17 August 2012

The ‘other’ infrastructure debt

Cr Tom Melican, MTF Chair

Cr Tom Melican, Metropolitan Transport Forum Chair, looks beyond road vs rail debate to stress the need for a funded transport plan.

As the debate rages about how to pay for much needed urban infrastructure, the focus on debt overlooks another type of deficit – transport debt.

Debt, as the dictionary tells us, is that which is owed.  As representatives of local government, the Metropolitan Transport Forum is all too aware of communities that are owed public transport and other transport options.

Many residents of Manningham, the only Melbourne municipality without access to rail transport, feel they are owed a train to Doncaster.

In Melbourne’s north, the many residents of Mernda made the decision to live in a growth area suburb based on the promises of developers that public transport would be provided – no one said it might take 30 years.

In the west, the massive growth of suburbs like Point Cook has outstripped the capacity of local roads, not to mention public transport options. This is a major challenge to the liveability of such areas.
Cyclists too are now feeling the debt too. Public health messages exalt us all to be more active to reduce the cost of numerous diseases. Yet the growth of bicycle infrastructure has slowed and the State has reduced ongoing funding.

Earlier this year the Victorian Auditor General estimated that $30 billion was need in the next 10 years to fund public transport to keep up with projected patronage growth. That is $3 billion per year and we are currently spending around $1 billion per year, so the debt is getting bigger.

For the people of Melbourne, this $30 billion is not just a line in a treasury budget; it’s a transport deficit that is experienced every day.  It is crowded trains, unreliable services, infrequent services and suburbs where public transport means a bus meandering past five or six times a day.  Limited choices in growth areas has driven high car usage and this is impacting on the entire city, as people in the outer suburbs have no other option than to drive through the inner suburbs to access employment, education and all other services.

With Melbourne’s population set to reach 6 million in a generation, the transport deficit is set to grow accordingly, with the debt being paid on a daily basis by the travelling public.

Councils think it is time to explore innovative ways of financing necessary infrastructure such as public transport so that the public can have more confidence about the future.

While we don’t presume to know all the answers, the link between public transport, efficient freight and transport access to property values is clear. Proximity to efficient public transport increases land values, better distribution gives businesses an edge and reducing congestion has a direct productivity pay-off.

Residents with good access to public transport have better education, employment, sporting and cultural opportunity, spend much less time and money on transport and their children are less reliant on being driven everywhere by their parents. Reliable public transport saves time and money while increasing the quality of life for the entire family.

Alternately, the inevitable rise in fuel costs will have a devastating impact on communities without descent public transport and these areas will become unliveable and this will impact the entire State.

All these factors have a direct payoff for state governments through higher land taxes and stamp duties. Likewise, there is a direct benefit to local government through higher rates. Is it time to mandate a proportion of land taxes, stamp duties and rates to the provision of transport infrastructure?

We’ve had transport plans before but they all failed to deliver because they failed to plan for the funding. Planning large scale transport infrastructure takes enormous amounts of time and money and if we change plans every time we change Government, not only do we waste money, we also lose time and increase the transport deficit.

Melbourne needs a transport plan that includes a way of securing the dollars that is agreed with all levels of government and the wider community. Only such a plan will survive the inevitable changes of government that will happen during the life of the plan - only then can the community have confidence that the plans will become reality

No doubt there will need to be a thorough community discussion about these and other ideas. Whichever way this debate goes, it’s clear that the price of a growing transport deficient is a combination of gridlock and inadequate public transport – and that’s a debt we’ll all regret.

What do you think?

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