Imagine if each and every year, the Australian government discovered a hollow log containing $16.5 billion.
We could use that windfall to boost services or reduce government debt. Or we could return the money to the pockets of families and small businesses via tax cuts.
Actual hollow logs are rare in Canberra.
But it is sobering to think that traffic congestion is costing the national economy $16.5 billion in lost productivity each year, according to the government’s own bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics.
That figure is expected to reach $53 billion a year by 2031 if nothing is done.
It makes economic sense to act to reduce these losses.
That would involve investing in better urban rail as well as roads, making it cheaper and easier for people and goods to move around our cities.
Such action would lower costs to business, boost profitability and allow businesses to create more jobs.
This is not rocket science. It’s common sense.
But the Coalition government is reducing investment in roads and refusing to make new investments in public transport infrastrucuture. This inaction is allowing traffic congestion to worsen and detracting from other elements of government policy aimed at lifting growth.
Peak industry group Infrastructure Partnerships Australia recently warned that last month’s budget would drive federal infrastructure investment to its lowest level in more than a decade.
That’s not surprising.
In 2013 the incoming Coalition government cancelled all Commonwealth investment in public transport, scuttling funding deals reached by the former Labor government to deliver projects such as Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and the Melbourne Metro.
It reallocated the funding to dud toll road projects including Melbourne’s East-West Link and the Perth Freight Link.
But both of these projects had not been the subject of proper planning and collapsed when it became clear they did not stack up in terms of design or value for public money.
When Malcolm Turnbull took over the prime ministership in 2015 he reversed predecessor Tony Abbott’s public transport ban, at least in rhetorical terms.
But while the Prime Minister enjoys taking selfies aboard trains, trams and buses, he has failed to provide new investment for trains, trams or buses.
The budget included a plan for a National Rail Fund which the government says could be used to contribute to rail projects including Cross River Rail and the Melbourne Metro, as well as newer proposals such as the AdeLINK light rail project and the Western Sydney Rail link to the new Western Sydney Airport.
But this fund is a sham.
It won’t yield a dollar this year, next year or the year after.
Meanwhile, the excuses continue.
Back in 2012, the independent Infrastructure Australia declared Cross River Rail was “ready to proceed” and placed it at the top of its National Infrastructure Priority List. Five years later, Mr Turnbull is refusing to contribute to the project, claiming that it has not been assessed by Infrastructure Australia.
Mr Turnbull is also trying to sideline Infrastructure Australia by creating a new Infrastructure Financing Unit within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The IFU is supposed to work with the private sector on “innovative” arrangements to finance infrastructure projects.
But the IFU is a solution looking for a problem.
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, which includes investors in its membership, says there is no need for this body.
“Commonwealth government funding support is needed for infrastructure,” IPA said in its pre-budget submission.
“Commonwealth financing is not.”
Traffic congestion acts as a handbrake on economic growth and is a misery to commuters.
It won’t fix itself. It requires Commonwealth leadership and investment to help states, local government and the private sector to deliver.
This piece was first published in The Brisbane Times on Friday, 23 June, 2017: http://bit.ly/2t0QIdL