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According to Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, “almost nothing signifies progress more than new roads.” That line is from the speech he gave to the Federal Council of the Liberal Party on Saturday when he announced the Coalition’s Plan to Reduce Traffic Congestion.

The Coalition’s Plan comprises a $4 billion commitment to accelerate construction of three major freeways – Melbourne’s East-West Link, Sydney’s M4 East, and Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway upgrade. These projects should be underway, he says, within twelve months if the Coalition wins office. Further road priorities will be announced before the next election.

Mr Abbott says these freeways are needed because “businesses and consumers are paying more in transportation costs and our cities are becoming less productive.” He’s picked up on the ‘commuting undermines social capital’ meme too, arguing that traffic congestion means parents are away from their families for too long (hmmm, how prescient am I then?).

Now I’m not automatically against all freeways. Cars will be with us for a long time yet. Freeways can potentially remove through-traffic from residential streets, make freight and buses more efficient, and serve trips that can’t easily be captured by public transport.

There can be a place for certain freeways provided they fully recover their costs (and preferably are part of a broader road pricing scheme), the risks to taxpayers are small, and the ratio of benefits to costs is not only positive but better than the realistic alternatives. They should also be accompanied by strong policies to improve the fuel and environmental efficiency of vehicles.

However there are some evident flaws in Mr Abbott’s plan. The idea that building freeways is an effective way of addressing traffic congestion is the obvious one.

Expanding road capacity increases the volume of vehicles that can move between two points even in congested conditions (and that can have value), but it won’t eliminate congestion. There’ll be an initial period of relief but inevitably traffic expands to fill the extra capacity until a point is reached when speeds slow markedly.

Another flaw is it’s not clear if these three projects are even good ones. As the Grattan Institute points out, most of the low hanging fruit in terms of urban transport projects has already been picked. Certainly Melbourne’s proposed $5 billion East-West Link looks bad – Sir Rod Eddington calculated it has a BC ratio of just 0.7!

A key reason the benefits are lower than the costs is a lot of very expensive tunnelling is involved. That implies high tolls would be needed to recover construction and operating costs. Recent experience with failed road tunnels in Sydney and Brisbane suggests private investors won’t be prepared to carry all or even most of the risk.

The East-West Link might consequently have to be funded by the Australian and Victorian Governments (even if the latter effectively “pays” private lenders). Mr Abbott says he’s had “discussions” with the Victorian Government, but just how Mr Baillieu would find at least $3.5 billion (but probably considerably more) isn’t clear.

Nor is it apparent if other projects, like the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel or level crossing eliminations, would have to be delayed to enable the freeway to proceed.

Another issue is whether or not the East-West Link would be tolled. Infrastructure Australia favours road projects that are tolled but it’s not clear if an Abbott Government would continue that policy. Voters don’t like paying tolls and, while Governments don’t like paying either, it’s usually easier to ‘splash the cash’ than offend voters.

Mr Abbott says he’s had “discussions” with Infrastructure Australia too. The Victorian Government is undertaking more detailed work on the business case for the East-West Link and doubtless there’s a lot of effort going into “refining” the BC ratio. I’m disappointed Mr Abbott would commit $1.5 billion of public money to a project whose worth hasn’t yet been established.

All in all, I think Mr Abbott has announced a roads policy, not a congestion policy. And it’s 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 election.

But looking at all of Mr Abbott’s speech, I suspect it’s not only populism. We could be seeing the beginning of a big shift in thinking about cities (and other things too, but cities is of course my focus). The conservative side of politics at both the state and national level may be poised to reject many of the established verities of urban policy.