On Being Right but Not Helpful Russell Degnan

There was an article in the Melbourne Times this week about the East-West link study, the results of which are due soon, though noone seems to care exactly when. It was, as you'd expect for the MT, the usual line: roads are bad, this one is especially bad (or especially local), public transport is better, etc., etc.

It was allied with the usual transport quote-makers, lamenting with that knowing shake of the head, that the study is a done deal, pointless even, the tunnel is coming, the road will be built, the government never wanted it any other way, and, of course, that things would be so much better if only they spent the money on public transport.

I say bollocks to that. It is an attitude that gets you precisely nowhere, even if it is great for reinforcing your local anti-car, pro-environment lobby, and your own preconceptions that road planning is some vast conspiracy of the road lobby, VicRoads and Treasury.

Presuming they are right, and the study finds for a new road, the tunnel will be paid for, over the next 20-30 years, by increasing truck traffic coming from Frankston and Dandenong, round the eastern, and up to either the Hume corridor or the Airport. Traffic that, in the absence of any initiative for improved rail freight or otherwise, would otherwise clog up the Monash freeway and the West-Gate and Bolte bridges coming through the southern link.

Public transport in the Doncaster corridor will almost certainly not pay for itself. It normally doesn't, and so it will be judged against a different financial criteria. Which is not to say it shouldn't be built.

What is odd, is that in no way is a road tunnel/public transport link an either/or proposition. Current problems in US capital markets aside (and if anything, government backed infrastructure projects are better placed when capital markets hit the skids), there is no shortage of funding for both projects, should the government consider them worthwhile.

Rather, the tunnel represents a massive opportunity for not only improving freight transport links, but improving the urban realm, and reducing (some) commuter traffic.

Alexandra Parade is currently a night-mare to cross, and an ugly unpleasant scar for pedestrians in the area. But a road tunnel will bypass that, allowing the footpaths to be expanded. Tack a tram-line down the middle, turning towards Melbourne Uni and Swanston St. at Lygon St., paying for it through a land-improvement tax on nearby residents, and you have reduced car traffic, linked several public transport routes together (currently a major difficulty) and made a massive improvement to the local area. But it is an improvement predicated on removing outer suburban traffic, and that means building the tunnel.

There are numerous opportunities presented whenever a project like this takes place, but they are opportunities being ignored by excessive focus on projects that campaigners want built, and knee-jerk anti-capitalist reactions against potentially positive things like local lane/road closures. Stopping rat-running, improving pedestrian environments and reducing automobile traffic on local roads is a good thing, arguing otherwise is asinine. There is far too much of the latter in Melbourne.

Sterner Matters 10th March, 2008 17:25:14   [#]

Tunnels don't make the traffic disappear
Alexandra Parade might be less congested but the north south routes will become more congested.

The east-west tunnel would not principally be a bypass for traffic heading east west. It would mainly function to funnel traffic into central Melbourne. This is the analysis many have made looking at current origin and destination patterns of existing traffic. It is an analysis shared with one of the main proponents of the tunnel - Macquarie Bank.

“Macquarie's studies show that the predominant trip destination from catchments areas is the Melbourne CBD. A smaller number trips end in the western and eastern suburbs.
- Important that any solution caters for the direct connections that Melbourne users require i.e. CBD portals. ”

Portals are just a nice way of describing new on and off ramps in inner city arterial roads. Such ramps involve considerable road building to increase the capacity of the adjoining road network and would inevitably involve the demolition of buildings in inner city.

Macquarie suggests two portals - Nicholson St and Royal Parade and considers the possibility for two others. Nicholson St and Royal Parade are already congested roads and importantly have very busy tram services. To make them function as portals would demand new road building along both Nicholson St and Royal Parade, otherwise it would just pumping more traffic into an existing bottleneck.

Some proponents of a tunnel argue that a cross-city tunnel - which will be a PPP and tolled - will remove traffic from the inner north; the truth is quite the opposite. The only thing a tunnel will achieve is to increase the number of cars traveling into the city.
Carlo Carli  24th March, 2008 16:57:50

On Being Right but Not Helpful
Carlo, I wasn't aware that Macquarie Bank were the elected government of Victoria. Though it is no surprise that they are expanding their electoral power after many years at the helm of New South Wales, I still expected it to happen via election.

Thank you too, for not only replying, but providing a case study in the type of commentary I was attempting to highlight and correct. I am disappointed, however, that you failed to take anything from it.

Nowhere, did I argue that the tunnel would make traffic disappear, nor have I seen any commentator claim that it would. I claimed it presented opportunities to reconfigure the road space in the inner north of Melbourne, but that is entirely different.

The scope and purpose of this project is not the domain of Macquarie Bank, it is the domain of your government. And I use "your" as an explicit term here, since last I checked you were not only a sitting member of it, but as Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure a senior and influential member. It is up to you to set the terms under which the tunnel will or will not be built, and politicking through your local area and local blogs like a member of the PTUA is hardly an appropriate way to achieve that.

If this project is scoped the way you state it, as a simple two way choice between a major road tunnel and auxiliary works to increase the speed of local area traffic, or no tunnel, because it irritates the bleeding hearts still fighting the anti-freeway protests of the early 70s, then not only will you lose the argument over the tunnel, you'll lose the argument over the local streets, dragging the whole area back twenty years of gradual traffic reduction in the process.

Just because Macquarie want to make money from multiple exits, doesn't make it a good idea. They will - or perhaps won't in which case the tunnel idea can be shelved - make sufficient funds from tolls shuttling freight between the major Melbourne freight depots. As with the tunnel itself, the number and shape of any exits are entirely within the remit of your government.

Many European cities have tunnels running under them, or in their immediate vicinity, and few have felt the need for substantial road widening works at their exits. There is more than sufficient room to bring a single lane of traffic up, and left onto Nicholson Street or Royal Parade, taking up a section of what was a lane of Alexandra Parade or Princes Street. There is absolutely no need for building demolition, and the raising of such an idea merely diminishes your overall argument when the engineers state the same.

As both streets are already acting as bottle necks for current traffic inflows, the tunnel option without roadworks will be little different to the current Alexandra Parade route, saving a minute at most for traffic coming from the east. Such marginal savings won't induce any greater demand than that which would have already occurred from demographic change and road improvements in other municipalities.

Your government should not even be countenancing increasing the capacity of the local road network. The tunnel is not intended to act as a conduit for traffic to the CBD, and it is therefore neither here nor there whether it serves as an effective conduit for CBD traffic. Optimally, the tolls would be set at such a price that it acts as both a deterrent to CBD travel, and an effective congestion free route to the west, but one can wish.

Contrary (again) to your argument, both Nicholson Street and Royal Parade also have dedicated road space, installed, in the latter case, as little as two years ago under the VicRoads ThinkTram program. Unless you plan to rescind that program for traffic - a policy that while favourable to Macquarie Bank makes no sense from either a strategic or political perspective - than the existence of more traffic on road space the trams don't occupy is irrelevant.

To reiterate my original point then, you are right, but not helpful. The north-south routes into the city are congested bottle-necks. More traffic into them from a freeway will in no way reduce that congestion. But the tunnel is not intended to reduce north-south congestion, and no sensible proponent would argue that it would - nor have I seen one that does (though that is tautological, I agree)

Congestion in this context occurs because people want to go to the city, and a car is the best way to achieve that. Improved public transport in these corridors would make a marginal difference to congestion, though like any improvement in road conditions, it would also induce more road users. The only way to reduce congestion is to make it less desirable (or more difficult) for people to enter the roads that are congested. Financial disincentives would do it, but your government - note again your central role in transport policy making - and your equally feckless opposition refuses to countenance any genuine attempt to reduce congestion in any manner.

One might even argue that you don't take congestion seriously as a problem. I'm surprisingly okay with that, people and their cities will adjust - as you should know, having a planning background - but keep in mind that doing nothing is, in itself, a policy with implications.
Russ  26th March, 2008 09:59:12

So what's the point....?
Interesting line of argument, Russ, but there's a rather large hole in it. You seem to agree with the hypocritical Carlo Carli that the overwhelming majority of traffic on the Eastern Freeway/Alexandra Pde is either entering or leaving the CBD (depending on the time of day) and that a tunnel will, in fact, of itself not alter this situation nor reduce congestion. All rather sensible and obvious connclusions. The question then is - what exactly is the point of $10B worth of tunnel? The goal of tunnel proponents has been that it will reduce congestion and aid the movement of trucks east-west. Since, as you correctly point out, it won't make a shit of difference to easing congestion - what's the point? In fact it won't aid truck movements at all because the congestion is caused by all the cars that will still be there. This is what is meant when people say we should expand public transport instead of building the tunnel -$10B allows much MORE public transport infrastructure to be built, or at least for it to be built faster. More, better, frequent PT means less cars means less congestion. If you're simply wanting to reduce congestion by putting in tolls, why not simply toll the existing freeway and be done with it?
Hugh  28th March, 2008 19:43:42

On Being Right but Not Helpful
Hugh, a few points:
1) It depends when the congestion is and where the congestion is. The tunnel does nothing to reduce congestion on the Eastern in the morning, nor on the north-south routes into the city (nor actually do we want it to, because that just encourages more traffic). But that isn't when freight traffic operates, and they are (and will be) still slowed significantly traveling either along the South-Eastern and up, or trying to fight their way along Alexandra Parade and through Royal Park. The various proponents know this, and if you listen closely enough they argue the same, which is why when it eventually comes before parliament the tunnel will be built.

2) Saying it costs \$10b is far too loose an argument. Both a tunnel and p/t cost a mix of government or users a certain amount each year (in financial repayments paid through taxes or tolls). But the tunnel will come (mostly) from the users of the tunnel, while p/t improvements will mostly come out of government revenue. You may not make a distinction, but trust me, Treasury does, and ultimately that's what decides transport funding.

3) Even if we doubled the P/T network it wouldn't make a rats arse of difference to congestion. For two reasons: because it comes from such a low base you are taking far fewer cars off the road than the increase in p/t; and because like freeways, any reduction in congestion from cars will just fill the roads up again. (More or less, though transport projects aren't entirely futile, they never "solve" anything forever)

4) I would toll the existing freeway, and every other arterial road too. But that is a different matter, and one you can plough through my archives to find, if you are so interested. What I am actually interested in here is the quality of urban space and trying to break through the increasingly silly and pointless dichotomy between proponents of road and p/t.
Russ  1st April, 2008 22:42:20

On Being Right but Not Helpful
Oh, and in case I haven't make this clear enough. I don't actually care whether the tunnel is built or not. Underground road-works connecting two freeways are neither here nor there. If there is an economic case for it then good luck to them, if not, then shelve it.

What I do care about is what happens above ground, and the building of a significant piece of infrastructure offers a rare opportunity to improve that environment in meaningful ways.
Russ  1st April, 2008 22:57:17