“It’s pretty disappointing really for Victorian farmers,” Victorian Farmers Federation grains group president Ashley Fraser said.
“I’m horrified to think we are going into 2021 without any direction on funding for this project. It’s just appalling.”
Transporting grain on rail is far more efficient than trucks, with Mr Fraser estimating that a freight train can carry 3000 tonnes compared with a B-Double truck carrying about 42 tonnes. Rail is more than $20 cheaper a tonne than a truck, he said.
The Andrews government expects to finish the project by late 2023 – far later than the December 2018 completion date outlined in the project’s 2015 business case.
The Victorian Auditor-General exposed the project’s serious lags in meeting scope, time, cost and quality benchmarks in an audit earlier this year. The project has received $240 million from the federal government and $199 from the state.
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the federal government would not budge from its $240 investment, but wanted to “progress a solution” on the project.
“As we’ve said before, the Australian government has contributed more than $240 million to Murray Basin Freight Rail and stakeholders and the community deserve visibility of the revised business case and input into a transparent solution.
“We understand how important this project is and look forward to working with Victoria, industry and other stakeholders to progress a solution.”
There were very few surprises in Tuesday night’s federal budget transport-wise, with the federal government having already announced it would spend $1.1 billion for “shovel-ready” Victorian road and rail projects on Monday.
New elements however, included $2 billion in road safety money with Victoria to receive the lion’s share of the ready-to-go road safety upgrades – a move welcomed by the RACV.
“RACV supports the $2 billion road safety investment – provided to state governments on a use it or lose it basis – which will drive urgently needed investment in small scale road safety projects, particularly in regional areas,” said RACV general manager public policy Bryce Prosser.
The federal government also plans to bring forward $605 million for stages two and three of the South Geelong to Waurn Ponds rail upgrade and has pledged $5 million to preserve land for a future Outer Metropolitan Ring Road.
The government also unveiled a $1.1 billion expansion of its local roads and community infrastructure program to support immediate upgrades of local roads, footpaths and street lighting.
The investment comprises $208 million for stage two of the Warrnambool rail line upgrade, $320 million for stage three of the Shepparton rail line upgrade, $292 million to upgrade Barwon Heads Road and $84.5 million to upgrade $292 million.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said in a statement late on Tuesday night that the increased levels of debt being taken on by the Commonwealth was the right approach to the “health and economic challenge of our generation”.
The budget shows federal government spending on Victoria’s roads is far outpaced by spending in other states, with Victoria receiving less than half than what is pledged to NSW and Queensland.
Under a funding program delivered for road construction projects and network maintenance that accounts for the bulk of the federal government’s road spend, $1.7 billion will flow to Queensland and $1.2 billion to NSW, compared with $612 million being spent in Victoria. The remaining states and territories will receive about $500 million or less.
The Morrison government has already committed to spending $2 billion for faster rail from Melbourne to Geelong, $5 billion for airport rail and $1.75 billion for the North East Link road already pledged.
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age