The same thing. But five times more expensive
Russell Degnan

There was a certain level of excitement amongst planning types when the Brumby government announced that the Eddington report was going to be responded to via a whole new transport plan. The hope was that, in light of the extensive public consultation that preceded the EWNLA, and the limited public consultation that succeeded it, that the government was going to do something new. In the past month it has become increasingly obvious that yesterday's release of The Victorian Transport Plan was going to be as dull as its name.

Or at least, as dull as a plan can be that promises to spend $50 billion, but with the exception of a few big roads and a few small rail extensions, not until they've probably left government.

Two years ago, I noted that the, then new, Meeting Our Transport Challenges, was predominantly a shopping list. Earlier this year, Carlo Carli in defending MOTC, argued that the shopping list needed to be bought earlier and extended, in line with unexpected increases in population and in public transport patronage.

And that, in essence, is what the VTP is: a list of projects, some significant freeways sourced from VicRoads never-ending vault of necessary connections, some from the significantly more modest list of whomever does public transport forward planning (if anyone), some from the Victorian Freight and Logistics Council (the occasionally strained reasoning behind which can be found in the also released Freight Futures) and a couple - the biggest ones - from the so-called Eddington Report.

Not surprisingly, almost every option was already on the table in some form, either announced previously, or discussed vigorously. This may be because they are the only reasonable ways of organising Melbourne's transport systems. Or not.

On the question of how best to cross the Maribyrnong, we get two answers. A shortened version of Eddington's road tunnel, from Dynon/Footscray Roads to Sunshine/Geelong Roads, shorter than necessary, and undoubtedly to be later extended to the Western Ring Road. The Eastern Freeway extension has been shelved, for traffic and economic reasons, but will undoubtedly return in a decade. Similarly, the worrying plan to grade separate sections of Hoddle Street is a mere placeholder for a North-South linkage study, and probable plans for an underground inner ring road.

And we'll get half a rail tunnel, connecting Footscray, Parkville, the CBD and Domain, under the ostentatious moniker of building a "metro" system. For $4.5 billion this will improve travel for around 20,000 commuters - about $225,000 per person - but may include a freight tunnel. Uncongesting the rail system is a worthwhile goal, but I'm not sure this is good value. Not when you consider you could subsidise $200 million worth of travel per year, and build 200km of tram track for the same price.

There is much more in the project list, some fairly nice, like grade separations at rail crossings, and some slightly bizarre, like the plan to accommodate new industries using brown coal from 2015. Climate change be damned, but it's only $9 million.

I could go on, but my real criticisms of this plan run deeper than the projects themselves, and onto the planning process itself.

Scale

Cycling and walking were, as usual given lip service but no place at the table. There is a promise to release a Cycle Strategy, and a $10 (or is it $100) million increase in funds. But the substantial problem remains. Transport modelling looks at network node connections; transport predictions look at movements across local boundaries. They are, by definition, long trips. Important trips, to be sure, but only half the trips done, and I might add, only half the congestion.

There is little to no mention of strategically planning for shorter trips, beyond gestures at new bike paths, and inner city bike hire (as if only the inner city could be riding bikes). Localised congestion on roads remains the preserve of councils and VicRoads engineers. Whether land-use plans that actively encourage higher densities and concentrated commercial development will exacerbate these problems is also not discussed.

Other departmental documents indicate an absence of understanding what they might be trying to achieve. In the above report, a consultancy and the ABS were paid to generate a table informing us that almost all walking trips start and end in the same statistical local area, that cycling is more common near the CBD, and that demographics matter. Anybody could have told you that without a report. In any case, they only looked at the percentage of cyclists in each demographic, not even the relative percentage of cyclists between groups.

What needs to be asked, is what percentage of people could take a form of transport, and what percentage do. And what are the characteristics of those groups. Because until potential transport choice is addressed at the right scale, planned changes in mode share will be the result of lucky guesses and unforeseeable change, not policy.


Managing road space

Reading a transport plan is invariably grating. Lifeless, shop-worn phrases spill forth, rarely checked by statistical fact or insight, and weighed down by allusions to a better, blander future. And then right at the end, something a bit different. Eddington occasionally went beyond his remit in his report, and none more-so when he argued for congestion charging (amongst other things):

The Government should re-evaluate its current road tolling policy to ensure that the long term benefits of new road investments can be fully realised (including public transport priority, improved cycling opportunities, road network balance and improved local amenity).

Varying the response from carefully reworded support, the government takes on the role of managerial supervisor dressing down an employee for undermining their position. They are also, mostly, wrong.

First, the Victorian Government does not toll existing roads.

This is not the first body to suggest congestion charging, though the VCEC got a more polite response. In no case have they adequately explained why - beyond their fear of leaving themselves open politically. Given Melbourne already has a widely used system of electronic tolling, it is a mistake to think that congestion charging couldn't substantial improve the efficiency of our roads, and provide a much-needed revenue stream for other transport improvements.

Secondly, roads are only tolled if they are beyond budget capacity.

This is something of a furphy, as numerous people have pointed out. The government is at least as well placed to take on large debts, and if it can be financed via tolling a subset of tax-payers, you can rest assured it can be financed by all of them. Secondly, private companies need to buffer themselves with a risk premium that leads to inefficient tolling, and lower than optimal road use. At best, there is some level of fairness in only charging road users, but in that case, why apply it to only new projects?

Thirdly, the Government does not close other roads to force people onto toll roads and won't compromise public transport on or around toll roads.

The first part is a framing issue. Eddington (like myself) argued that roads running parallel to freeways should be downgraded, to improve local amenity through lane closures, wider footpaths, bike lanes, and landscaping. The government interprets this as "forcing people onto toll roads". Road space is a public asset that could be used for many other things, other than funneling traffic from the outer suburbs. For inner city residents, the benefit of any tunnels built through their locale is amenity improvements. To not only deny them that option, but to also frame the debate away from its consideration is disappointing to say the least.

I'm at a loss to understand the second part of the response however. It seems to reply to a single (perhaps poorly phrased line): "ensure that the long term benefits of new road investments can be fully realised" . The commercial implications clause that prevents an airport public transport link may be an enduring sore-point for a government that loves its ribbon cutting, but it certainly wasn't what Eddington meant.

The VTP, like so many before it, continues to under-utilise economic theory in understanding efficient of public space, favouring road traffic indiscriminately, and congesting streets unnecessarily. The clearways plan, while ostensibly to improve public transport flows, will undoubtedly have an induced demand effect, quickly negating any gains. Similarly, unless substantially more infrastructure is built than necessary, any improvement in transport (private or public) will also suffer from induced demand, and resolve to congested conditions.


Integrating land-use planning

The great irony in this problem, is that under "What you told us" the government heard that we wanted "ongoing integration between transport and land-use planning". Unfortunately, a few glib comments aside, there is little evidence for it.

The recently released Melbourne @ 5 million had two core components: six Central Activities Districts at Box Hill, Broadmeadows, Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Ringwood; and three employment corridors through the outer west, from Caulfield to Dandenong, and from Monash to Heidelberg. Both are laudable enough by themselves, but they need substantial support to work. There is no mention of that support, nor, to the extent that some projects would support, no explanation of how they are supporting this plan.

Transport to any area of the city can be defined by two things: its accessibility and its capacity. The CBD is very accessible - a large population of people can get there quickly - coupled with a high capacity. Although train lines and (perhaps one day) SmartBuses run through the six CADs, they are otherwise accessible mainly by automobile. This is a problem, because capacity is quickly (and already) reached using automobile traffic. Those centres and employment corridors will almost certainly need substantial infrastructure improvements. I say almost certainly, because in the absence of any targets for growth, and in the absence of any transport needs assessment, we don't actually know. The absence is, itself, a clear indication that there is no ongoing integration between land-use and transport planning.

If anything, the building of the rail tunnel demonstrates a clear repudiation of last week's land-use plan, by massively increasing the accessibility and capacity of the CBD, and propelling it onwards in its dominant trajectory. A dominant CBD is not necessarily a good thing. It leads to longer commutes, disparity of wealth and services, and needs more expensive infrastructure to fight congestion. Economically, it may be worth the expense, but when a land use plan says one thing, and a transport plan another, it isn't integration.


Planning for greater efficiency

This is an old school plan in many ways. There are lots of words (and advertising dollars) spilt on current transport fads, but fundamentally it is about big road and rail projects. SmartBuses have been downgraded, trams extensions are spoken of in the past tense, cycling awaits it strategy. But the big people movers are planned, and awaiting implementation.

Doing something with our rail system is, without question, a good thing. Because, as Paul Mees never fails to point out, the operation is a mess. The rail system grew organically, and it grew, for the most part, a long time ago. But because of this, there are lots of niggling issues that affect operations, and prevent it getting anything like best practice. Single lines in unfortunate places and numerous level crossings are being removed, if sometimes slowly, but there is a wider problem. Widely spaced and poorly integrated outer suburban stations run reasonably fast with express trains, but are under-utilised for short trips. Closely spaced and very slow inner suburban stations with trains stopping all stations are well used, but get in the way of express trains. Add in regional rail and a plan to introduce more freight traffic and this plan will do little to eke out extra capacity.

There needs to be plans put in place to move forward. Inner city metro trains in Europe run across short distances, and therefore stop often, but we have an unstable mix in a vast city. Moreover, there is substantial doubling up on several lines, with trams running parallel with trains, both probably subsidised when they could run a profit. Integration of services also needs a clean separation of goals. The rail system, uniquely able to carry large numbers of people very quickly, should be configured to do just that, but it needs careful, long-term planning, not a few big projects.

How I would do it can wait for another post (shortly), but using the train system as we do is an analog signal in a digital world (albeit with a smaller bandwidth jump).


Federal funding

This is, to me, one of the strange oddities of the report is the insistence that projects will go ahead, contingent on Federal funding. There are certainly benefits to saying that. It allows the government to pull out of projects for political reasons, then blame the commonwealth for lack of funds. And it takes debt off the books, which allows them to show a balanced budget.

But unless the fund provided from Building Australia Fund have been quarantined in relation to the Commonwealth Grants Commission (and googling this for an hour provided no indication either way), then the money will never really exist. An extra billion on the state budget will be treated as revenue by the CGC when it comes time to divide GST revenue between states. Because all states will get some infrastructure money, and it will be handed out over a number of years the impact won't look large, but it will exist.

And hence, nor will these projects really be funded "by the Commonwealth". Any budget shortfall as a result of an increase in assessed revenue needs to be paid for via increased borrowing, increased taxes, or decreased services, the same as it normally would. The difference is that (most) Commonwealth funding appears as lower "income", not as an expense (payment of debt). A difference in political terms, but not on the budget. It is wrong to pretend that these projects are somehow dependent on government funds; almost as wrong as abdicating responsibility for transport infrastructure to federal control in fact.

Sterner Matters 10th December, 2008 13:33:06   [#] 

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