Sacrificing Public Good for Private Gain – Melbourne’s East West Link

In light of the recent push by the State Government of Victoria to prioritise the implementation of the East-West Road Link over a major rail development, the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel, this paper presents a timely study of whether the decision represents the best outcome for the public. Written prior to the funding arrangements contained in the 2013 State Budget, it argues that such a decision appears at odds with the desires of the citizenry, and contrary to the views of transportation and urban policy experts.

An artist’s sketch of the proposed Metro Tunnel. Original image sourced from The Age.

 

MELBOURNE’S INFRASTRUCTURE CHALLENGE – ROAD OR RAIL

This paper examines the debate occurring regarding the expansion of Melbourne’s transportation network, and considers the competing claims of whether the public interest is best served by the augmentation and expansion of two proposed ‘public goods’ – the Melbourne Metro Tunnel (a public transport rail infrastructure initiative), or the East-West Link (a roads-based policy proposal). It briefly compares the estimated costs of each project, examines the usage scenarios of the present transport arrangements in Melbourne, notes some of the major stakeholders in the discussion, and considers the public value that is expected from the proposed infrastructure expansions.

 

THE VICTORIAN TRANSPORT POLICY LANDSCAPE

A persistent issue in Australian political discourse is the implementation of transport policy. Given that the massive costs of large-scale infrastructure projects tend to result in a limited number of possible projects being enacted within any given electoral or funding cycle, and that the nature of such projects inevitably have complex ramifications over decades upon the environment, future infrastructural development, and societal growth and well-being, discussions regarding transport initiatives tend to devolve around whether public transport (rail, buses and trams), or road-based initiatives (freeways, tollways, tunnels, bridges, and interchanges), are best suited to meeting the needs of the citizenry and industry.

The principal piece of state legislation that informs and generates the regulatory and operating environments of this complex policy area is the Transport Integration Act 2010, which sought to ‘create a new framework for the provision of an integrated and sustainable transport system in Victoria’. Although its scope extends into areas as diverse as Melbourne’s Ports and taxi services, only its relevance to the roads versus rail debate is of consequence in the limited scope of this essay.

The 2010 Act replaced the Transport Act 1983, which provided ‘no clear vision’ for the transport system and contained little to no consideration of social policy and environmental objectives (Pearce and Shepherd, 2011). The Transport Integration Act 2010 frames the charters of the key agencies responsible for implementing a transport system in line with the vision statement it sets out, seeking integration and sustainability across the economic, environmental, and social spheres.

 

COMPETING PROPOSALS – THE MELBOURNE METRO TUNNEL AND THE EAST-WEST LINK

Two agencies positioned beneath the Act – Public Transport Victoria (PTV), the statutory authority responsible for the provision and regulation of public transport in Victoria, and the Linking Melbourne Authority, tasked with managing complex road projects on behalf of the Victorian state government – have recently made public large-scale proposals to address the congestion resulting from a growing population and increased patronage of Melbourne’s transport infrastructure. Although both agencies and their plans are empowered by the Act for the purpose of achieving a higher state of integration across transport policy in Victoria, and are ideally expected to be complementary to one another, their respective plans have been placed in opposition to one another by the political challenges presented through each project’s scope and cost (Gordon & Carey, 2013; Davidson, 2013).

Tabled by Public Transport Victoria, the Melbourne Metro Tunnel is a large-scale rail infrastructure project that is slated as the centrepiece of an extensive overhaul of Melbourne’s rail network to be implemented over the next twenty years. Projected across four stages of construction at a total forecasted cost of $30 billion, the 13km tunnel would provide an additional five inner urban stations, and is a second-stage development project to be completed within ten years at a cost of between $5 billion to $15 billion (latter figure provided by Colebatch, 2013). Infrastructure Australia, the Federal statutory authority concerned with assessing major infrastructure projects in Australia, considers it a fully-costed, high-priority project of ‘national significance’ that is ‘ready to proceed’ (Gordon & Carey, 2013; Willingham, 2013).

The East-West Link is a proposed 18 kilometre road connection that seeks to link Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway with its Western Ring Road via a combination of tunnels and bridges, in addition to facilitating greater access to the Port of Melbourne and the Tullamarine Freeway. Tabled by the Linking Melbourne Authority, it is variously estimated to cost between $9 billion to $16 billion and will be constructed across two stages – Eastern, linking the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine and then to Port Melbourne; and Western, connecting Port Melbourne to West Footscray and the Western Ring Road. Infrastructure Australia has assessed it to be a second-category priority with ‘real potential’ to address transport issues (Colebatch, 2013).

Both proposals have their genesis in a 2008 report entitled ‘Investing in Transport’, commissioned by the Victorian State Government and chaired by Sir Rod Eddington, who stated that he had tried to avoid a ‘road vs rail’ approach to planning, by observing the necessity for multimodal transport initiatives (Eddington, 2008).

Nonetheless, at the level of implementation, serious disagreements regarding the prioritising of one transport mode over the other have become apparent between the major stakeholders – including contention between the Victorian Liberal Government (which purports to be actively pressing for construction of both the Melbourne Metro and the East-West Link) and its Federal counterpart in Opposition, given Tony Abbot’s position that Commonwealth money should not be set aside for urban rail projects (Gordon, 2013).

 

COMPETING VALUES – TOUGH CHOICES

Central to the discussions around the proposals is the notion of which plan generates the most ‘public value’, from which the citizenry can maximally benefit. Besides the difficulty of securing adequate funding from state, federal, and private sectors, there is also the issue of each project appealing to different sectors of the community, with individuals having highly complex, variegated, and personal needs for transportation that influence their preferences and that have evolved over time and are contingent on many factors (Morris, Wang & Berry, 2002).

Toll roads (which the East-West Link is proposed to be) and rail are, within limits of capacity, non-rivalrous and excludable goods. They are non-rivalrous in the sense that many people can use them at once, but limited in that without sufficient expansion to accommodate growth in patronage, both systems suffer in utility; and they are excludable in that fares and tolls must be levied for their use. Despite appealing to different demographics and visions of public need, both proposals have the potential to provide the ‘conditions and resources citizens need if they are themselves to be active in their societies’ (COMM100, 2013).

Which project should take precedence might be measured by weighing the outcomes against each other in a Competing Values Framework, accepting that there are multiple ‘public values’ that the proposed goods in question seek to satisfy. Such a framework recognizes the ‘oppositional behaviours’ identified by British polling organization Ipsos MORI, including the pertinent observation that we cannot ‘have it all’. It allows us to ‘systematise our understanding of these problematic issues and surface them for debate and judgement’, and allows us to gain ‘real purchase’ on the measuring of public value (Talbot, 2008).

ROAD VERSUS RAIL – USAGE SCENARIOS

Regarding patronage of the transport system in Victoria, road is far and away the most utilised mode of transport; a dominance that is attributed to the post-war boom of the 1950’s, where fuel and automobiles had become increasingly affordable, thus leading to a gradual, yet significant, decline in rail travel. However, the decline was arrested in the 1980’s due to the introduction of new carriages and the opening of the City Loop (Morris, Wang & Berry, 2002; Public Transport Victoria, 2012).

In 2002, RMIT’s Transport Research Centre used quantitative analysis of data compiled from the Victorian Activity and Travel Survey (VATS), collected over five years from 1994 to 1999, to statistically model emerging trends of usage most relevant to transport planning in the first decades of the 21st century. A central concern in the research was whether these broad societal trends worked ‘for or against an expanded role for public transport’.

The authors cited the following complex of societal changes – ‘casualization of the workforce, growth of the service sector, and fragmented patterns of work in many of the service industries’- as having impacted upon transport usage across the modes of public and private transport. Consequently, they revealed growth in both road and rail usage had been reinforced by ‘increases in disposable income (associated with rising vehicle ownership)’, and ‘continuing urban sprawl’, evincing further changes in Melbourne’s socio-demographics, particularly across the East-West divide (Eddington, 2008).

The research also demonstrated that Melbourne is a city heavily dependent on the automobile, with cars representing the dominant mode of travel at a usage rate of around 50% on weekdays. Nonetheless, their analysis showed that utilisation of public transport, especially trains, for the purpose of attending work increased more than that of car usage over the survey period, indicating a readiness on the part of the public to embrace public transport where feasible to do so (Morris, Wang and Berry, 2002).

Indeed, a 2012 RMIT study by Mees and Groenhart reveals that patronage of Melbourne’s rail system grew the fastest of any city in the country, an observation supported by PTV’s claims of rail usage increasing by 94% in the twelve years from 1998-9 to 2011-12 (Public Transport Victoria, 2012). Ian Dobbs of PTV estimates that by 2031, 1.1 billion passenger boardings per annum can be expected, and without the construction of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, 95% of passengers in the system will suffer from severe overcrowding at peak times (Public Transport Victoria, 2013). Delivery of other necessary rail projects in the plan as conceived, including long-awaited and much-delayed links to Doncaster and Melbourne’s Airport, would thereby be compromised.

In all, Dobbs estimates a 130% increase in core capacity within twenty years, allowing an additional 130,000 passengers to be carried during peak times (Public Transport Victoria, 2013; Validakis, 2013), facilitated by the Tunnel’s construction. State Transport Minister Terry Mulder observes that PTV’s long-term plan, with Melbourne Metro at its heart, is ‘bottom-up and demand driven’ and not simply a ‘politician’s wish-list’ (Gough, 2013).

Eddington observed in his 2008 report that ‘the evidence is clear that the number of trips made by car in Melbourne will increase by a substantial amount for the foreseeable future–and the city’s road network must be able to cope with this increasing demand in an efficient and sustainable manner’ (Eddington, 2008). However, while business, unions and road groups are strongly supporting the East-West Link (Gordon & Dowling, 2012), there is evidence to suggest that the construction of more roads does little to alleviate congestion in the long-term, and often increases demand upon both road and rail networks.

Regarding an equivalent project slated for development in Sydney, former CEO of NSW Roads and Traffic Authority has stated that motorway extensions attract more private transport ‘especially if there is a failure to develop a high class public transport alternative’ (Saulwick, 2012). Yet as noted by multiple commentators, there has been no business plan or traffic projection analysis sufficient to make the case that the East-West Link stands to deliver the capacity or cost-benefits to warrant its construction over the Metro Melbourne Tunnel (Gordon & Carey, 2013; Gordon, 2013; Mees & Groenhart, 2012).

Additionally, what analysis has been done suggests that its construction will produce ‘an economic benefit equal to 50 cents for each dollar invested’ – indicating a potential loss to the community of approximately $8 billion, if a $16 billion completion cost is considered (Eddington, 2008; Davidson, 2013). An existing freeway, the Eastern, would likely become a toll-based road while a 2011 report by the Linking Melbourne Authority, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, revealed the likely toll revenue from the East-West Project could cost motorists $360 million per annum (Harris, 2013).

Compounding the concerns of the East-West Link’s opponents, a study map of the report involves the acquisition of land set aside for the eventual construction of the Doncaster line, and would likely necessitate large parts of Royal Park to be closed to the public and excavated to allow for the construction of a tunnel – a development that Julianne Bell, Secretary of Protectors of Public Land Victoria, finds ‘extremely concerning’ (Dowling, 2013). Several Melbourne city councils have lodged their objections to the East-West Link proposal, including the City of Moreland, the City of Melbourne, the City of Moonee Valley, and the City of Yarra.

Similarly, non-profit public transport advocacy groups are making their positions clear. Alison Clarke, of the recently formed Public Transport Advocacy Campaign Steering Committee, asserts that the East-West Link is ‘unsustainable’ and will ‘encourage car dependency and starve the public transport system’ (Adoranti, 2013). The Public Users Transport Association, however, while supporting the in-principle construction of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, fear that its prioritising will mean that smaller yet equally essential improvements to the rail network will be delayed or overlooked (Gough, 2013).

 

CONCLUSION: MAY THE BEST POLICY ‘WIN’?

While supporters of the East-West Link contend that the project would complement public transport improvements in tandem with the Metro Melbourne Rail project, recent statements made by the Federal Government and Opposition suggest that, in fact, funding limitations at the Commonwealth level will likely result in an either/or scenario, where the capital commitments required across both proposals can only support the construction of one project at the expense of the other for the foreseeable future (ABC News, 2013).

As such, the debate illustrates the contention that there is no singular ‘public value’ that can act as the ultimate arbiter of any decision, given the ‘conflicting public values and institutionalised competition between values systems’ in evidence. It is therefore valuable to consider the discussion within a Competing Values Framework, to ascertain which of the proposals has the greater objective, quantifiable merit in regards to improving the socio-economic welfare of the public, and mitigating against environmental damage (Talbot, 2008).

Mees and Groenhat argue that any policy preference for the East-West Link is ‘inexplicabl(e)’, given that ‘no serious analysis’ nor business case development has been presented to justify the project. They also observe that if the project were to go ahead, it would likely ‘soak up all the funds available for investment in transport projects in Melbourne for a generation, and would probably halt or even reverse the recent revival in public transport’ in the city (Mees, Groenhart 2012). Consequently, as Mark Harrison argues, ‘without efficiency-based cost-benefit analysis of all policies to deal with road congestion, governments run the risk of lowering social welfare’ (Harrison, 2012).

A consensus appears to be emerging amongst researchers and a number of public sector agencies that the Victorian Transport Integration Act 2010’s vision pertaining to sustainable land-transit modes would therefore presently best be served by focusing primarily on the extension of rail services to a) unlock greater capacity of its network, b) avoid greater environmental harm through pollution and congestion, and c) accommodate the boom in patronage that has resulted from the growth in population. Mees and Groenhart ultimately conclude that such a policy position would be ‘much more likely to address problems like congestion, greenhouse gases and oil security than continued road-building’, which their observations suggest ‘will only add to the rising car volumes choking our cities’ (Mees & Groenhart, 2012).

 

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