Apr 8, 2013

Rail projects key to fixing congestion – Opinion – The Age/SMH Digital

There are moments in public life when you can’t quite believe what you’ve heard. I had one of those recently when I heard the Leader of the Opposition say “…it’s important we stick to our knitting and the Commonwealth’s knitting is roads”. I checked my calendar and confirmed that it was indeed 2013. Yes, we were well into the 21st century. A day later, in case we hadn’t heard it the first time he said it again: “That’s what I said yesterday and that’s what I say today.”

The shudder from his State Coalition colleagues and the weary commuters of Australia could be felt around the country. Because they live each and every day with the effects of one of the greatest blights in modern life, urban congestion. Anyone living in a major Australian city knows that idling behind the wheel of a car is one of the most frustrating time-wasters of modern life.  All those hours could be better spent at the work-place or at home helping the kids with homework or coaching their local soccer team. Congestion steals time. It steals time from our families and from the productive capacity of Australia. That is why the old notion confirmed once again by Tony Abbott, that public transport should be left to the States, is dangerously wrong. Urban congestion is not a local problem. It is a national one which, if not tackled, will cost us $20 billion in lost productivity by 2020.

One commuter train line has the carrying capacity of a ten lane highway. This Federal Government not only recognises this reality, it has responded with the biggest funding commitment to urban rail in the country’s history. We have committed more to urban public transport than all other Federal Governments combined since Federation. We have projects under construction or committed to in every mainland State. At the same time we have doubled the roads budget.

In Queensland there’s the Moreton Bay Rail Link, a great idea that had been talked about by politicians since 1895. The Moreton Bay region is growing faster than just about anywhere else in the country. The current population of 375,000 people will reach half a million by 2031. More than half the region’s population leaves the area each day for work and 83 per cent use a private car to do so. While rail might be a great investment for the future, it is not cheap to build. So the Federal Government stepped in to help the Queensland Government with $742 million. Work is now well underway on the 12.6 kilometre link. Each full train on the new line will remove 600 cars from the road.

There’s also the Gold Coast Rapid Transit, a 13 kilometre light rail network connecting Griffith University at Southport to Broadbeach which will be completed next year. Federal Labor is investing $365 million in this project because we recognise it as the best solution to the population growth in this rapidly expanding and economically productive corner of Queensland.

The next urban rail collaboration under consideration between the Federal and Queensland Governments is the much-needed Cross River Rail. This project will transform the transport landscape of inner Brisbane. Federal Labor has already contributed $20 million to scope the project which will provide 9.8 kilometres of underground track and vastly expand services to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and outer suburbs of Brisbane.

In Victoria, there’s the 47.5 kilometres Regional Rail Link, the biggest public transport project now under construction in Australia. Not only will it provide a frequent reliable service for thousands of commuters in metropolitan Melbourne and the growth areas in the city’s west, it will also offer for the first time a dedicated track for commuters from Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat. Federal Labor has invested over $3 billion in this project.

Preliminary scoping is also underway on the Melbourne Metro for which Federal Labor has already contributed $40 million. The project involves a nine kilometre track and five new underground stations which will untangle the inner core of Melbourne’s metropolitan rail network. This will allow more services on existing lines with capacity for an additional 20,000 commuters each hour.

It’s clear that existing urban rail projects would be under threat if the Coalition was elected and it would abandon any prospect of further examining the Brisbane Cross River Rail and Melbourne Metro. Of particular concern is Tony Abbott’s preparedness to dismiss all urban rail projects regardless of their capacity to raise productivity. This is a rejection of the objective process established under Infrastructure Australia of funding projects based on merit.

Forty years ago, Prime Gough Whitlam stepped in to help the States get rid of those cockroach and mosquito breeding pits, the septic tank. He knew that without Federal help this national health issue would take forever to fix. It was a task simply too big for the financial capacity of the States and Territories. So he handed his Urban Affairs colleague Tom Uren the unusual task of cleaning up the backyards of Australia. We now enjoy a modern sewerage system as a result.

Similarly, fixing the congestion afflicting our cities is simply too big a task to simply say ‘it’s the State’s job’. There are many answers to making our urban centres more productive, sustainable and liveable and better roads is one of them. But Tony Abbott’s view that the Federal Government should fund nothing other than roads reveals a mindset fixed in another age. It is old thinking that has been rejected across the advanced world. Mr Abbott should return to his knitting and think again.