Infrastructure: does getting the facts right matter anymore?
The idea that those involved in community discussions about cities should get the facts right increasingly seems to be optional. Cities are likely to be better places if we strive for truth in public debates.
It seems to be disappearing fast, but there’s a tradition in public debate that the truth really matters. Some protagonists value getting the facts right even when their opponents make baseless claims to win popular support.
Honesty in public discourse is an immeasurably important civic virtue, yet it increasingly seems like its value is being trashed. To me, it’s especially regrettable when even the “good guys”, whose appeal is ostensibly built on a commitment to principle, are heedless of the facts.
Take this letter, What $8b will buy, published in The Age today (Wed 25 Sep). It sets out what the writer reckons the $6-8 billion budget for Melbourne’s East-West Link motorway could buy if the money were instead spent on public transport:
The environmental group Beyond Zero Emissions suggests $8 billion would fund all of the following: Doncaster rail, the Melbourne airport link, the Melton rail duplication, the Dandenong upgrade (removing 20-plus level crossings), a game-changing upgrade of signalling technology, allowing trains to run every two minutes, and 50 new, bigger trains. Each peak-hour train can take 800 cars off the road. Let’s analyse this suite of proposals for how many ”rat runners” it would remove and how many jobs would be created.
The writer has of course selectively taken the upper bound $8 billion figure for the East-West Link, but I have no problem with that. As I recently explained here (Are cost estimates for transport projects reliable?), Bent Flyvbjerg found road projects go over budget by 20% on average. The East-West Link is largely underground and has to be constructed in a built-up area – I think it’s very likely even $8 billion will prove conservative.
The writer’s main source of information on costs is almost certainly the graph above (see exhibit) and the associated table (East-West Link alternative options – 07 June 2013) from the web site of Trains not Toll Roads.
The organisation says some of the cost estimates it cites were researched by Beyond Zero Emissions Inc but I can’t find any trace of a supporting report (1). It seems the Napthine Government isn’t the only organisation keeping technical information to itself!
But if the writer of the letter relied on the graph he was sorely mislead. The graph is total rubbish.
For example, it puts the estimated cost of the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel at around $3 billion when the widely acknowledged figure is $9 billion (I’ve seen some reporters for The Age cite $11 billion). The real estimated cost of this one project is higher than the upper bound cost of the East-West Link!
The graph puts the cost of Doncaster rail at around $2 billion, but the 2 year study undertaken by Public Transport Victoria puts the cost of a new line at $4-6 billion from Doncaster Hill to Clifton Hill, plus the same again to decouple the Sth Morang line. Some dispute these figures, however even The Greens say the cost of the segment from Doncaster Park and Ride to Clifton Hill would cost $3-5 billion (2).
The graph also puts the cost of the Rowville rail extension at around $2 billion. There’s no official estimate for Rowville and $2 billion was probably a reasonable absolute minimum a year ago, but the recently completed Doncaster study suggests a figure of at least $4 billion is more plausible.
Rowville is much the same length as the Doncaster extension but virtually all of it is either elevated or in tunnel. Most of it has to be constructed in the middle of a busy six lane arterial road.
Of course all cost estimates should be scrutinised and questioned. Bent Flyvjberg’s finding that rail projects tend to exceed estimated costs by 45% on average also needs to be factored in.
But being “careless” with the facts surrenders the moral high ground and is poisonous for civil society. It’s doubtless assumed it will bring some tactical gain however in the longer run, as so many politicians have learned, it’s usually not a sustainable strategy.
The fact is the cost of retrofitting both road and rail infrastructure in urban areas in Australia has escalated enormously in recent years (see Infrastructure: what to do about the ‘Cleopatra Problem’). No one should pretend otherwise; or worse, fabricate alternative realities.
There’s an urgent need to identify why costs are so high and what can be done about it. If the answer is not much, then it’s vital to understand what that means for the way we plan and build our cities. It’s a debate the new Prime Minister could get rolling.
- However I did find a fascinating recent report by Beyond Zero Emissions claiming the Rudd Government “underestimated the profits of its Melbourne-Brisbane high-speed rail (HSR) plan by $190 billion, enough to repay the capital cost of the network”. Yes, that’s $190 billion and it would all be profit! Wow!
- The associated table on The Trains not Toll Roads site puts the cost of rail from Doncaster Hill to Clifton Hill at a mere $1.8 billion, citing Beyond Zero Emissions as the source.