Is another huge and costly road project really Sydney’s best option right now?


Philip Laird, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales government has focused on delivering more motorways and rail links for Sydney, along with main roads in regional NSW, since the Coalition won office in 2011. The biggest of these, WestConnex, is still being built. Plans for yet another major motorway, the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link, are well advanced.

A hefty environmental impact statement (EIS), but incredibly no business case for a project costing about A$15 billion, was recently put on public exhibition. When submissions closed at the end of March, the vast majority of 1,455 submissions from public agencies, individuals and organisations were objections to the Western Harbour Tunnel project.

The NSW government has promoted the Western Harbour Tunnel since announcing it in 2014, but hasn’t convinced the many objectors.
YouTube/NSW government

The proposal follows three stages of WestConnex and the F6 Extension south of Sydney. Thousands of objections in the planning process did not stop the government going ahead with each stage.

This led to a state parliamentary inquiry in 2018. Its first finding was: “That the WestConnex project is, notwithstanding issues of implementation raised in this report, a vital and long-overdue addition to the road infrastructure of New South Wales.”




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However, the committee also found “the NSW Government failed to adequately consider alternative options at the commencement of the WestConnex project” and that “the transparency arrangements pertaining to the WestConnex business case have been unsatisfactory”.

These two findings apply to the Western Harbour Tunnel process too.

In the run-up to the 2019 state election, the government promoted the project and placed on public exhibition an environmental impact statement for the A$2.6 billion F6 extension between Arncliffe and Kogarah.

The proposed Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link.
Transport for NSW

The state opposition promised to scrap the Western Harbour Tunnel and F6 projects. Instead, it would give priority to rail and public transport upgrades.

Some have suggested time-of-day road congestion charges as a much better option than more motorways.




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Local government objections

Four councils made detailed objections to the Western Harbour Tunnel proposal.

The City of Sydney, noting “it has been a long-time critic of WestConnex”, said:

This is primarily because this costly motorway project will fail in its primary objective of easing congestion. Urban motorways do not solve congestion; they induce demand for motor vehicle trips and any additional capacity created is quickly filled. This phenomenon applies equally to the Western Harbour Tunnel and Warringah Freeway Project, a component of the WestConnex expansion.

The City of Sydney recommended the government provide alternative public transport options.

The Inner West Council, whose suburb of Rozelle will be adversely impacted by the project, has also long opposed inner-urban motorways. It prefers “traffic-reduction solutions to addressing congestion, including public and active transport, travel demand management and transit-oriented development, with some modest/targeted road improvement”.

North Sydney Council noted significant concerns with the EIS, including “inadequate justification and need, loss of open space, construction and operational road network impacts, air quality and human health concerns, environmental, visual, social, amenity and heritage impacts, as well as numerous strategic projects having the potential to be compromised”.

Willoughby City Council noted the limited time given for considering a very large EIS, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. It questioned why a public transport alternative was not assessed. “Known alternative solutions with lower climate impacts need to be considered to be consistent with action on climate change and improved resilience.”

Ignoring the alternatives

In 2017, it was revealed the NSW government was instructing transport officials to ignore public transport alternatives to motorways such as the F6 extension and Western Harbour Tunnel. Wollongong-Sydney train travel times could be cut by half an hour for A$10 billion less, according to a Transport for NSW internal memo.




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This is at a time when Sydney train ridership has been increasing faster than the distance driven by Sydney motorists. Rail showed 39% growth over ten years to 2018-19 and road just 12% in a time of rapid population growth.

Over many objections, the F6 extension is proceeding. Many aspects of the Western Harbour Tunnel need further attention. The NSW Ports Authority is concerned about the amount of highly contaminated sludge that will be dredged up from the harbour. The shadow minister for roads, John Graham, notes dredging will be close to residential areas.

Heritage NSW has noted the project will have direct impacts on six sites, including the approaches to Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The Action for Public Transport (NSW) group questions the influence of the Transurban company on transport planning at a time when NSW’s long-term integrated transport and land use plans aim for net zero emissions by 2050. Its submission says:

The funding for the project should be reallocated to more worthwhile projects such as filling in missing links in urban public transport systems, disentangling the passenger rail network from the rail freight network, and providing faster rail links to regional centres.




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What are these other priorities?

NSW has a shortage of “fit for purpose” rail infrastructure to serve a growing population. This includes the Sydney Metro West (an EIS is on exhibition) and ensuring the new Western Sydney Airport has a rail service. More funding is also needed to upgrade the existing rail system and to cover a A$4.3 billion cost blowout on the Sydney City and Southwest Metro project.

The government has acknowledged a need for better rail services to the South Coast, Newcastle, Canberra and Orange. In 2018, it commissioned an independent report on fast rail options for NSW by British fast rail expert Andrew McNaughton. The completed report is yet to be released.

The question now is should the Western Highway Tunnel be abandoned or, at the very least, deferred until major rail projects have been completed.The Conversation

Philip Laird, Honorary Principal Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

For public transport to keep running, operators must find ways to outlast coronavirus


Yale Z Wong, University of Sydney

Minimising health risks has rightly been the focus of discussion during the coronavirus outbreak. This includes efforts to protect both frontline public transport employees and the travelling public. But we should also be concerned about the strategic, financial consequences for transport operators and their workforces.

We have already seen the struggles of the aviation industry. The COVID-19 pandemic also has major financial implications for the public transport sector. While it has been declared an essential service, fears about coronavirus, widespread work-from-home directives, cancellations of major events and potential city-wide lockdowns will result in massive drops in patronage.

Railways are a high fixed-cost industry (like airlines) and are particularly vulnerable to demand volatility.




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The Chinese experience has been that people preferred to use private cars and services like taxis and ride hailing rather than public transport. In New York, we have seen a surge in cycling as people seek to avoid the subway crowds.

What are the impacts on revenue?

Developments like these appear inevitable. However, the loss of revenue for transport operators depends very much on the design and specifications of their contracts with government.

Most urban public transport systems in Australia are “gross cost” regimes. This means operators are paid on a per kilometre basis regardless of the number of passengers carried. These operators are much less susceptible to changes in demand.

Transport operators who work off “net cost” contracts – meaning they keep their fare revenue – are facing huge financial pressures. This in turn has implications for the cash flows of their suppliers, including vehicle manufacturers and consultancies.

Hong Kong rail operator MTR (which has businesses in Melbourne and Sydney), already battling almost a year of protests, has been forced into significant service reductions. In Japan, some Shinkansen services are being suspended as patronage plummets. Many Asian operators have diversified revenue streams from property developments, but large falls in patronage also affect the ability to collect rents (such as from retail).

We are also seeing US transit agencies calling for emergency funding as demand drops. Major service cuts are on the horizon – suggestions include running a weekend schedule on weekdays. This is likely to reduce patronage further as the service becomes less useful for the travelling public.




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Who’s most affected on public transport in the time of coronavirus?


Any service reduction has major ramifications for public transport workforces. Permanent staff may have their work hours reduced, while casual staff will struggle to get rostered. This will add to the psychological impacts on staff.

The global collapse in oil prices is another factor as the lower cost of fuel makes driving more attractive.

Beyond government-contracted public transport there are many intercity coach operators and small-to-medium-sized charter operators (many family-owned). These operators serve the school, tourist, airport, hotel and special-needs markets. They are all private commercial operators.

Many charter operators have already seen a massive reduction in bookings due to the summer bushfires and travel bans. The loss of international tourism and cancellation of school excursions and extracurricular activities will bring even greater pain to charter operators and their workforces. Chinese tours have been a large part of the charter market.

On the other side of the ledger are increased costs arising from enhanced cleaning efforts and changes in operational practices to reduce the risks of COVID-19 infection for as long as the crisis lasts.




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A major issue in these circumstances is how to provide incentives for transport operators to go above and beyond what is required as part of their usual remit. Do operators merely “comply” with their contract specifications, or do they see an opportunity to extract value from proactively deploying, for instance, an enhanced disinfection regime? Should the contracted operator bear the extra costs, or should government share these costs?

Reshaping the industry

COVID-19 brings enormous unknowns for the public transport sector. Cost and revenue pressures may lead to transport operators fighting for survival. The result could be market consolidation and less competition in the industry.

In the longer term, how can future contract design for both transport services and transport assets ensure resilience to “black swan” events and encourage a proactive, rather than reactive, response? Too often, a myopic focus on cost reduction has governed these discussions.

Finally, is there a way to protect commercial operators from huge swings in demand?

The coronavirus pandemic demands an urgent operational response by our public transport systems. But it should also encourage a strategic rethinking of our institutional structures and how public services are procured. Let us create an opportunity for longer-term reform out of the crisis.The Conversation

Yale Z Wong, Research Associate, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Who’s most affected on public transport in the time of coronavirus?


Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Monash University

The coronavirus pandemic is already affecting Australians’ daily travel, with suspension of public transport services a possibility as the number of COVID-19 cases grows. A common goal underpinning containment strategies in pandemic-like conditions is that the impacts should be borne as equitably as possible across the community. So would a public transport shutdown in Australian cities hit lower-income households harder than their higher-income counterparts?

In many countries this would certainly be the case. In these countries, public transport is largely the domain of the lower classes while wealthier households enjoy the comfort and convenience of their cars.

The data on Australians’ use of public transport and the distribution of services across our cities tell a more complex story. And not all users are equally at risk, because of how the virus spreads and the structure of public transport networks.




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Why the worry about public transport?

The interiors of trains and buses, and stations and stops along the network, are the perfect environment for a droplet-spread disease like COVID-19 to thrive. Masses of people congregate in these areas, increasing the risk of direct contact with an infected person.

About 1,000 passengers can crowd into a single train carriage. This greatly increases the virus’s potential spread through droplets if an infected person coughs or sneezes.

And the handles and seats inside trains and buses, and other surfaces such as escalator handrails at stations, are prime surfaces to host infectious nose and throat discharges. According to new research, this virus can live on surfaces for hours to days.

Handrails on escalators and stairs at stations used by tens of thousands of people a day are prime surfaces for harbouring virus particles unless regularly and thoroughly disinfected.
Holli/Shutterstock

But the actual evidence is weak

Although public transport shutdowns are common in most contagious virus response plans, evidence of a relationship between public transport use and respiratory infection is actually relatively weak.

The most commonly cited study is based on the travel patterns of 72 people in London presenting for treatment of flu symptoms in 2008-09. It found those using public transport were up to six times more likely to pick up an acute respiratory infection than those who don’t.

This study also found, however, that regular public transport use was associated with less likelihood of contracting an illness. This was potentially because regular users develop protective antibodies to common respiratory viruses if repeatedly exposed. Unfortunately, this safeguard does not apply to a novel virus such as the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Those most at risk in this study were commuters who used busy stations, basically because they come into contact with more shared surfaces and people. In Sydney, for example, Central, Town Hall, Wynyard and Parramatta stations are potential hotspots. In Melbourne, Southern Cross, Flinders Street, Melbourne Central and Parliament stations head the list.




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Who would a shutdown most affect?

A wider cross-section of the Australian population owns and uses cars than in many other countries. Cars are not the domain of the wealthy. Rather, they are a necessary expense to navigate life in our low-density, poorly serviced cities. Car use dominates the outer suburbs where housing is more affordable.

Australians pay a premium to live near quality services including public transport. Lower-income groups are priced out and live in suburbs that are more poorly serviced by public transport.

In Melbourne, for example, 61% of the most socially and economically advantaged population live within five minutes’ walk of quality public transport services, compared with just 41% of the least advantaged. If you are one of the richest 20%, you are more likely to be able to walk to good public transport than anyone else in Australia.

Particularly in our larger cities, higher-income people are more likely to use public transport to get to work, as the table below shows. In Sydney, for example, 33% of high-income earners commute by public transport, compared with just 25% of those on lower incomes.

The proportion of people travelling to work by public transport by personal weekly income.
ABS Census 2016 data, Author provided

How might people handle a shutdown?

The data seem to suggest the impacts of a public transport shutdown will be felt more keenly in the top end of town than in low-income suburbs. But those numbers say nothing about what alternatives people have.

High-income households are far more likely to own more than one car. They are also better placed to absorb the costs of driving to work, such as parking, petrol and tolls. They can drive if public transport shuts down.

Residents of inner-urban areas, where property prices are high, are also more likely to have a shorter trip to work. They may be able to replace a public transport trip with a walk or cycle.

We don’t know the extent to which different employment groups will be able to innovate and adopt remote working practices under these unusual circumstances. However, people who can currently work from home are more likely to be high-income, highly educated white-collar workers. Almost half of workers in the financial services sector and 32% of the telecommunications sector use public transport – many of their roles are relatively easy to convert to working from home.




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Remote working is not an option for most low-income workers in the services sector. They must travel to their workplace if they want to be paid.

If these workers do rely on public transport to get to work, they are less likely to have a spare vehicle to commute with. This leaves few options for these households, especially in Australia’s dispersed suburbs.

A related issue is the impacts of a public transport shutdown on the all-important healthcare sector. Again, Australian journey-to-work data suggest the impact would not be as dire as some international research suggests. On census day in 2016, just 9% of Australia’s healthcare and social assistance workers travelled to work by public transport.

In general, the effects of COVID-19 will no doubt be borne inequitably by lower-income Australians. They are more likely to be employed in industries worst hit by the coming economic downturn. For low-income households that depend on public transport, a shutdown would rub salt in their wounds.The Conversation

Jennifer Kent, Research Fellow, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Sydney; Alexa Delbosc, Senior Lecturer in Transport, Monash University, and Laura McCarthy, Research fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To limit coronavirus risks on public transport, here’s what we can learn from efforts overseas



Yale Wong, Author provided

Yale Zhuxiao Wong, University of Sydney

Public transport in our cities is highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks such as the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, public transport is the lifeblood of our cities, so it’s desirable to keep services running as long as possible. Australia can learn from what has been done overseas, especially in China, where concrete strategies to reduce the spread of the virus on public transport helped eventually to contain the disease.

The confined spaces and limited ventilation of public transport vehicles could lead to infections among passengers, while frontline transport workers are particularly exposed. An outbreak among these workers could bring entire fleets to a standstill. It would also disrupt the travel of health workers who need to be mobilised during the pandemic.




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Unions representing transport workers have rightly voiced their concerns and imposed actions including a unilateral ban on cash handling. The Australian government has offered guidelines for drivers and passengers. Transport authorities have engaged expert taskforces and begun the process of sourcing products like hand sanitisers.

While these steps are important, surely we need advice beyond general instructions to “practise good hygiene” and “use disinfectant wipes”?

What are other countries doing?

In China, despite most of the country being in lockdown, public transport was entirely suspended only in Wuhan and its commuter belt. Buses were then used to move medical staff and deliver goods.




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Most other Chinese cities ran reduced public transport services, with a heavy focus on hygiene and sanitation.

In most cities, the temperatures of transport staff are checked daily. They are equipped with adequate protection gear like face masks and gloves. Masks are compulsory for all staff and passengers, as is common practice across Asia.

In a typical city like Shenzhen, the bus fleet is sanitised after each trip. Particular attention is paid to seats, armrests and handles. At depots and interchanges, this is done as often as every two hours.

Buses are filled to no more than 50% capacity (one person per seat). On-board cameras are used to enforce this rule. Floor markings (also adopted in Europe) provide a guide to minimum distances between passengers and encourage social distancing.

Across China, health control checkpoints are being used at train and metro stations (as well as in many public and private buildings). This enables temperature checks and the tracing of the movement of people, in case of contact with a suspected COVID-19 carrier. In many taxis, buses and metro carriages, passengers are encouraged to scan a QR code to register their name and contact number, to help with contact tracing.

Constant public education reminders are broadcast to passengers.




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Cities across Asia are providing hand sanitiser gel in public transport vehicles and interchanges. Cleaning of air-conditioning filters has been enhanced. To increase natural ventilation and reduce the risk of infection, some operators have retrofitted window vents to air-conditioned fleets.

Some bus operators have retrofitted opening windows to help increase air circulation.
Kowloon Motor Bus, Author provided

Hong Kong rail operator MTR is even using a fleet of cleaning robots to disinfect trains and stations. In Shanghai, ultraviolet light is being used to disinfect buses.

In Europe, many public transport agencies have closed off use of the front door to reduce infection risk for drivers. Passengers now use the rear door (all-door boarding has been common practice).

What’s happening in Australia?

One of the best ways to reduce infection risk is to step up cleaning efforts. Public transport operators are already doing this, but not to the extent required during the course of the day.

Most private bus operators (contracted to government) are simply not equipped to take on the massive task if required to disinfect their vehicles, say, three times a day. For many operators, drivers are required to “sweep” their bus at the end of their shift. Buses undergo a full interior clean overnight.

There is no capability to clean buses en route during shifts. Extreme cases like biohazard incidents (blood and vomit) require vehicles to be taken out of service.

To increase the frequency of cleaning, perhaps a government authority could organise “rapid response” cleaners stationed at terminals. While this might cause delays between trips, it would reduce the pressure on individual operators. Having a cleaning crew work across multiple operators would also be more efficient.

The government could provide free health services via video consultation for frontline transport workers. The critical role of the transport sector also warrants their protection through government-issued face masks, especially given how hard it is now to source these in the community.




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These proactive measures based on disease prevention should always be preferred to any reactive approach after a major outbreak hits our transport system. Industry associations like the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have developed a suite of responses that can be adopted.

Our transport authorities and operators must step up in this critical time of need.The Conversation

Yale Zhuxiao Wong, Research Associate, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: a connected world makes this coronavirus scarier, but also helps us deal with it


Richard Holden, UNSW

The health implications of the Wuhan coronavirus (now called “Covid-19”) outbreak are, obviously, deeply concerning.

At the time of writing, it had infected more than 50,000 people and killed more than 1,300. Cities and cruise ships are in lockdown. Major trade shows like the Mobile World Congress have been cancelled. Even the Dalai Lama has indefinitely postponed all public appearances.

It has been widely noted that the crisis is having a large economic effect, not only on China but on countries such as Australia.

Those ripple effects stem from the fact that, compared to the time of the SARS outbreak in 2003, China is both a much larger economy and vastly more interconnected with the rest of the world.

Take Australia’s connections. China is Australia’s largest source for international students, with nearly 190,000 Chinese studying in our tertiary institutions. China is also Australia’s largest source of tourists and biggest trading partner.




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Even if other countries don’t have the same level of exposure, the whole world is now radically interconnected. Global supply chains for products from cars to mobile phones run across multiple countries.

The components of an iPhone, for example, come from manufacturers in the United States as well as China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

The tectonic technological forces that have driven globalisation also mean an unprecedented “black swan” health crisis can quickly turn into a full-blown economic crisis.




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Digital technology to the rescue

Against this backdrop, it is striking that the same technological forces behind global interconnectedness are key to coping with the coronavirus crisis.

An example comes from the Alibaba Group – arguably China’s leading e-commerce company. It is using everything from food delivery to cloud computing to help combat the crisis.

One of the first things that happens in a crisis is demand surges for goods and services in limited supply – face masks, for example.

Alibaba has encouraged sellers on its platforms to increase the supply of masks and other in-demand equipment. It has also used its influence to discourage the kind of price-gouging often seen during natural disasters.

On top of that, consider what life is like for about 11 million people in Wuhan, a city where normal life has ground to a halt as people avoid going out. How do they get groceries and other essentials?

A week before Chinese New Year, demand for takeaway food and other services increased 129%, according to Alibaba.

Deploying platforms

It’s worth pausing to reflect on how much worse the quarantine imposed on Wuhan and surrounding areas would be without the technology that makes transport and logistics today so sophisticated.

Keeping medical staff well cared for in Wuhan has also been crucial.

Leveraging Alibaba’s 18 Freshippo techno supermarkets in Wuhan, the group has set up a dedicated food-delivery team to provide free food and safe drinking water to local hospitals, rescue teams, reporters and volunteers. The group’s Amap Taxi operation has organised a volunteer force to provide free transport for all medical staff 24 hours a day. Alibaba’s travel platform “Fliggy” is be used to offer free accommodation to medical staff – a total of more than 10,000 rooms.

Finally, Alibaba’s cloud-computing business Ali Cloud – similar to Amazon Web Services – has helped health authorities track the outbreak and its spread. It has provided unlimited computing capacity to global medical researchers to accelerate the finding of a cure for the virus. It is also collaborating with Zhejiang Province’s Disease Control Centre to develop an artificial intelligence gene-analysis system that could could slash diagnosis time from two hours to half an hour.

At a time when globalisation is being sharply questioned, it is important to remember the upsides as well as the downsides of an interconnected world.




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Yes, radical global interconnectedness makes the world more vulnerable to financial and public health crises. Yet those same forces have also lifted roughly 2 billion people out of extreme poverty in the past 30 years.

Those same technological forces drive the e-commerce platforms, cloud computing and artificial intelligence that help mitigate the effects of these crises.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies



Many commuters already travel from regional cities to work in capital cities like Melbourne so what impacts will fast rail have?
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Todd Denham, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Governments are looking to fast rail services to regional cities to relieve population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The federal government is funding nine business cases for such schemes. But what economic effect might these fast links have on the regional cities?

The current fast rail schemes seem oriented at relieving population pressures in the major cities rather than a productive regional economic purpose. The minister for population, cities and urban infrastructure recently stated:

… the National Faster Rail Agency begins operating from today [July 1]. The new Agency will oversee the government’s 20-year fast rail agenda, which will connect satellite regional cities to our big capitals. This will allow people to reside in regional centres with its [sic] cheaper housing and regional lifestyle but still access easily and daily the major employment centres.




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The argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets. It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres. But will subsidising metropolitan workers to live in cheaper regional towns have a positive economic effect on those towns?

An unequal relationship

Concern is growing among international observers that fast rail connections between two cities benefit the larger of the pair. Professor Michael Storper observed:

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was being naïve about connectivity – give infrastructure and it spreads. Well, often it concentrates. The high-speed train network in France, guess what it did. It advantaged Paris.

While Paris is seen as benefiting the most from the national fast rail TGV service, the regional cities of Lyon and Lille have strengthened their economic positions. The Lyon and Lille fast rail stations form the hub of their respective regional transport networks and have attracted new commercial activity. They also sit at intersections of major European fast rail networks.

It’s a pattern that cannot be easily achieved for Australia’s regional cities due to our widely dispersed settlements. So what does this mean for our regional cities?

Improving transport infrastructure doesn’t just improve regional business access to metropolitan markets. It decrease the costs of trade in both directions. And large cities are typically more productive economically. This is because they offer more specialised goods and services and can leverage the agglomeration effects of shared high-quality labour markets and infrastructure, plus a concentration of skills and knowledge.




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Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

New regional demand arising from commuter population growth might counter the loss of higher-order regional jobs due to improved transport links. But that will largely be in lower-value retail and personal service sectors. The result will still be a net economic gain for the metropolis.




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An influx of commuters earning metropolitan wages might also inflate regional housing markets. This would disadvantage lower-paid regional workers. The beneficiaries of this scenario are likely to be local rentiers, such as landholders and developers who can profit from land-price inflation.

This interest group will likely vocally promote regional fast rail. But sustainable economic prosperity for regional cities requires more than population-driven land speculation.




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The example of Geelong

The most advanced of the current Australian proposals is the Geelong-Melbourne route. It has received federal and state funding for planning with an estimated total cost of at least A$10 billion. But planners need to ask how this spending will provide a net economic benefit, and how the benefits will be distributed.

Growth in commuter population and the services this attracts may be seem like a resolution to metropolitan population problems, but could further concentrate higher-paid jobs in Melbourne. Faster commutes mean Melbourne-based firms will have a greater pick of Geelong-based workers, thus consolidating metropolitan competitive advantage. Fast rail thus risks placing Geelong at a competitive disadvantage, with jobs and workers being exported to Melbourne.

Meanwhile the pressure of housing another 145,000 residents in the next 20 years already falls on Geelong, a city of 280,000 people. The strain on infrastructure and services is proportionately greater than would be the case in Melbourne, which has nearly 5 million residents.




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What can policymakers do about this?

To resolve this conundrum, thought must be given to what specialised high-value jobs will be attracted to regional cities to accompany fast rail investments, so these cities remain competitive and productive, regionally, nationally and internationally. This might include policies such as relocating public agencies, regional targeting of university-based research and development spending, boosting services such as schools and hospitals, and providing incentives for innovative private companies to relocate to regional towns.

Policymakers should also consider positioning regional cities as rail network hubs in their own right. An example would be connecting Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo by rail, along with better linkages to national and international airports.

We don’t yet know for sure what the effects of fast rail on regional cities will be. But the impact of this infrastructure needs to be assessed very carefully lest it turns Australia’s regional cities into dependent population dormitories rather than regional dynamos, at vast public expense.The Conversation

Todd Denham, PhD Candidate, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Business-as-usual record on transport leaves next government plenty of room to improve


Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


Election season means transport season: just as the recent New South Wales and Victorian elections gave us massive new transport promises, so too is the federal government relying on the enduring popularity of new roads and rail. But look beyond the rhetoric and the past three years have been largely business as usual. That leaves plenty of room for the next government, of whatever colour, to take a fresh look at how transport promises are made – and plenty of room to improve.

Last week’s federal budget committed to transport expenditure of A$7.4 billion in 2019-20, and A$33 billion over the four-year forward estimates period.




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The government claims it’s spending a record A$100 billion over a decade. Yet the opposition claims: “Across the four years of this budget, Commonwealth investment in infrastructure actually falls, from A$8 billion to A$4.5 billion.” And Infrastructure Partnerships Australia says recent budgets are down on the long-term average by about A$11 billion over the forward estimates.

How much is the government actually spending?

With such polarised views, who are we to believe?

In reality, the expenditure for 2019-20 is absolutely normal. At 0.37% of GDP, it’s close to the midpoint of spending on transport under treasurers Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey and Wayne Swan. In each of the past ten budgets, annual transport spending in the year following the budget has been 0.26-0.53% of GDP.

What is different is the extent of promises that lie beyond the forward estimates period. The move to a ten-year pipeline of promises might be fine in theory, but an interested elector can rely only on what’s in the budget papers. And from that they would conclude there’s nothing unusual to see here.




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A new enthusiasm for equity investments

All these figures concern grants to state governments, which are responsible for transport networks. But, in addition to these grants, the federal government has developed an enthusiasm for funding projects “off-budget”. In the past two years, the Commonwealth made equity investments of A$9.3 billion in Inland Rail and A$5.3 billion in Western Sydney Airport.

The Charter of Budget Honesty states that an investment can be treated as an off-budget equity injection only if the government has a “reasonable expectation” of recovering the investment. In other words, the entity must be expected to make a positive return over time.

But this gives governments a lot of latitude. A positive rate of return is not the same as a commercial one. And there seems little likelihood of commercial returns in either case.

For Inland Rail, it’s no secret that the Australian Rail Track Corporation will never be asked to repay the A$9.3 billion, even when project revenues start to flow in 2025. Let’s hope the finance minister is right to insist there’s no prospect the project will need even more taxpayer support, despite the risks identified in the budget papers themselves and by the Commonwealth Auditor-General. With no expectation of repayment, there is no practical difference between this “equity investment” and a grant.

For Western Sydney Airport, the government decided to build the airport itself after Sydney Airport Corporation declined its right to build it. The airport operator said the offer as it stood was “deeply uneconomic”. It cited operational, traffic, financial and political risks.

So it’s hard to share the confidence of the then treasurer (and now prime minister), Scott Morrison, when he said the new airport will “generate an income stream that’s going to pay for itself”.

In both cases, if a future government ends up writing down the fair value of these assets, this will appear on the balance sheet as a change to “other economic flows”. It won’t be separately identified. Nor will the write-down show up in the underlying cash balance figure that the media spotlight highlights on budget night.

The unavoidable conclusion is that pushing transport spending off-budget seriously diminishes not only the discipline that comes from competing for funds through the budget process, but also transparency in how public money is being spent.




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A closer look at business cases raises questions about ‘priority’ national infrastructure projects


A foray into road pricing is stillborn

In November 2016 the government took an unusually bold step: it committed to holding an inquiry into road-user charging. The then minister for urban infrastructure, Paul Fletcher, was in good company. His commitment to commission a review led by an eminent Australian was in response to a 2016 recommendation from Infrastructure Australia, which invoked a similar recommendation in the 2015 Harper Review of competition policy, which in turn referred to a 2014 Productivity Commission recommendation. And the backdrop to all these reports was a recommendation of the 2010 Henry Tax Review.

But time passed and no eminent person was appointed. More time passed, ministers moved portfolio, and no eminent person was appointed. Finally, in October 2018, current minister Michael McCormack declined to commit to the inquiry.

An inquiry is no more than an inquiry, but a non-inquiry is a commitment to the status quo. Roads funding and roads investment are serious topics, and many commentators have argued that they are the laggards of regulatory reform.

A change to how road use is funded could significantly alter which roads are funded, what maintenance is done, and how networks are managed. It appears to have been all too much for this government. This task awaits a future government.




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The alternative government’s most important promises aren’t the sexy ones about electric vehicles. They are Labor’s promises that Infrastructure Australia should assess projects before the decision to invest, and to release assessed business cases. These promises may sound worthy and a little dull, but in reality they are big and welcome commitments.

Less obvious is how to square them with federal Labor’s promise to advance high-speed rail, or the promise to work with the Victorian premier “to deliver the visionary Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop”. Both of these are massively expensive projects with nothing approaching an assessed and publicly available business case.

It would be a significant improvement if whichever party wins government next month were to commit to, and follow through on, careful assessment of transport gaps and problems, consideration of the various feasible solutions, and rigorous evaluation of the preferred approach. And it’s not enough just to do this; it should be done in public.

Let’s hope.




Read more:
Missing evidence base for big calls on infrastructure costs us all


The Conversation


Marion Terrill, Transport and Cities Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the NSW election promises on transport add up


Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Grattan Institute

Sydney is awash with construction activity – new motorways, light rail and the Metro project are all part of an infrastructure deluge. And as New South Wales voters head to the polls, the two major parties keep raining promises on electorates of ever-larger, ever-faster transport projects.

But with early voting now open, it’s time to take stock. And Grattan Institute has tallied the numbers to help make sense of it all.

First, the total cost: Labor is promising about A$50 billion of transport projects, and the Coalition about A$70 billion. And the five largest projects on each side together account for more than three-quarters of the total cost. This matters – the bigger the project, the more likely it’ll go over budget, and in a big way.




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So far, 14 projects have been announced with price tags in the billions of dollars. Each A$1 billion equates to around A$125 from every person in NSW.

How different are the party platforms?

A striking difference between this election and the Victorian election last November is how much the major parties actually agree on. Both support three of the four largest projects. Voters take note: no matter who wins, you can expect to pay for most of the transport infrastructure promises now on offer.

The major difference is in the parties’ positions on roads – especially toll roads. The Coalition is backing the A$14 billion Western Harbour Tunnel & Beaches Link and the A$2.6 billion F6; Labor is promising to scrap them.

Before he resigned as state Labor leader last November, Luke Foley declared that Labor would “unashamedly prioritise public transport over toll roads”. His successor, Michael Daley, appears to have held the course.

The bulk of public transport spending by both sides will be on rail, nearly all of it in Sydney. An exception is the Liberals’ plan for regional fast rail. Sound familiar? Just a few months ago, the then leader of the Victorian Liberals, Matthew Guy, tried to woo voters with a similar promise.

Unlike their southern counterparts, the Berejiklian government is not taking an actual plan to the election, just a commitment to plan. It’s a move they might’ve learned from Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews and his promised A$50 billion rail loop. The NSW Liberals have not provided any cost estimates for fast rail, so Grattan Institute has excluded it from these charts; safe to say, including it would make the Coalition’s total spending promises even more enormous.




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The coming transport infrastructure wave is heavily focused on Sydney. Both parties are set to pour cash into western Sydney, a clear battleground. It’s not surprising that regional NSW gets less of the transport love – voters outside the capital might be more concerned with hospitals and schools than with transport, particularly if they face little congestion.

How well justified are these projects?

Election campaigns can feel like birthday parties, with politicians bestowing gifts upon voters. But these gifts are largely paid for by the taxpayer, or by motorists in the case of tollways. Big infrastructure doesn’t come with a gift receipt; voters need to know in advance whether these projects’ benefits outweigh the costs.

Infrastructure NSW and Infrastructure Australia are two independent bodies that can identify worthy projects and assess business cases. Only two major projects have a tick of approval from either of those bodies – Sydney Metro (City and Southwest sections), and Stage 1 of the F6.

The Coalition supports both of these, whereas Labor supports only the City section of Sydney Metro. It is unclear why Labor would walk away from projects with established net benefits to the community.

Voters should be concerned that the other promised infrastructure is either not recommended or lacks business cases.

It can be difficult for an opposition to complete a business case, given it doesn’t have access to department resources. The government has no such excuse. Making promises without first scrutinising them forces voters to make risky decisions. Grattan Institute research shows that cost overruns were 23% higher for projects announced close to an election.




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Reforms promise a better way

Governments should do their due diligence before election time. Fortunately, there are signs of improvement on this score.

Labor is promising to introduce public planning inquiries on projects worth more than A$1 billion. This should help ensure business cases are completed, independently assessed and accessible to the public before projects are approved. When infrastructure is so costly and, at times, controversial, it’s very worthwhile to strive for community support and bipartisanship.

And Labor promises a new level of transparency in how government operates, by bringing in the independent pricing regulator, IPART, and the Auditor-General to shine a light on toll road contracts.

Labor also promises to strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) so that it runs all year round, not just before elections. Much like the Victorian PBO, this would enable minor parties to have their policies costed as well.

With 30% of voters planning to cast their ballots early this election, the PBO should also be required to publish budget impact statements two weeks before the election, not five days. This would help early voters to make informed decisions, as well as raising public suspicion about any policy announced in the fortnight before election day, too late for costing.

Recent experience suggests that promising splashy projects with big price tags can be very effective at election time. With more accountability and better processes, voters mightn’t be so easily swept off their feet.




Read more:
We hardly ever trust big transport announcements – here’s how politicians get it right


The Conversation


Marion Terrill, Transport and Cities Program Director, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Graduate Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How much will voters pay for an early Christmas? Eight charts that explain Victoria’s transport election


Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Grattan Institute

The most magical time of the year is upon Victorians: election season. The (taxpayer-funded) gifts promised by the major parties far exceed anything Santa could bring. And the multi-billion-dollar toys on everybody’s wish list? Trains, tracks and roads.

There’s nothing unusual about politicians promising big-ticket items to curry favour with voters, but this election the size of these commitments is astronomical: more than A$170 billion worth of projects are on the table.




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Grattan Institute has crunched the numbers, investigating the major parties’ transport infrastructure pledges worth more than A$50 million. Although cost is a cause for concern, the recent trend towards first conducting business cases is encouraging.

How did we get here?

Population growth has been a big topic in the lead-up to Saturday’s state election. Politicians often cite it as the cause of ever-worsening congestion, despite evidence that Australia’s cities are actually coping quite well.




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It’s often assumed that a city’s transport infrastructure needs to grow at the same rate as population. This misconception allows politicians to promise popular mega-projects in the name of busting congestion.

Labor has the most extensive and expensive suite of projects, at a cost totalling A$95 billion. More than half of that is just one project: a A$50 billion suburban rail loop that rings around Melbourne’s middle suburbs and connects most train lines.

The Coalition’s commitments total $65 billion. The difference in the major party totals is mainly due to the smaller scale of the Coalition’s flagship rail project: a A$19 billion promise to deliver “European-style high-speed rail” to Victoria’s regional cities and towns.

The Greens’ promise with the biggest price tag is the A$23 billion Melbourne Metro 2 project (click map to enlarge).
The Greens Victoria

The Greens have so far committed to projects worth at least A$72 billion. The largest is Melbourne Metro 2 at an estimated A$23 billion.

These promises mean that every party wants the credit, if elected, for being the government that built the largest transport infrastructure project in our nation’s history. The current title holder, WestConnex in Sydney, totals only A$16.8 billion.

Critics might point out that Labor and The Greens have committed only to business cases for the suburban rail loop and Melbourne Metro 2 respectively. But since two-thirds of infrastructure projects announced with a price tag end up being built, voters are right to treat these promises as commitments to the entire project. Unfortunately, there is no election material with the nuanced message: “We support a business case for this project, which we will have rigorously assessed by an independent body, and if the project’s costs outweigh the benefits, we’ll scrap it.”

No matter who wins on Saturday, the full cost of the promised infrastructure won’t be felt immediately. Many of these projects are slated to run over years or decades and will have an impact on several budgets. Voters have the job of deciding not just where they want their money spent, but their children’s money too.

Total spend isn’t the only difference

The major parties don’t tend to agree on much, especially around election time. The value of their unilateral pledges exceeds the value of projects with multi-party support.

The largest promised project to have clear support from all three parties is the airport rail link, estimated at A$13 billion. (The Greens support this project but will not be announcing it as a policy until the business case is complete.)




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Parties differ in both what they promise and where they want to build it, and the patterns are fairly predictable.

Public transport (particularly heavy rail) is the winner this election, but it’s clear that parties tend to choose projects that fit with their ideology. The Coalition has promised the most for roads. The Greens have focused almost exclusively on public transport.

The Coalition’s projects are skewed towards benefiting regional Victorians. Labor and the Greens have announced projects that focus mainly on Melbourne.

These patterns may be influenced by where the parties’ respective voting bases tend to cluster, but also by the demands of different parts of the state. For instance, congestion may be a less salient issue in the regions, so voters there may prefer health or education investment rather than big-ticket transport infrastructure.

Is all this spending wise?

There is often a mismatch between the total cost of a project and how much a party pledges in an election campaign. The discrepancy is due to three factors:

  • only a business case is promised
  • the state government is expected to bear only part of the cost
  • the party has not made the funding arrangement clear.

An interesting phenomenon this election is the practice of pledging a business case only. At first glance, this appears misleading – voters might be enticed by the prospect of a mega-project, yet the party has to fork out only about 1% of the total cost if it wins.

Ideally, parties would have independently evaluated business cases ready before committing to projects, so voters could rest assured that any promised project is a smart one. This is important because projects announced prematurely tend to have the largest cost overruns. And without doing due diligence, there’s not enough evidence that the initiative will deliver enough benefits to justify its price; voters won’t know whether it’s a good use of taxpayer funds until it’s built and they’re stuck with it.




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So promising a business case is still better than committing to a project without one – or, worse still, committing to a project that clearly does not stack up.

Both Labor and the Coalition are guilty here. Labor has committed to rail duplication between Waurn Ponds and South Geelong, despite Infrastructure Australia – the nation’s independent advisory body – warning that “the costs of the project outweigh its benefits”. And the Coalition has promised to revive the massive East West Link, despite the Victorian Auditor-General’s criticism of the original project: “… the EWL business case did not provide a sound basis for the government’s decision to commit to the investment”.

Of the infrastructure promised this election, only the North East Link has a business case that Infrastructure Australia has assessed and approved.

But this is a state election and Infrastructure Australia is required to assess only projects of national significance for which more than A$100 million in federal funding is sought. Fortunately, since 2015 Victoria has had its own independent advisory body: Infrastructure Victoria. It set out recommendations for the state in its 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy.

The Greens’ platform is most closely tied to these recommendations, both by number of projects and total size. While the Coalition has made the most pledges that do not align with Infrastructure Victoria’s strategy, Labor’s set of non-aligned projects is worth far more, owing mostly to the suburban rail loop.

The huge infrastructure promises this election may excite some voters, but for parties to pledge “visionary” projects outside of what Infrastructure Victoria has recommended smacks of hubris. By building their own glitzy mega-projects without doing due diligence, politicians risk choosing badly and failing to solve the underlying problems voters care about. Worse, the state has a finite budget, so worthwhile projects will have to be relegated to the bottom drawer to make way for the attention-grabbing goliaths.

Going into the polls, Victorians should have one thing on their transport infrastructure wish lists: projects with rigorous and independently assessed business cases. Anything less than that is like buying your kids shoddily manufactured, untested toys. And that may well end in tears once they’re unwrapped.


A note on sources and assumptions: Election commitments were sourced from official party media releases and websites. Only infrastructure promises worth more than A$50 million were considered. Given Labor is in government, only Labor promises pertaining to a “re-elected Andrews government” were included. Judgment had to be exercised to avoid double counting when existing promises were subsumed into later ones. Similarly, care was taken not to double-count projects announced as part of a larger program, such as individual level-crossing removals. Where a party released a range of cost estimates, the largest value was taken.The Conversation

Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Graduate Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We hardly ever trust big transport announcements – here’s how politicians get it right


Crystal Legacy, University of Melbourne

Australian governments regularly spend billions of dollars cancelling infrastructure projects, or dealing with delays and legal challenges. The NSW Berejiklian government, for instance, is mired in legal battles around Sydney’s light rail project – with the Spanish company building the rail line suing the government for A$1.2 billion for costs and damages.

Other examples include the cancellations of the A$1.1 billion East-West link in Melbourne and Perth’s A$450 million Roe 8 project.

Research shows transport infrastructure is costly because of its size, complexity, and the misrepresentation of project benefits, resulting in cost overruns. But transport projects are also costly because they are controversial. Governments and project proponents can spend significant amounts of money to manage the risk of project cancellation, delays and legal challenges.

Why the constant controversy?

Transport will be a key policy battleground area in the upcoming Victorian election. Just this week, the Andrews’ government announced a A$50 billion underground suburban rail loop, which will link every major rail line in Melbourne and the new airport rail.

The announcement is politically motivated rather than being grounded in a publicly engaged strategic planning process attached to a clear evidence-base.




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Victoria is not alone in such political infrastructure planning. The NSW government is currently embarking on the largest transport infrastructure project in the country’s history, with the 33km WestConnex. The project continues to attract opposition from some parts of the community and from the City of Sydney.

WestConnex is also currently subject to a parliamentary inquiry into its impacts, including the adequacy of the business case for the project and the compulsory acquisition of property. The inquiry comes following pressure from community groups and some members of the state’s Greens.

Large-scale transport infrastructure will always attract attention because it involves the distribution of a finite resource in complex regions pressed with significant infrastructure needs. But we need to consider why transport infrastructure is almost always so controversial, and how politicians can ensure they have the public’s trust when making announcements for all transport projects.




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1. History

Australia has a history of anti-road activism that centred on the notion cities are for people not cars, as large motorways divide communities and promote car dependency. In the 1960s and 70s, large urban motorways were set to pave over suburbs as part of a wider urban regeneration agenda, which set the anti-road agenda in motion.

When the East-West Link was proposed again in 2012, many of the same activists from the 1970s returned to the scene. One such activist, Tony Murphy, would lead a high-profile legal challenge to the project in 2014.

Inner-city motorways – such as the East West Link and Stage 3 of the WestConnex project – are underpinned by this historic opposition. And it’s strengthened by the privatisation of roads and the introduction of toll roads. Under these conditions concerns will continue to be put forward about who actually gains to benefit from such projects – private companies, the government or the people?

2. Infrastructural symbolism

Inner-city motorways crystallise competing visions for the Australian city. Should we be investing in roads or rail, or both? How do we prioritise delivery? Where should we be investing? How will we pay for these investments? And do the benefits – and we need to be clear about how we define these – outweigh the costs of construction, the loss of natural assets and urban displacement?

The act of investing in one form of infrastructure over another becomes a symbol of what we value. Road based infrastructure planning is controversial because it’s often seen to value cars over non-road based alternatives.

We often see roads as controversial as they become a symbol of our value of cars.
from shutterstock.com

The East-West Link, West Gate Tunnel, North East Link and WestConnex projects are symbols of past poor investment in integrated land use and transport planning. They are also a symbol of little clarity and coherency about what it is we are aspiring to, and how these expensive projects will help us get there.

3. Trust in evidence

There are concerns projects are being announced before they are properly costed. And this has been further complicated by the introduction of public and private partnerships and more recently the use of market-led proposal schemes (where a private firm makes an infrastructure proposal to goverment), which calls into question the role evidence and the business case plays in decisions about transport infrastructure.

These concerns are only exacerbated when public access to this data is difficult to obtain. And they will only intensify unless bodies such as the ACCC demand data accessibility, including from tolling operators and sharing platforms.

In Toronto, project business cases are written before investment announcements are made. The business cases are then used in wider discussions about what kinds of infrastructures the region should invest in. While every city and region has its challenges, the controversy in Australian cities has become as much about the role of evidence, including its accessibility and transparency, as it is about the contents of those documents.




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A closer look at business cases raises questions about ‘priority’ national infrastructure projects


What politicians should do

As Australian cities continue to embark on ambitious infrastructure programs – both roads and public transport – governments must pause to ask themselves who these projects are really being built for. To abate future controversy, governments must:

  • develop plans for public debate and engagement, which will help provide a strategic case for projects when they are announced
  • deliver business cases before projects are announced, not after. This must include a clear evidence-base for land use, affordable housing, employment and integrated transport
  • plan transport with a regional outlook, but also be mindful of stories and histories of the places and neighbourhoods that might be affected.

Ultimately, residents must be engaged in discussions about urban scenarios and project alternatives. Infrastructure Australia recently released a set of guidelines for big projects. These guidelines are important.

We can also look to Infrastructure Victoria. They included a citizen jury method in the development of their 30-year strategy, which perhaps can be expanded into a larger planning exercise that ties the visions with short-term solutions – such as better quality bus integration. These can then be linked with the more ambitions ideas such as a suburban rail loop as announced this week.




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The Conversation


Crystal Legacy, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.