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Lack of a Transport Plan Slammed by the VAGO

Transport for Melbourne (TfM) and other well qualified transport forums have been constantly reminding the State government of the need for a transport plan. This is mandated under the Transport Integration Act (TIA), so we are relieved that at long last the Victorian Government Audit Office has finally taken the government to task.

Transport for Melbourne (TfM) and other well qualified transport forums have been constantly reminding the State government of the need for a transport plan. This is mandated under the Transport Integration Act (TIA), so we are relieved that at long last the Victorian Government Audit Office has finally taken the government to task.

However this has fallen on deaf ears and the government continues to insist it has a plan. TfM would respectfully point out that a series of schemes that were developed independently does not constitute a plan. If the government has a plan it needs to tell us what it is, but it is important the government be reminded what constitutes a plan in the context of the TIA. Ultimately it is the quality and relevance of the plan that matters and that is a governance issue.

Quoting from the Transport Integration Act

The transport plan must—

(a)  set the planning framework within which transport bodies are to operate;

(b)  set out the strategic policy context for transport;

(c)  include medium to long term strategic directions, priorities and actions;

(d)  be prepared having regard to the vision statement, transport system objectives and decision making principles;

(e) be prepared having regard to national transport and infrastructure priorities;

(f) demonstrate an integrated approach to transport and land use planning;

(g) identify the challenges that the transport plan seeks to address;

(h) include a short term action plan that is regularly updated.

Almost all of the above are ignored by the current government. The government’s plan comprises an ad-hoc bunch of mega infrastructure projects including the Big Build program and others and a handful of strategies developed by the Department of Transport for different elements of the transport portfolio some of which are poorly developed. There is no vision to guide the plan, or strategic policy context apart from using it to create jobs and win government at the next election, and no attempt to identify the challenges facing us in the future. Government planning remains based largely on the continuation of business as usual.

It was clear from our last TfM forum, The Future We Must Plan For, it will not be business as usual. Covid has demonstrated the vulnerability of our economy and how quickly it can be disrupted. This event is only one of many that is likely to impact our economy and our way of life in the future. The latest IPCC report should be a stark reminder that the future we must plan for is changing rapidly. It will be dominated by environmental change and become a very different world to the one we live in today. This must be reflected in transport planning. The State government’s Big Build program does not anticipate any of this and as a consequence will ultimately result in stranded assets that have no value in the future and a burden of debt.

The absence of a properly constituted plan prescribed by the TIA is a concern but of even greater concern is the lack of checks and balances and proper process by which it has been progressed.

A transport plan must be developed and implemented in a way that is transparent, and follow processes which ensure its integrity and accountability. This requires a framework for assessing and ranking programs and projects in terms of their contribution to the “vision”.

It is critical that priority is given to actions that deliver the greatest return. Such actions are not confined to formal programs or projects. They may include policy and regulatory change, changes in works practices which can result in improvements in operational efficiency and improved customer service that generate better outcomes.

Achieving these goals may require recruitment and training supported by appropriate organisational structures to ensure government is provided with high quality advice and skills to develop and implement policy and ensure proper process is carried out, conducted in an environment which encourages communication of frank and fearless advice to government based on best practice. There is plenty of scope for improvement in this area; it would be a good place to start and that should be part of the plan.

These actions can provide the basis for the development of formal programs and projects funded from working expenses or capital budgets but again the priority must be given to those which generate the highest return on investment.

TfM has long held the view that governments should focus first on the existing “system” and its supporting infrastructure and make it as good as possible before building new. There is no shortage of transport infrastructure, but much of it is poorly maintained, in need of renewal and not used efficiently. This is a critical issue but needs to be addressed as part of the plan and funded accordingly.

Maintenance is usually funded from recurrent budgets instead of capital. It also tends to be tightly constrained so there is pressure to do more with less and focus on measurable outcomes. Investment in this area is therefore likely to be well targeted, yield high rates of return on investment as well as being subjected to a high level of scrutiny and accountability.

Benefits from capital works projects are more difficult to assess and have the potential to be subject to political influence or used for political purposes. Benefits also take longer to be realised, sometimes many years, often long after the minister or government responsible for the project has moved on. This makes it more difficult to audit and hold those responsible to account. As a general rule returns on capital investment vary inversely with the size and cost of the project and mega infrastructure projects have a particularly poor record. The Westgate Tunnel project is a good example but there are plenty more in the government’s Big Build pipeline.

Despite these problems capital works projects continue to dominate transport planning today in terms of publicity and budget allocations, and for many, particularly politicians, perceived to be the essence of a transport plan today.

It is argued that investment in capital infrastructure can be a lazy way to address transport problems. It promotes a mindset that says problems can be solved simply by throwing money at it without the need to understand the business itself and how it can be improved. This mindset is often reinforced by the belief that the bigger and more expensive the project the better the outcome. Under this scenario it is little wonder transport outcomes in this State have been so poor for so many years. This will continue so long as governments prioritise the least efficient and least effective measures to improve our transport system ie capital investment, particularly in major infrastructure projects whilst ignoring or underfunding far more effective mechanisms outlined above.

VAGO is absolutely right to criticise the State government for not having a transport plan. However TfM’s greatest concern is the quality and relevance of the plan and the political environment in which it is created. It is also important that transport planning not exist in a vacuum and must reflect broader environmental obligations including global emission reduction targets which must also be achieved for the transport system as a whole. This must be included in the transport plan and given top priority. All of this requires political leadership, courage, good governance and the environment required to create it. Achieving this will require fundamental changes of a systemic nature – without this we cannot expect better transport outcomes.

The importance of good governance has been highlighted by the covid pandemic. Governments at both State and Federal levels have been forced to listen to medical experts and appropriate institutional structures have existed for them to provide advice. For the most part this advice has been accepted but there have been occasions when politicians have ignored it thinking they knew better, and we have seen the consequences measured in loss of life.

Unfortunately political respect for independent expert advice does not always extend to government departments, which have often become politicised. Too often government ministers and their too commonly unqualified advisors think they know best and poorly treat those who should be providing them with expert advice. This is reflected in poor outcomes, not just in transport but all government portfolios. Addressing this will become increasingly critical if we are to have any success in responding to the challenges that lie ahead, particularly those driven by climate and environmental change.

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