has the ability to save at least $8 billion in unnecessary investment and extend the network where it is needed.

The Government, under the thrall of VicRoads and an incompetent public transport bureaucracy with a vested interest in the maintenance of the franchise system, refuses to hold the inquiry. Why?

Kenneth Davidson is a senior columnist.

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