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Victoria’s Big Build leaves planning out of the loop

The Auditor-General has found that the government has failed in its responsibilities under the Act. Instead of a single plan unifying transport investment, the government’s transport agenda is scattered across 42 documents, some secret and some incomplete. This, the Auditor-General warned, has created serious strategic risk to the state.

We need a plan, and a careful process to prepare it, so the public can know how the various objectives and principles are integrated, what the trade-offs are, and the basis for various policy, operational, project and funding decisions.

An artist's impression depicting stage one of the Victorian government's proposed Suburban Rail Loop.

An artist’s impression depicting stage one of the Victorian government’s proposed Suburban Rail Loop.

Without an overall transport plan we don’t know what the SRL is for, alternative ways to meet those objectives, or what we are forgoing in spending $50 billion on a single middle-suburban rail line.

By way of contrast, the Victorian government has consistently failed to deliver high-quality bus services in Melbourne’s less affluent outer suburban and growth area communities despite longstanding evidence of the social and economic exclusion and environmental harms that arise.

Melbourne could build the world’s best suburban bus network for $50 billion, but that conversation has never been had, because there has been no proper planning process to have it.

The failure to plan our transport system seems to be a consequence of the cynical shift in politics in recent decades. For elected representatives a 30-year plan with carefully thought-out interventions offers limited short-term political payback.

The Andrews government’s planned Suburban Rail Loop.

The Andrews government’s planned Suburban Rail Loop.Credit:

Big projects align with political cycles. First comes the announcement of a big project and jobs, design announcements and early site-works, and a dazzle of hi-vis photo opportunities. By the next election delivery is shown as underway.

The following term offers cranes in the air, more hi-vis, and ribbons to scissor. By the next poll more projects are announced in a classic case of “cut-and-come-again”.

This crude infrastructure politics plays well with electorates, who see hard hats and holes in the ground as evidence of a government meeting promises. Construction unions gain members and their employers get rich contracts, as do their financier mates.

Infrastructure is a great magic pudding that few have an interest in questioning.

While the Big Build program is not an outright rort, the politically cynical lack of planning and vast expenditure merits greater scrutiny than the federal car park ineptitude, especially as costs escalate and budgets are blown.

The West Gate Tunnel and Metro Tunnel are each $3 billion over budget. North East Link has escalated from an initial $10 billion cost to $16.7 billion.

That’s nearly $13 billion in overruns on just three projects. It makes the federal car park rorts look like spare change.

There are public benefits to good planning. A transparent deliberative planning process as expected by the Transport Integration Act would offer public stakeholders input to the vision and objectives for transport.

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That would then allow debate and discussion about public priorities for policies, programs, or projects to meet them. It would sort out which projects are needed to meet our transport needs, and which are just wasteful promises.

Proper planning would allow for consideration of new approaches, such as transport network pricing advocated by Infrastructure Victoria, to shift travel away from cars to avoid expensive road-building and support our net zero carbon goals.

Could we use the $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop funds on other projects or even non-project approaches that have greater benefit to Melbourne? We’re ignorant without a plan.

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Integrated transport planning is crucial to Melbourne’s future. Our COVID recovery needs to ensure our city is socially inclusive, prosperous and environmentally sustainable.

But to do this we need a real transport plan, not just a shemozzle of over-budget projects schemed up on political grounds, without vision, analysis or co-ordination, as the Auditor-General has revealed.

Jago Dodson is director of the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University.

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