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Article: Derailing dreams of transport relief
« on: July 21, 2012, 07:04:16 AM »
From the Melbourne Age click here!

Derailing dreams of transport relief

Derailing dreams of transport relief
Date July 21, 2012
Adam Carey and Royce Millar

ON A scrubby, windswept plain 50 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, Lindsay Fox's Avalon Airport awaits its destiny as Victoria's bustling, second international airport. For now, however, Avalon's five daily Jetstar flights in and out justify just one cafe, one gift shop, and a handful of bus services a day from Southern Cross Station.

While Melbourne's sprawling housing estates on the urban fringe are in desperate need of public transport, Avalon feels like a deserted military base in need of a purpose.

Yet in 2010 then state opposition leader Ted Baillieu vowed to build a $250 million rail line to Avalon in his first term as premier, a bold promise that surprised almost everyone except, perhaps, the Liberal candidates eyeing seats around nearby Geelong. Why would anybody build a rail line to an airport so few people use?

It's a question people in Rowville might well ask as they crawl into the city in their tens of thousands each morning, inching their way along Wellington Road's three inbound lanes towards bigger but equally sluggish traffic streams on EastLink and the Monash Freeway. There is a ''Smart Bus'' to the nearest railway station, almost seven kilometres away in Oakleigh, but it sits in traffic for most of the way too. Some days a journey to the city can take almost 90 minutes.

''It's a substandard service in this day and age for an area that's fully developed and is going to develop more,'' says Mick Van der Vreede, a Rowville resident and independent Knox city councillor who has campaigned for 16 years for better public transport for the outer eastern suburb.

In the lead-up to the last state election, Baillieu provided some hope of relief for Rowville with a promise to start planning a new rail line, beginning with a $2 million feasibility study. But for different reasons both the Avalon and Rowville projects now look increasingly shaky. They are among a suite of Coalition transport promises made in 2010, with plans also launched for rail to Doncaster and Tullamarine Airport, resurrecting passenger services from Bendigo to Geelong via Ballarat, and new stations at Southland on the Frankston line and Grovedale in Geelong.

Now, almost halfway into the Coalition's first term, there is mounting doubt that this heroic centrepiece of its election platform - a major expansion of public transport services - is, or ever was, more than political expedience.

Even inside Public Transport Victoria, the new authority set up by the Coalition to manage and plan public transport, there is cynicism. One insider told The Saturday Age that plans to build railway lines to Rowville and Doncaster would not be considered before 2030.

There is suspicion also at federal government level that at least some of the Coalition's promises were transparently political. As The Saturday Age reports today, Avalon is a case in point.

The Coalition's promises to invest in Victoria's rail network tapped into public disgruntlement with Labor's perceived failure to tackle core business such as providing efficient public transport. Decades of neglect had left Melbourne with a stunted rail system that creaked as the population and public transport patronage grew rapidly. After a string of half-baked Labor transport ''visions'', then premier John Brumby had finally signed off on a $38 billion transport plan in 2008. At the heart of it was the multibillion-dollar Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, a proposed link between the city's western and eastern rail networks under the Yarra.

But the timing could not have been worse, as train delays and cancellations fuelled commuter frustration in pivotal seats in Melbourne's south and east, especially in Frankston. Public transport emerged as a vote-swinging issue in the 2010 campaign and a major negative for Labor, its traditional champion. The Coalition seized the opportunity, pinching key elements of the Brumby plan, such as the Melbourne Metro tunnel and adding a string of additional rail extensions.

Brumby did not try to match Baillieu's promises, insisting that his heavily researched transport plan was optimal given limited resources. History shows Labor lost the argument, but it is now enjoying one of the few consolations of opposition: watching the other side grapple with the reality of big campaign promises.

Andrew Herington, a senior Brumby government adviser, admits Labor lost crucial seats because of public transport issues, but says the Baillieu government has raised hopes it is bound to dash. ''You've got all these different expectations that have been raised and there's only so much money,'' he says. ''They'll have to make a choice at some stage as to which one they're actually going to deliver.''

In 2010, the Coalition costed its total transport promise at $1.06 billion in capital expenditure and more than $408 million in recurrent spending for the first term. These figures only included the initial cost of studies for Tullamarine, Doncaster and Rowville, not the actual capital. Once the Coalition took office, even modest figures started to look challenging as revenue slumped by billions due to a slowing of economic and population growth and a drop in GST, stamp duty and payroll tax.

Of the major rail extensions flagged in the 2010 campaign, only Avalon was given an absolute green light, with Baillieu promising to commit $50 million towards a project costed by the Coalition at $250 million. The remaining $200 million was to come from the federal government and airport owner Lindsay Fox.

Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder insists the government is honouring all of its election commitments. ''The Coalition said prior to the November 2010 election that we would launch studies into a number of heavy rail projects. We have done that,'' he says, adding that the government would first discuss its plans with the community, then plan methodically. ''Labor's approach was to design projects on the back of beer coasters during a lazy Saturday arvo at the pub.''

But Baillieu promised more than plans during the last election campaign. ''We intend to plan it, find the funds and then build it,'' he told media while standing at a bus stop in Doncaster. ''So far all that has happened under this government after 11 years is for the Doncaster rail link to be mentioned and then ignored.''

In March, Auditor-General Des Pearson upped the ante for the government when he warned that public transport in Victoria needed an annual injection of $3 billion. Mulder insisted his rail expansion program would meet forecast demand. However, he added that such projects were dependent on Commonwealth funding, a qualifier not added during the 2010 campaign, with the exception of Avalon.

The problem for the Baillieu government, as for all states, in turning to Canberra for billions in transport funds is that the federal cupboard is also bare. The Gillard government has slashed expenditure to get the budget back into surplus, drastically reducing the funds available for infrastructure.

Last week, the federal government's nation building advisory arm Infrastructure Australia repeated its warning of a massive shortfall in funds, with chairman Sir Rod Eddington estimating that $700 billion would have to be found to cover infrastructure needed over the next generation. Already John Brumby's Metro tunnel is languishing in a queue of priority projects waiting for scarce federal dollars.

Baillieu has now also sought funding for his Avalon rail link. But it was notably absent in Infrastructure Australia's annual list of favoured projects.

The project has little support among infrastructure experts in Canberra, with Curtin University transport expert and Infrastructure Australia board member Peter Newman dismissing it as a ''political'' project. ''I know the politics and it doesn't impress me … it got up in an election context,'' he told The Saturday Age.

And lack of public funds is not the only obstacle to Ted Baillieu's stated aim of extending trains into rail-starved pockets of Melbourne. Labor also considered a Rowville line while developing its 2008 transport plan but rejected it as too complex. Herington says the Rowville line would be viable only once the four level crossings between Oakleigh and Caulfield were removed, at a cost of up to $1 billion.

The government's $6.5 million Doncaster rail study faces similar obstacles. First proposed in 1890, a Doncaster rail line has been the subject of many major studies that have yielded nothing. Herington voices a view widely shared within the transport bureaucracy that buses can do a better job than a railway line would, because the plan to run it along the Eastern Freeway median would place it too far from commuter's homes. Critics also say the existing rail corridor could not handle the additional trains generated by a new Doncaster line.

Rail enthusiasts such as the Public Transport Users Association counter that such negative predictions are the result of self-serving estimates by bureaucrats and advisers who failed for years to make the case for rail. ''The state bureaucracy has been playing deny-and-delay with these projects yet again,'' says association secretary Tony Morton. ''Perhaps they hoped their flawed advice would convince the Baillieu government to renege on its most critical election promises and pour funds into a destructive east-west road instead.''

Transport planners have long argued that Doncaster is realistic. Professor Peter Newman, architect of the celebrated Southern Rail south of Perth in Western Australia, insists Doncaster can be delivered at a fraction of the cost calculated by hostile bureaucrats. ''Really important benefits would come from a dramatic improvement to public transport, like a Doncaster Rail similar to Perth's Southern Rail,'' Newman says. ''The Southern Rail is now carrying the equivalent of 10 lanes of traffic after just a few years of operation.''

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Doncaster rail, and the other projects, is another major transport infrastructure project to which the Baillieu government seems far more committed: the east-west road link costing up to $10 billion. Unlike the rail studies, the Coalition did not go to the last election promising to build a new toll road. Like Steve Bracks and his desalination plant, Ted Baillieu has no mandate for a project with a price tag about twice the cost of desal.

Nevertheless, the east-west link has catapulted its way to the top of the government's transport priority list. In government, Baillieu has repeatedly endorsed the idea.

To be viable as a public-private partnership - the most likely option for delivery - it would link the eastern freeway to Melbourne's west and, controversially, to the CBD. As such, it is in direct competition with a Doncaster railway line and the Coalition's own official policy. It is inconceivable that both could or would be built. Newman maintains the east-west tunnel would rob the Coalition's projects of scarce funds, and could bankrupt the state.

Behind the scenes the government's priority has also become clear. A well-placed source who has been working on options for Doncaster rail told The Saturday Age that a senior bureaucrat had advised engineers to realign their proposed rail tunnel because its path was in the way of the east-west road link.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/derailing-dreams-of-transport-relief-20120720-22fd9.html
Half baked projects, have long term consequences ...
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