Delays Expected

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

As Melbourne grows—having doubled in size since the 1970s and being on track to double again to eight million people by 2050—transport is increasingly becoming a key issue. No longer is this just a debate among politicians, bureaucrats, and engineers, but one for all Melburnians, evident by attention various news media outlets have given to the issue. Transport can simply be understood as how we get from A to B, but it is more than that. It has complex interrelations with where we live and work, the shape of our cities, and the nature of our neighbourhoods and streets. Unsurprisingly, it is shaping up to be a vote shifter at the upcoming Victorian election in November, having previously been instrumental in Labor’s defeat in the 2010 election.

Since campaigning on a platform of public transport improvements, the Coalition government has made the East West Link their key infrastructure project. Labor has opposed the project, while indicating that it would nevertheless proceed with it if contracts were signed before the election. Labor has also said that it will build the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, including a station near Melbourne University, and remove 50 level crossings across the city. The Coalition has instead pledged to build a rail link via the Fishermans Bend urban renewal area.

It’s great that we’re talking about transport, how it affects our daily lives, and what we can do to move towards transport systems for the city we want to live in. However, the danger is that politicians and lobby groups will seek to use it for political gain, rather than delivering what is actually in the best interests of the greatest number of people. Danae Bosler, spokesperson for the Public Transport Not Traffic campaign, describes the transport issue as a “political football”. “It’s concerning that decisions are being made based on a quick victory in November, rather than what is best for Victoria’s future,” she says.

The Coalition’s flagship project, the East West Link, is a historically unprecedented expenditure with no publicly released business case and a questionable approvals process, heavily criticised even by those with no opposition to the project per se. Meanwhile, Labor’s policy is similarly focused on large-scale projects that will generate ribbon-cutting opportunities and, importantly, employment.

Level crossings and new rail lines sound like a good thing. But there is little indication from either party that their proposed projects have been decided through a strategic process of having a vision for the city and its transport systems and then finding the most cost-effective strategies for meeting those objectives. Instead, decisions are heavily influenced by political factors, such as the need to win votes in marginal seats, or keep key lobby groups and donors happy, and then justified in terms of supposed benefits. When I recently asked a senior Labor politician why such a strategic approach was not being used to demonstrate that good policy, not politics, was driving the party’s decisions, I was simply met with a blank stare.

One key problem is that there is no overarching transportation plan for the State, meaning there is greater potential for decisions to be made for political reasons—such as “pork barrelling”, or spending in key or marginal electoral seats—rather than on a solid policy basis. For example, both major parties are keen to make promises in the marginal “sandbelt” seats in Melbourne’s south, while public transport-poor outer growth areas cry out for investment. A report by consultancy Essential Economics estimates that $6 billion additional public transport investment is required in these growth areas by 2026 to close the gap between them and established parts of Melbourne.

Public Transport Victoria has released a 20-year development plan for the rail network. However, according to Public Transport Users’ Association spokesperson Cait Jones, “the manner in which [the Government is] picking and choosing from that indicates that they are not committed to an objective network approach”. In addition, there is little integration with other modes of transport or land use planning. The government’s metropolitan planning strategy for Melbourne, Plan Melbourne, reads like an advertisement for its big-ticket infrastructure projects, with scant detail on implementing more integrated public transport services or better conditions for cycling. It also largely ignores the important role of transport in the city’s ability to achieve environmental sustainability and social equity outcomes.

Transport is a huge election issue. But it’s also an important policy issue with ramifications for Melbourne’s future. Without an independent transport planning body that can make integrated and long-term plans that can survive changes of government, important decisions will continue to be made on the basis of winning votes, rather than the best possible outcome for the State. Transport will undoubtedly be a huge issue at November’s election, but whether promises made this year will be kept and delivered remains to be seen.