Anyone who wonders whether governments should invest in public transport in this country should take a ride on Victoria’s new Regional Rail Link, which began services on Sunday.
This fantastic public transport project, expected to deliver the state’s economy $300m a year in productivity gains, should also cause the commonwealth government to seriously reconsider its stubborn refusal to get behind Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ plan to build the Melbourne Metro.
Australian cities are creaking under the weight of population growth and urban sprawl.
Road networks with limited capacity are struggling to cope.
Earlier this month Infrastructure Australia released an updated National Infrastructure Audit which warned traffic congestion would cost the nation $53bn a year by 2031 unless action was taken.
In that context, traffic congestion should be seen as one of the nation’s greatest economic and social challenges – one that requires genuine commitment from all levels of government.
However, despite the clear imperative for action, public transport represents one of the great policy divides in Australian politics.
While the former Labor government invested more in public transport than all previous governments combined since Federation, the current government has made it clear it will invest only in roads and withdrew the funding that had been allocated to Melbourne Metro after its election in 2013.
This explains why the current government has instead sought to invest in the East-West Link, which would return a paltry 45 cents in public benefit for every dollar invested.
The commonwealth’s withdrawal of support for the Metro is one of the reasons why Victoria is receiving just 8% of the current national infrastructure budget despite representing 25% of the population.
The commonwealth has an economic and social responsibility to partner with states to build a fully integrated transport system – one that includes both roads and rail.
When it comes to rail, the Regional Rail Link is the perfect template for such partnerships.
It separates lines used by Melbourne suburban trains from those serving regional centres including Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong and is the first new railway line built in Victoria in 80 years.
The link includes 90km of new track, new stations at Wyndham Vale and Tarneit and upgrades of stations at West Footscray, Sunshine, Footscray and Tottenham.
It will add 54,000 extra passenger seats a day to the rail network.
That means convenience for rail commuters as well as less traffic on the roads.
But the Regional Rail Link would never have happened without commonwealth government investment.
The $3bn allocated by the former government makes it the largest commonwealth investment in public transport in the nation’s history.
That’s a big commitment.
But when you consider the productivity gains, it represents a sound investment.
Traffic congestion is simply too serious a problem for any realistic commonwealth government to ignore.
It’s about economic productivity – surely core business for Canberra.
But there is also a serious social angle because of a major shift that is happening in Australian workplaces.
Housing has always been at its most affordable in the suburbs of Australian cities.
And until recent years, there had also been strong jobs growth in the suburbs in industries like manufacturing, meaning people could live near their workplace.
However, the rise of the knowledge economy and services industries means jobs growth is now strongest in the inner-city, where millions of Australian families cannot afford housing.
People are spending increasing periods commuting to the inner suburbs and their communities are being transformed into drive-in, drive-out suburbs where they can afford to live but where jobs are scarce.
It is a tragedy that because of this trend, many Australian parents spend more time in their cars commuting to and from work than they spend playing with their children.
This problem needs to be tackled head-on, across a number of fronts.
We need to create jobs closer to where people live.
All levels of government need to work together to address issues like housing affordability and housing density.
Of course, part of the answer to this problem is better roads.
Another part is better public transport.
It’s not a case of one or the other. We need both.
Only thorough partnerships between the commonwealth and the states can deliver the game-changing road and rail projects that will make a real difference.
The Regional Rail Link is a game-changer.
Take a ride in coming weeks and judge for yourself.
This piece appeared in today’s edition of The Guardian Australia. http://bit.ly/1K5ML8c