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Does the Green's public transport plan cut it?

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Following my review of the Greens’ Public Transport Plan for Melbourne’s East (here and here) some Green’s supporters have suggested that I should really look at the party’s broader public transport vision for Melbourne.

They’ve suggested I should examine The People Plan, which the Greens bill as their “long term vision of the Melbourne we want to live in”. It’s intended to avoid good long-term policy losing out to short-term politics.

During the week The Sunday Age also asked me about the Greens transport policies, so all in all it seemed timely to visit The People Plan.

So I have. And I’m gobsmacked. There’s barely a space on the map where the Greens aren’t proposing to run a new rail line or a new tram line, build a new station or duplicate, triplicate and quadruplicate rail lines. The scale of this plan is epic. The main components seem to be:

  • 10 new rail lines
  • Close to 40 new rail stations
  • Extension of four rail lines (electrification)
  • The aforementioned expansion of track capacity (duplications, etc)
  • 30 new trains
  • 12 new tram lines
  • 12 extended tram lines
  • 550 new trams
  • Conductors on all trams

All of this, the Greens say, can be bought for a mere $13 billion plus additional operating costs of $333 million per annum.

I applaud the objective of making Melbourne a more liveable, sustainable and equitable city. Melbourne definitely needs better public transport. But whether this Plan is the best way of achieving that objective is doubtful. Here’s why.

First, the costings in The People Plan are simply not credible. A total of $13 billion is implausible when you consider that the Federal and State governments are jointly paying $4.3 billion for just one project in Melbourne, the Regional Rail Link.

The Independent Inquiry which prepared the Long Term Public Transport Plan for Sydney estimates the cost of its suite of initiatives to increase public transport’s share of travel at $35 billion. I take the Independent Inquiry’s costings with a large grain of salt because they’re an advocacy group. Political parties might be worse. When in Opposition the Labor Party costed the South Morang rail extension at $8 million – now they’re in government and building it, the real cost with associated upstream works is apparently $560 million.

Or consider an example where an alternative estimate is available. The Greens cost their proposed Doncaster to Victoria Park rail line at just $430 million in The People Plan. Their more recent Eastern Suburbs Transport Plan ups the cost to $1 billion (why hasn’t The People Plan been updated?), but the Eddington report estimates it will cost around $2 billion.

Second, as The Sunday Age’s headline proclaims, there’s little in The People Plan about where the money will come from. The initiatives slated for the east of Melbourne are supposed to be funded from $6 billion allocated by the Government for the NE Link, but as pointed out here, that money doesn’t exist.

It’s not surprising politicians are evasive because funding infrastructure isn’t easy. For example, the Independent Inquiry is proposing to fund its $35 billion plan for Sydney by a combination of higher real fares (with 100% cost recovery on light rail), an annual levy on the property rates paid by households and businesses, higher car registration charges, increased parking levies and a CBD congestion levy. Even that won’t be enough – $15 billion is envisaged to come from the Commonwealth.

Third, there’s little justification in the Plan for the various proposals. There’s no estimate of the benefits, no estimates of patronage, no estimates of how many car drivers would change to public transport, no estimates of who would be better off and who would be worse off, and no appreciation of the practical constraints on the various proposals.

The Doncaster rail line advocated by both the Greens and the Opposition illustrates how important careful evaluation is. As pointed out here, Eddington calculated that construction of the Doncaster rail line would shift just 1,600 central city commuters from car to rail, at a cost of around $2 billion. The reduction in carbon emissions would be equivalent to taking three cars off the road.

Another example is the proposed electrification of the existing freight line (there’s a standard gauge track and a broad gauge track) between Sunshine and Broadmeadows and construction of three new stations so it can provide passenger services. The trouble is that freight trains and passenger services don’t mix – the Regional Rail Link is largely about making sure they’re kept separate.

Passenger trains running at ten minute headways will play havoc with freight services. This line will get busier under the new Freight Futures strategy which is about getting freight off the road and onto trains. A new track could be constructed but with bridges over the Maribyrnong and Moonee Ponds Creek the cost would be much higher than the Greens estimate of $186 million.

The upshot of all this missing information is it’s very hard to estimate who would be better off and who would be worse off if The People Plan were implemented. For example, it is possible to imagine a scenario where the massive call on funding demanded by the Plan would crowd out resourcing of public hospitals and state schools, while providing most of the transport benefits for middle to higher income groups.

It’s been put to me that you have to cut non-Government parties some slack because they don’t have the advantages of incumbency. There’s something to that but how much slack? Sydney’s Independent Inquiry managed to put together a very detailed analysis and set of proposals with just a small group of volunteers. If they can do it I think any political party can and should do it.

The fact is that all parties are putting proposals to the electorate with the intention of influencing votes. The Opposition has a good chance of winning government and the Greens have a good chance of winng the balance of power. It seems to me eminently reasonable that all parties should be under an obligation to put forward reasoned and costed proposals with a plausible timetable.

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  • 1
    wilful
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to note that the plan has nothing whatsoever about regional transport. Which is unsurprising, since most greens members and voters are in the inner city.

  • 2
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    How many of the Bolte Governments 1969 Transport Plan objectives ran to accurate costings?

    I mean virtually all the new roads in that have since been built (apart from the City Loop, very little of the PT objectives were) but certainly not every Freeway that was listed in that plan got built for $1.675 billion like originally forcasted.

    Long term plans costings will always be inaccurate, it’s in their very nature. They will also always be under-costed as that’s the nature of politics.

    It’s also important to note that whilst virtually every public transport budget has blown out under the Victorian Labor Government, this certainly isn’t the case in WA where under a strong Transport Authority projects are by and large coming in at or around cost, essentially on time at prices far below what Victorian’s are paying for similar projects.

    The Victorian Department of Transport is getting ripped off because a) they’re incompetent b) there has been so little real PT infrastructure projects since the City Loop was built that a workforce that understands the projects has evaporated.

    If you do one grade separation every 5 years for 25 years you can bet that each one will cost a whole lot more than if five are done in a year (even adjusting for inflation, higher wages, etc).

  • 3
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s one thing for a long-term cost estimate to turn out to be grossly inaccurate at the time of completion, but it’s another thing altogether to be implausible before construction has even commenced.

  • 4
    Terry
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Good to see someone applying the ruler to Greens’ promises for once. The proposed public transport plan here is on the scale of what Beijing did just prior to the 2008 Olympics, except (1) money was no object for the Beijing authorities, which I doubt is the case for a Victorian government, and (2) the Beijing authorities were much more willing to ride roughshod over local residents’ concerns than I can ever imagine Greens MPs being.

  • 5
    Joseph
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I am finding my faith renewed in the Labor and Liberal parties. The Greens are showing us what ill informed and populist politics looks like and are making the established parties look well reasoned and responsible by comparison.

  • 6
    Chris
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    The Greens may well be daft, but I’m a long way from finding my faith in the major parties.

  • 7
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    I meant to say that a key failing of The People Plan is that it doesn’t say what the Greens policy is towards cars.

    As I’ve argued before, unless there are policies like road pricing aimed at lowering the competitiveness of cars relative to transit, all that investment in infrastructure is unlikely to give public transport a commensurate share of all travel.

    Policy on public transport has to be partnered with policy on roads.

  • 8
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Well Alan you’d like the Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF)’s call on this bit of policy:
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/11/15/3065970.htm

    As for the People’s Plan itself, it does have a lot of good ideas in it. We shouldn’t poo-poo it just because the Greens wrote it, and some people are ideologically blind to the good that the Greens could do. (I don’t understand that. I’ll welcome good ideas no matter their source, even if was from the Liberal Party if they ever come up with one) Maybe there are some non cost-effective ideas in there, but a lot of, for instance, those tram extensions to interconnect with the next rail station are relatively inexpensive, and do make use of ‘the network effect’. (Read Paul Mees’, “A Very Public Solution” for a good description of the network effect) As for the Broadmeadows to Sunshine link, I too think it is underutilised and it would meet the (72?) tram at Airport West, and if upgraded for suburban passenger use, could provide for the start of an effective rail link to Tullamarine, and not having a rail link on the normal suburban network to Tullamarine is shooting oneself in the foot, and don’t give me none of those Skybus rubbish arguments.

    And as there are provisions for linking the Alamein line to Clifton Hill, and at the other end to Oakleigh then why not try to make full use of the opportunities available to make cross suburban train travel possible? It still, after all, is a radial network, which served Melbourne well in the 1890s perhaps, but this is 2010.

    And Doncaster, and Templestowe and Knox do need rail links.

  • 9
    Andy_RK
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Good policy is needed & critique is important, but will any party play the long game (at least The Greens have an explicit social charter)?
    The cynical alliance between the Labor party & the Coalition on preferences to sideline The Greens reveals the extent to which progressive politics is off the agenda.

  • 10
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Actually Julian, the road component of the 1969 plan was costed at $1.7 billion which is roughly $16 billion today – which is somewhat above the total cost of freeways built. It also projected that money over 15 years for a population of 3.7 million, which was not reached until 2005, so you’d expect most of the proposed transport links to have been completed only recently. Contrary to your claim though, relatively few of the proposed freeways were built, as they were cut back in 1973 by Hamer under pressure from inner city activists.

    Also contrary to your claim, quite a few of the p/t proposals were implemented, including the Altona section, track multiplications and rolling stock improvements. Sadly, the best proposal in the 1969 plan remains on the periphery, which is to get close to a 50% improvement in travel speeds on train and tram routes, reducing the cost of rolling stock and operators, and increasing efficiency (which will attract a higher patronage).

    You should read the 1969 plan. You don’t have to like it, but its a lot better organised than any of the glossy shopping lists released since.

  • 11
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Re: the NSW Plan.

    “Even that won’t be enough – $15 billion is envisaged to come from the Commonwealth.”

    Which just goes to show you people ought to learn something about Federal-State fiscal relations before begging the Commonwealth for money. Until the Commonwealth Grants Commission(pdf) changes its methodology, almost every penny of Commonwealth money spent on urban p/t will be offset by a reduction in GST grants (for schools and hospitals).

  • 12
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Not all of them have been built to full Freeway standard, but nearly all of them have been built to at least some extent. The Healesville freeway was the only proposed freeway that hasn’t been built at all.

    Of the 5 major rail works in the plan 2 were built (City Loop, Altona) and 3 were not (Dandenong – Frankston, Huntingdale – Ferntree Gully [AKA Rowville line plus a bit], Doncaster).

    As far as taking the $1.7billion figure and adjusting it into today’s figures I have one question about your methodology for claiming they’ve come under the total cost.

    Have any of the projects you’ve included been adjusted in to today’s figures also? The Tullamarine was built in 1970, therefore if you’re inflating the $1.7billion to $16billion then the cost of building Tullamarine should be inflated at virtually the same rate.

    I’m not claiming you haven’t done this, but I’m curious.

  • 13
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Julian, that is plain wrong, the 1969 plan included half a dozen inner city and middle suburban freeways that haven’t come close to being built. Most of the freeways on the 1973 plan have been built, but if you think the 1969 plan was completed then you are delusional.

    As for the figure, I didn’t add up the cost of all those freeways, merely adjusted the 1.6 billion figure into today’s money, but since CityLink was the most expensive and it only came in at 1.6 billion (roughly 2.5 billion today) and EastLink 1.8 billion there is a fair bit left over (though, as I stated, not all of them were built by any means, and it was the costly ones that got dropped). Nevertheless, the people who build roads in this state are very good at budgeting, the people who propose railways far less so.

  • 14
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    And incidentally, you can’t claim “non-freeway standard” as a freeway, the 1969 plan included many more hundreds of kilometres of arterial roads on top of the freeways. If anything, those roads were far more destructive of the urban environment.

  • 15
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a link to the plan? I’m getting all my information 2nd hand. I do see now that one of my sources had pointed out a number of cuts between the 1969 plan and the 1974 version.

    I would be interested in reading it.

    Also your comment “Nevertheless, the people who build roads in this state are very good at budgeting, the people who propose railways far less so.” is spot on the money.

    Victoria is very efficient at building and budgeting roads and very poor at building and budgeting for rail. That’s what decades and decades of investment vs. decades and decades of neglect will do though…

  • 16
    Posted November 16, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    No, sorry. I have a copy of it myself, but I don’t know of any online copy. The wikipedia article on it shows the various railway upgrades, and links to an image of the proposed freeways. None of the F2 and F12 inside the ring road, the F1, F4, F6 or F7, and only one of the F9 and F14 either side of Chadstone were built. The F19 in the inner north remains on the agenda, but was controversial then and now.

  • 17
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    The reason it’s hard to give these various ideas any credence is that the Greens haven’t evaluated them. Until they do that they’ll just be lines on a map.

3 Trackbacks

  1. ...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by timwattsau, a minor irony. a minor irony said: Where will the money come from? a sober appraisal of the #greens transport plan http://bit.ly/bdz9fJ #vicvotes [...

  2. By Hiding under a rock « Oz Man and The Rat on November 16, 2010 at 11:04 am

    ...] The Greens People Plan [...

  3. ...] got the hallmarks of populist policy, not rational policy. It reminds me of the same cynical pitch the Greens made to voters at the 2010 Victorian [...

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