Dec 6, 2017

The people have spoken, now it’s time to deliver Cross River Rail – Opinion – The Brisbane Times

Wise politicians know that voters are always right.

Whatever we think, election results provide the ultimate reality check about the will of the people.

We ignore them at our peril.

One of the realities that is clear after the Queensland election is that south-east Queenslanders want efficient public transport.

The Palaszczuk Labor government was re-elected promising to build the Cross River Rail project, which will provide a second rail crossing of the Brisbane River in the city’s CBD to add to the Merivale Bridge, which is approaching full capacity.
Cross River Rail is not just about Brisbane.

It will increase the capacity of the rail network throughout south-east Queensland, including the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast.

It is the game changer that allowed the Palaszczuk government to commit to new stations at Pimpama, Helensvale North and Worongary-Merrimac.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to back Cross River Rail, but needs to reconsider his position, which is based on politics, rather than looking at the project on its merits.

In capital cities and high-growth areas across the nation, traffic congestion is eroding Australians’ quality of life and acting as a handbrake on economic growth.

The Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics has reported that in 2015, traffic congestion cost the national economy $16.5 billion in lost economic activity.

Governments must work together to tackle congestion, which would boost productivity and set a platform for stronger economic and employment growth.

Cross River Rail is a no-brainer. It was approved by the independent Infrastructure Australia in 2012.

On the basis of that assessment, the former federal Labor government and the former LNP Queensland government, led by Campbell Newman, reached a deal in 2013 to deliver the project.

Then along came the greatest political wrecker of our times, Tony Abbott, who cancelled all Commonwealth investment in passenger rail and transferred the money to the construction of toll roads.

Mr Abbott had outlined his distaste for public transport in his 2009 book Battlelines, in which he wrote: “Mostly there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car and cars need roads.”

This was a bizarre position – so absurd it hardly bears serious scrutiny.

Since ousting Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull has refused to reinstate Commonwealth funding for Cross River Rail. As a result, the Palaszczuk government has commenced the project alone.

Its re-election demonstrates that Queenslanders support the project and understand the link between infrastructure investment, quality of life and economic prosperity.

Mr Turnbull should listen to the message and get on board with a funding contribution.

It appears his reluctance to provide funding is linked to his desire to enlist more private investment into the project using  mechanisms such as value capture, under which governments would help pay for the project by selling space above new train stations for high-rise development.

Value capture is not a new concept but it has a legitimate place in funding projects. Indeed, it was part of the 2013 deal to deliver Cross River Rail, which the federal coalition scrapped.

But value capture will never replace actual government investment.

And according to federal budget papers, actual investment will fall off a cliff over the next four years, from the $9.2 billion promised in the 2016 budget to $4.2 billion by 2020-21.

Another lesson from the Queensland election is that voters will punish political parties that put political tactics ahead of the public interest.

It is somewhat ironic that the Shadow Treasurer, Scott Emerson, was the Transport Minister in the Newman Government who agreed to a joint proposal with the former Federal Labor Government to advance Cross River Rail.

The more recent cynical opposition to the project hurt the LNP’s economic credibility and no doubt contributed to Mr Emerson’s failure to hold his seat.

Efficient states need efficient capital cities and regions.

Increasing rail capacity through Brisbane will reduce rail congestion right throughout the state’s south-east.

Queenslanders got it right on Cross River Rail.

It is now time for governments to work together and build it.

This piece was first published in The Brisbane Times on Wednesday, 6 December, 2017: