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Government Priorities And Getting Value For Money

TfM has expressed concerns over many years about the need for proper process in evaluating and approving capital projects to ensure precious funds are invested in a way that provides the best possible return for the community – now and for the future we must plan for.

TfM has expressed concerns over many years about the need for proper process in evaluating and approving capital projects to ensure precious funds are invested in a way that provides the best possible return for the community – now and for the future we must plan for.

There are many areas of real need, where funding is needed desperately but never delivered and these exist in every government portfolio, so it is important to get our priorities right. This situation will become more critical if we enter a period of stagnant or declining fortunes saddled with government and personal debt.

This thinking is particularly relevant for mega infrastructure projects, including the Suburban Rail Loop. We have raised concerns about this project before and it has been the subject of numerous articles and submissions by others but the issues remain unanswered.

The article below by Michael Buxton, which was published in The Age is another example and flags the need for a serious rethink about this project and all others in the government’s Big Build program.        

Rail loop rethink is first major test for new planning minister

Michael Buxton

The two previous Melbourne attempts at circular railways, the Inner and Outer Circle lines, failed. The newest attempt, the Suburban Rail Loop, will repeat this record and become the greatest public transport infrastructure failure in Australia unless substantially altered.

To be successful, cross-suburban public transport must provide multiple routes accessible via many station stops along with fast passenger transfers at interchanges. But the loop is proposed as a single orbital heavy railway beneath middle-ring suburbs with few stations. This cannot provide effective cross-town public transport for a city the size of Melbourne.

Only 15 stations will be provided over the 90-kilometre length of the loop, at an average spacing of six kilometres compared to the average 1.83-kilometre spacing between the 219 existing metro stations. Only four intermediate stations are proposed for the first stage of 26km from Cheltenham to Box Hill, all at major centres and none for the 200,000 residents who live along its route.

As a result, the net shift from roads to public transport would be only 230,000 trips or 0.83 per cent of all travel, hardly a decent return on the more than $100 billion eventual expenditure.

The loop will connect major centres, not communities, but these centres will provide only a fraction of CBD jobs.

A contrasting approach can be seen in the Rail Futures Institute plan. This proposes a range of transit technologies, such as heavy and light rail, using multiple cross-city routes over 223km at a cost of about $31 billion, almost three times the distance of the government’s project for a fraction of the cost.

Another major failing is that loop station connections with radial lines are world’s worst standard. Instead of easy platform transfers, passengers must walk up to half a kilometre between lines or exit one station before descending to another. Many stations are in the wrong locations, particularly those situated long distances from Monash and Deakin universities.

Such design problems are the inevitable outcome of the secretive decision-making around this project. Instead of using public sector and other expertise, the government outsourced the planning and design to a consulting firm and then established a nominally public body which operates essentially outside government and has only one task, to build transport infrastructure.

The Rail Loop Authority continues the Victorian tradition of regarding public open space as free land for development. Moorabbin’s William Fry reserve will be plundered and used for development to raise funds and the Heatherton Chain of Parks concept destroyed as 35 hectares is used for train stabling.

The government has not explained why it is prioritising a rail loop before the Melbourne Metro 2 project or making urgent improvements to the existing public transport system.

Melbourne’s outer suburbs hold 44 per cent of the city’s population but only 4 per cent of their area is served by public transport. Funding the loop project condemns 1.5 million residents in new western, northern and south-eastern suburbs to long-term reliance on cars or to being crammed onto country trains or inadequate metro train services.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the implications for land use. The government claims the loop will transform Melbourne’s shape and growth trajectory by locating large populations in multiple mixed-use suburban centres and also probably along the route.

However, land use impacts were excluded from the scope of the panel evaluating the project’s environmental effects. The government wants the project to proceed without making clear the nature and scale of the associated development.

Yet impacts will be extensive, including large-scale relocation of communities and land uses, high-rise development and other intensified uses, traffic impacts and altered modes of living and working for large numbers of people.

The government has removed all planning decisions for a 1.6-km radius around each centre from local councils and denied the right of residents to be notified of developments or to object.

The Town and Country Planning Association has shown that the area of the precincts around all proposed 15 centres would equal the area of 36 CBDs. It is surely unacceptable that such massive changes to land use are not assessed. All these deficiencies are the inevitable result of the intransigence flowing from an unaccountable governance model

New planning minister Lizzie Blandthorn’s first major test is whether to challenge this model of secretive project design and resistance to change as she considers the panel report on the project.

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