Cars & traffic

Apr 7, 2013

What’s your problem with public transport, Mister Abbott?

Tony Abbott's announcement that a Coalition government will fund new freeways in Australia's major cities but not public transport has no logical justification and will hold cities back

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Coalition committment to fund roads, but no mention of urban public transport (source: Our Plan: Real solution for all Australians - the direction, values and policy priorities for the next Coalition government)

The Coalition’s decision to abolish federal funding for urban rail projects will have an enormous impact on Australian cities if an Abbott government is installed in Canberra on 14 September.

Last week Mr Abbott said the Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads, but

We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it is important that we stick to our knitting. And the commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.

This policy would effectively demolish plans for a swag of urban rail proposals around the country that’re premised on the Federal government providing the lion’s share of capital funding.

The top two major projects on Infrastructure Australia’s “ready to proceed” urban priority list are Brisbane Cross River Rail and Melbourne Metro Stage One.

The next stage of Brisbane’s Eastern Busway is also on the priority list. Infrastructure Australia’s says it will be marked ready to go once “a small number of outstanding issues” are addressed.

Other projects on the list but not as advanced include Sydney’s NW rail link, capacity improvements to the Sydney commuter network, Melbourne’s Dandenong rail line, Gold Coast light rail, and electrification of the Melton rail line.

Brisbane’s Courier Mail headlined its report on Mr Abbott’s announcement: Opposition leader Tony Abbott backtracks on 2010 election promise taking Brisbane cross river rail off list. The West Australian followed suit: State rail projects in danger of unravelling.

Mr Abbott’s claim that the Commonwealth has no history of funding urban rail projects doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As Daniel Bowen points out, the Commonwealth is helping fund Qld’s Moreton Bay Rail Link, Victoria’s Regional Rail Link, Perth City rail Link, and Adelaide’s rail electrification project. Moreover, he says if you go back a few years:

Melbourne’s Cranbourne line was upgraded and electrified in the 90s with money from the Commonwealth’s Building Better Cities scheme. Commonwealth funding was also used for the “4D” double-deck development train.

The Leader of the Opposition’s policy pronouncement is however consistent with the reluctance conservative governments have historically shown toward treating urban affairs as a distinct policy area. The conservative view is it doesn’t have national implications.

The trouble in this case, though, is Mr Abbott has already promised to fund transport infrastructure projects in some Australian major cities. It’s just that all his undertakings relate to roads.

He’s promised to contribute $1.5 billion to the proposed East-West Link in Melbourne and another $1.5 billion to Sydney’s WestConnex motorway on condition it links to the CBD.

The Coalition’s election manifesto, Our plan: real solutions for all Australians, also says a Liberal government would contribute $1 billion toward Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway upgrade and provide (as yet unspecified) funding for Perth’s airport Gateway road project.

What’s not in the document though is any parallel commitment to improve urban public transport. Indeed, urban public transport isn’t mentioned at all, even in passing.

That’s despite the fact demand for public transport has grown strongly in most of Australia’s capital cities over the last ten years.

For example, patronage on Melbourne’s rail network increased 70% over the last ten years and by 40% over the last five.

The underlying drivers of this growth aren’t mere temporary blips. Mr Abbott is ignoring structural changes in demographics; in the composition of the economy; and in the relative price of travel by different modes.

Failure to fund key public transport projects is an efficiency issue as much as anything else. It will limit the economic capacity of Australia’s major cities.

There are other problems inherent in Mr Abbott’s evident inclination to involve himself in urban policy but only via freeways. Consider, for example, the proposed $9 billion Melbourne Metro rail tunnel.

It’s a key issue because the Prime Minister promised last week to contribute Commonwealth funding to build it (the amount is unspecified, but would need to be in the order of 75% plus).

But if it isn’t funded by a Coalition government, the Victorian government says other expansions of the metropolitan rail network couldn’t proceed i.e. popular proposals for new rail lines to the airport, Doncaster and Rowville.

Mr Abbott’s promise to provide $1.5 billion for Melbourne’s East-West Link freeway presents another problem.

Although they’d have largely different functions, the Melbourne Metro and the East-West Link road are competing for scarce State and Commonwealth funding.

The Victorian government says the ratio of benefits to costs for Melbourne Metro is 1.30 i.e. it’s positive. As noted, Infrastructure Australia has classified it in its top ‘Ready to Proceed’ category.

However the East-West Link road proposal isn’t fully developed yet. It’s only classified by Infrastructure Australia at the ‘Real Potential’ stage, the second of four categories.

Proposals included at Early Stage and Real Potential are at the initial stages of development and range from those that seek to address a problem of national significance that is still being investigated before solutions are proposed, to those that explore a range of potential solutions.

There isn’t a final business case for the East-West Link yet. Moreover, as I’ve discussed recently, the best evidence available suggests the benefit-cost ratio for East-West Link is only around 0.50 i.e. the benefits are only half the costs!

The Coalition’s aversion to funding public transport in cities isn’t a mere stumble by the Leader of the Opposition or some transitory political convenience. As the Coalition’s election statement shows, it runs much deeper. It’s ideological.

Most observers think it’s a foregone conclusion that the Coalition will be in government after 14 September, very likely with a strapping majority that will give them at least two terms in office.

Unless the States can encourage Mr Abbott to back-pedal, our big cities could become much less attractive to residents and businesses.

It’s therefore important to understand what thinking underlies the Coalition’s position and where urban transport goes from here. That’s an important question I’ll come back to.


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29 thoughts on “What’s your problem with public transport, Mister Abbott?

  1. Alan Davies

    Peter Newman makes the case for why urban public tranport is partly a Commonwealth responsibility: It’s not in the knitting? Urban rail’s growing significance.

  2. Dudley Horscroft

    The list which apparently contains those items mentioned by “Last name First name” is not a Liberal Party list. Nor are any particular items on it necessarily Liberal Party policy.

    They are from a list of 75 desirable items drawn up by the Institute for Public Affairs.

  3. Alan Davies

    Fairfax columnist Josh Gordon digs/burrows in to how the Abbott policy affects the Victorian government’s proposals to expand the rail network: Without the tunnel, Napthine is in a hole (where do they get these headline writers?).

  4. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM,

    So what, exactly, is on Abbots think tank’s wish list? Consider the crap he proposes in other policy areas. Public transport is not on his wish list never has been and never will be. For all his puffing and panting on his bike up Canberra hills. It would never occur to him that bicycles access to rail stations instead of walking would greatly triple the number of able bodied people who could conveniently access rail stations

    *Public broadcasting – gone. The ABC to be broken up and sold off, SBS to be fully privatised.

    • to be allowed to make secret payments to political parties.

    • Medicare gone for most Australians.

    • A return to WorkChoices, just by another name.

    •The clean energy fund and the renewable energy target – scrapped.

    •Funding for sport and arts – including the Australian Institute of Sport – axed. Same for science, with the CSIRO to be privatised.

    It goes on. Never before has the extreme conservative agenda been laid out so clearly, but as they get more arrogant and brazen, our movement has the opportunity to do something we can’t count on any of the parties to do alone: fight back, effectively.

    Their campaign is funded by exclusive dinners with Australia’s richest people.

  5. Dudley Horscroft

    Like most Liberals, I am greatly disappointed by Tony’s statement. I, and most others, fully support urban rail projects which are soundly based. Note that NSW, under a Liberal Government, is proceeding with the NWRL – which hardly moved under the previous Labor government, the SWRL – which was started and stopped and started again by the previous Labor government, the Dulwich Hill tram extension, started and then abandoned by Labor, and now the Randwick/George Street tramway proposal, which is currently in approved in principal and detailed consideration stage.

    We welcome rail projects when properly designed, and are sorry that in Brisbane the various governments have killed the various versions of Briztram – I was there when John Howard, Prime Minister at the time, stated to the welcoming crowd that the Commonwealth fully supported Briztram and promised money for it. Last version killed by none other than Anna Bligh!

  6. Interrobanging On

    My thought also was ‘car = private, train = public’ in the ‘thinking’ of Tony Abbott on this latest moronism.

    Therefore car = good, train = bad. Ideological rubbish, and yet another signal of what he will do to public health and public education.

    Of course, the reason given is untrue, but it always is for Abbott.

  7. Achmed

    I must recant my last comment. It is reported today in PerthNow Opinion pages that Barnett has acknowledged to contribution – about time!!

    The Federal Labor Government is investing a record $3.6 billion in WA infrastructure through the national building program.

    “Under Labor, federal infrastructure spending on the state has nearly doubled $154 to $261 per person.

    “This financial year, we will be injecting $855.5 million into WA a record level of federal transport funding for WA.”

    Barnett this week credited the Federal Labor Government with putting $236 million into the sinking of the railway line at the Perth City Link and $3 million towards planning of the MAX light-rail project.

    But Barnett’s mate in Canberra, Liberal leader Tony Abbott, this week poured cold water on the Premier’s $3 billion bailout plan.

  8. Achmed

    The Gillard Govt contributed over 60% to WA for the railway in Perth. Something Barnett tries to sweep under the carpet

  9. Alan Davies

    Russ #20:

    Good points. The options available to the States for raising revenue are politically hard ones, though. If the States were to significantly increase their tax/charges revenue, I’d hope there’d be more competition between them.

  10. Russ

    Alan, there is a constitutional restriction on sales taxes, excises and customs because they restrict trade. There is none on income tax or various others, except that 1) the Federal government gets first take, so an income tax would be on top of that and 2) the Federal government routinely makes grants conditional on the removal of certain taxes.

    There are plenty of available tax routes (congestion charging and parking levies being the obvious targets). But being competitive with other states on taxation is a significant factor, and it makes sense to out-source tax to a Federal level where possible. Similarly, because the GST distribution occurs after the grants are made, it suits the states to increase funding, regardless of which state gets it: it ultimately translates into a larger pool of money.

    2353, worth noting that Roads to Recovery and several other projects were funded via local government, where the Commonwealth is less constrained by constitutional restrictions, and which have no impact on the State budget. If all public transport in all states was run through local government, Federal funding would be straight-forward, but even Gold Coast Light Rail got counted as revenue for the purposes of GST distribution.

  11. pantheon

    Abbott couldn’t lie straight in bed if he tried. The man isn’t just an economic illiterate, he’s an economic lunatic. And judging by his recent IPA comments, we all better get ready for becoming the 51st state of the USA…

  12. 2353

    Both sides of Fereral Politics have funded public transportation in the past. In South East Queensland alone, both sides funded the initial and expansion of electrification in the 70’s and 80’s (it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall when Bjelke-Petersen met Whitlam to discuss the early sections), the 2nd tunnel through the city and a fleet of around 150 buses was funded as a “Bicentennial Project” and as written above the Gold Cost line to Helensvale and it’s subsequent extensions have been funded in the last 20 years partly by Federal funding. There is also been considerable funding in road projects and “black spot” solutions.

    Not only is Abbott trying to create a “us versus them” society – he can’t even get his facts straight.

  13. Coaltopia

    Many ignore how urbanised Australia is. The senior Nats up here in Queensland seem to forget it as we’re a bit more spread-out. *Their* national interest is a local interest. Many are sick of the floods and the cut roads – so robustness in the infrastructure is likely big push. I won’t judge them for this form of climate change adaptation.

    Then you have the irony of high oil prices which makes it more lucrative to extract – including the nastier exotic ways. This has stalled the peak oil theory but the caulk on the barrels is slowly whittling-away. We might be willing to pay $2/litre, but what’s the breaking point?

    See – “The death of peak oil”:

  14. Alan Davies

    Russ #15:

    AIUI, there’re constitutional limits on the ability of the States to raise revenue e.g. no income tax, no sales tax. That’s why they’re so dependent on the Commonwealth and on a narrow range of distortionary taxes like stamp duties and payroll tax.

  15. Russ

    The most significant complaint of the reddit commentators (and Dylan above) is that it oughtn’t be a Federal responsibility. One on which I agree completely. It is very hard to see how planning is improved by going through a State planning process, and then a Federal bidding process for project funding, when every state has their own priorities and timelines. It promotes project-creep (note that Infrastructure Australia wants metro-1 and 2 to be considered as a whole), mega-projects over smaller works, grand-standing by Federal politicians, and irresponsibility in state governments who can make projects “contingent on Federal funding”.

    The problem is not state governments ability to raise revenue either, so much as an unwillingness to raise revenue in a competitive tax environment. They’d rather outsource it the Federal government and then complain about the GST carve-up when their partially funded projects hit their bottom-line. That’s one of the oddities in Abbott’s promise; if the $1.5b is included in the GST revenue (which roads often aren’t but in this case should be), then it translates to about $500m on a $10b road. A measly 5% of the total cost.

    An even worse idea in practice than on principle.

  16. mattsui

    Road upgrades to Perth’s airports have been completed in the last term of the (suprise,) Liberal government. There has been a decade of bellyaching about airport rail links in Perth. Unfortunately the people of WA have missed their chance for another four years.
    The Lib’s cunning plan; backing road funding proposals for roads that haven’t even been planned yet. Makes it alot easier to turn your back on a project.
    Then, of course, there’s the obvious demographics. Inner urban voters (those most frequent users of city railways)are either latte-left or else wealthy enough to vote Liberal out of self interest. Roads will please the mortgage belt-ers, working-fam’s, Howard’s battlers.

  17. Achmed

    Liberal Party doctorine – “If you can’t afford car then stay home”

  18. The Pav

    For Abbot to advance as a logical reason that not to do something is a sound or logical reason for not doing so in the future just demonstrates the elemental stupity of this failure of a political leader.

    Without News Ltd’s unending support he would have no relevance or existance. Even Howard knew he was a nothing

    If Abbott does not understand the need for PT in addition to Melbourne’s growth he should lokk at how the Mandurah Perth line took off.

    In WA the Liberals closed the Fremantle line.They are closing the railway lines in the wheatblet that will throw thousands of heavy trucks on to a frail road system at harvest.

    The ALP under Carmen Lawrenbe reopend the Freo line, did the line north then under Carpeter built the Mandurah line.

    Public Transport is just not understood by anybody in the Liberal Party

  19. Jackon Taylor

    Clearly Mr Abbott knows that only hippies catch trains.

  20. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Nice slogan, beachcomber. Mind if I “borrow” it for the next six months?

  21. Achmed

    Beahcomber – very good analogy – I like the comparison between boats and our traffic problems

  22. beachcomber

    Failure to upgrade Urban Rail will cause gridlock on the rail network. Which will result in gridlock on our roads. Tony Abbott may never succeed in stopping the boats, but he will succeed in stopping the trains, cars, buses and trucks.

  23. Alan Davies

    Someone posted the article on Reddit. Here’re some comments from readers (not all agree with my sentiments).

    The Age has an editorial this morning on this issue, Mr Abbott takes the highway to nowhere. The Australian Greens also put out a media release at lunchtime, Abbott Transport priorities wrong.

    Anthony Albanese has an oped in the SMH Digital today, Rail projects key to fixing congestion.

  24. Achmed

    Noting that the road projects he will fund are more about votes than anything else. And are most likely not to proceed and be broken promises when he begins the “the budget is worse off than we were told” excuse for doing nothing

  25. IkaInk

    The truth of the matter is that Tony Abbott will backtrack on this statement the second he believes it will lose him votes. He’ll waffle on about some kind of journey and he’ll do a full 180 on the position if he senses that Labor are gaining ground on the issue. This is not a man of strong convictions; this is a man who has presented many different opinions on many different issues.

  26. hk

    The provision of adequate, safe and health benefiting mass transport for urban dwellers is an ethical issue. For Mr Abbot to bracket investment in urban mass transit with knitting trivializes the need to address the question of how to economically, socially and environmentally manage freight and personal movement for 80% of the population while at the same time bringing net benefit to the whole community.

  27. Dylan Nicholson

    Logically it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for the Federal government to commit funding to specific projects that can’t realistically be said to be ‘national’ in nature – this is true whether they are schools or hospitals or roads. However economically it does make sense for the Federal government to be the prime borrower of funds, and I can understand why lenders would want funding tied to specific projects. But to simply say “we will fund roads, but not PT” is a pretty silly position, and I’m not sure what votes Mr Abbott thinks he’ll be winning with that stance. I’d be surprised if it’s a position they’ll even be able to stick to once in power.

  28. Socrates

    I think this ideological bias for capitalism and roads, as well as socialism with public transport, is all a bit silly. Maybe the car was a symbol of personal freedom in the 1960s. Maybe rail was once transport for the poor too. But it isn’t our present reality. I doubt it ever really was.

    You certainly aren’t experiencing personal freedom when you are stuck in a traffic jam moving at 20 km/hr in the midst of a forty minute commute to work. Perhaps you can use the “freedom” of the market to pay an additional $4 to $7 per trip to hop on a toll road and move at 60 km/hr instead. If that is freedom, it certainly isn’t free. Nor can free enterprise deliver such projects without government. Governments plan the freeways, resume the land corridors they are built in, set up the contracts, and coordinate the traffic signals between them. The fact is, our urban road system is just as much government controlled transport as our public transport is.

    The idea that public transport is social welfare is equally crazy. Public transport does not take us everywhere. Poorer workers more often drive to low paid jobs in factories and shopping centres with limited public transport options. Public transport is mainly used by city workers on at least average incomes. Most of the rail trips are line haul into our CBDs. Most land along rail corridors sells at a premium and is sought out and bought by the middle class. Without rail lines more than half the workers in each capital city CBD could not get to work. It would be a business disaster. Urban rail capacity is essential to future expansion of CBD jobs and inner urban redevelopment.

    You are right Alan, this policy is nuts. Like the proposed superannuation trustees, when can we get transport decision making removed from politicians entirely?

  29. Tom the first and best

    The conservative side has almost always been the more pro-car side (cars being individualist and PT being collectivist). This is combined with the greater proportion of the conservative side, compared to the progressive side, being rural (where cars are more useful and less of a problem) and the compounding of this by the existence of the National Party (traditional holders of the Coalition`s transport portfolio) and their dislike of spending money on cities.

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