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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.