16 May 2013

Do not let this plan run off the rails (or road): The Age editorial

THE AGE: Five years ago, when Sir Rod Eddington delivered his report on Melbourne's sclerotic traffic and public transport problems, he said: ''Doing nothing is not an option.'' Stressing the need for urgency, Sir Rod said that were the situation allowed to drift, particularly with Melbourne's rail network, the system would ''hit the wall'' within 10 years.
Five years later, his remarks are all the more telling - especially regarding his two major proposals: the estimated $10 billion east-west road link that will eventually join the Eastern Freeway and the Western Ring Road, via CityLink; and the estimated $9 billion Metro rail tunnel between South Yarra and South Kensington. At the time, The Age, describing these proposals as ''visionary'', said it was the role of the state government to step back a bit and look at everything as a whole. ''Its vision should not be measured by election cycles, but in terms of generations,'' we said.
What happened has been exactly the opposite. Road link and rail tunnel have become bywords for political expediency, by the former state Labor government and the Coalition government. Too often, the potential impact of the two schemes on marginal electorates was deemed more important than vision. Moreover, the proposals are now being used by the federal government and opposition as bartering points (ransom money might be the better term) as the nation heads to the September election.
A few weeks ago, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised $1.5 billion in federal funding for the east-west link, if the Coalition wins, but said it was not the role of Commonwealth governments to fund urban rail. Then, in Tuesday's budget, the Gillard government trumped this outlay with a promise of $3 billion - for the Metro rail tunnel. But conditions apply: the Napthine government would have to match the $3 billion, and the remaining $3 billion would be raised through a public-private partnership that has been secretly sketched out by federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese and state Transport Minister Terry Mulder.
Regrettably, the state government seems determined to pursue road over rail. Last week's state budget committed almost $300 million to the east-west link, and on Wednesday Treasurer Michael O'Brien said the government would proceed with the link despite not having received funding for it in the federal budget. On the same day, Mr Mulder was dismissive of the Metro rail tunnel, saying that at the moment it was ''a mirage … fanciful''. This conflicts with Sir Rod Eddington's holistic belief that road and rail networks must be extended and improved.
This political imbroglio resembles not so much a road map or rail diagram as a labyrinth with no easy exit. Just as we feared, a culture of short-term cynical opportunism prevails over the long-term public good. Wedge politics must not be allowed to shunt these plans into oblivion. Governments must rise above this for the good of the public. To paraphrase Sir Rod: doing something is now the only option.

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