October 10, 2014

Motordom in Australia: A tunnel for Melbourne

Peter Whitelaw passes this along this piece from the Guardian Australia on the East West Link – “the most contentious, emotionally charged flashpoint in next month’s Victorian election.”
It’s a textbook case on how, after the failure of other road projects like Brisbane’s Clem7 and Sydney’s tunnels, Australian governments seem to have learned nothing, even as the momentum of Motordom overrides evidence and common sense.  


East West Link: the case for and against Melbourne’s $6.8bn road


… Swirling around the politics, the court challenges and the price tag is a question: is this 18km toll road a good idea? And even if it does have merit, are there better ideas that would ease Melbourne’s gridlock more cheaply?


The expert view is consistent – the East West Link may bring some benefits, but it should not be the top priority for a city expected to be home to nearly 8 million people by mid-century.

All are sceptical of the finances, dismayed by the secrecy surrounding the project, and convinced that the state needs a big shift in thinking if it’s going to cope well with a surging population. They say what’s needed is a tilt towards a mass public transport system.

But experts don’t make decisions. Politicians do, taking into account a range of factors other than expert opinion. …
Those against all new major road projects may not care about the figures one way or the other, but those who follow these things closely say the project is unprecedented for its lack of transparency. …

“Normally we would see more detail, and historically it’s been much clearer on what basis we are proceeding with projects like this,” William McDougall says.
“This is new for Australia,” says John Stone. “The fact that through all these court cases and all this political focus the government has never released its business plan – it released a back of envelope estimate – means probably there’s nothing to back it up. If they had a better number they would have put it out there.”
East west


The government released a 10-page executive summary business case in June last year justifying the project. Included was the benefit cost analysis (BCA) of 1.4, which means that for every dollar invested, there was an expected return of $1.40. That single number isn’t the only reason projects are approved, but it is considered critical in allowing a comparison of projects to ensure public money is well spent.

The government refused to release the full business case for “commercial in confidence” reasons, arguing it would jeopardise its competitive advantage as it sought bidders – that they would up their price if they saw what the government’s projections were.The secrecy goes against the increasing demand to release more information so that Australia’s big expensive infrastructure projects are decided rationally, not politically. Infrastructure Australia wants more transparency, as does the Productivity Commission. …

“The business case does not stack up, of what we know of it, it’s kind of crazy that they get away with it again and again,” March says.As for the 1.4 figure, it was a Senate hearing that prised out the fact that the government had included “wider economic benefits” in its calculations. Without that, the figure would be a less defendable 0.80 – a return of 80c for every dollar spent. So-called “agglomeration benefits” can be slippery, the experts say, and refer to the supposed benefits to business when urban density increases. They’re not settled practice and Infrastructure Australia doesn’t use them. And again, we don’t know the details of what “wider economic benefits” the project took into account, because the government won’t release them. …
The experts, too, know that they’re losing the political argument, at least most of the time. The public is warming to the public transport argument, but governments still love roads. Tony Abbott has prioritised road funding, saying the commonwealth will not fund urban rail.

It’s about money in the end. If Labor wins next month and scraps East West Link – at huge cost – and champions its Melbourne Metro rail, where will the money come from? There will be nothing from Canberra, and state Labor has committed just $300m for planning and design. The projects that get up are funded, and the big ones right now are roads. …

Its rationale may be dubious and the process may have been scandalous. But the money has been raised, the contracts signed and the cost of pulling out would be crippling. If Labor wins the election despite all that, it might be a sign that the public really does want to get serious about public transport. That, as they say, would be a game-changer.


Says Tim Barton: 

Wow! $17b. That’s gotta be a few light rails lines worth. 
It will encourage new trips (induced demand) and clog up the streets at either end. Always dubious of cost benefit analysis based on reducing congestion as well. 
Expect a similar process for the Massey Crossing – dubious rationale, lack of transparency, predictable outcomes and, as has happened already, a political override that locks in subsequent governments.
In our case, of course, we both move the congestion upstream to the Oak Street Bridge and put pressure on the agricultural land reserve and lands below sea level downstream, even while facilitating the movement of carbon (the coal port at Fraser-Surrey socks) and the appalling Tsawwassen Commons.
But the beast must be fed.  

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  1. There is a place for projects like these, as I realized when I drove along Clark/Knight the other day. The constant parade of big rigs has really ruined that street. Cars are a mere shadow of the noise and turmoil caused by goods moving to and from the port. Given the geographic profile, a tunnel running from Clark & Great Northern to a point just north of the Knight Street Bridge would be a huge boon to the affected neighbourhoods and to the truckers forced to contend with the current situation.