Proposed alignment of East-West Link. The State and Federal governments have committed to the shorter Eastern segment between the Eastern Fwy and CityLink

As the dust settles on budget week, Victoria effectively has no promise of Commonwealth funding from either the government or the Coalition for the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel.

Tony Abbott has made it perfectly clear a Coalition government won’t provide funding for any urban rail projects in Australia, including the Metro.

Julia Gillard says her government will provide $3 billion for the Metro if re-elected but it’s smoke and mirrors. Significant funding wouldn’t become available until circa 2020 i.e. after three elections.

But Victoria does have a firm commitment from Mr Abbott that in its first term a Coalition government would provide $1.5 billion for stage one of the East-West Link.

If politicians at the state and Commonwealth level gave serious consideration to whether road should be preferred over rail for priority in funding, it’s clear the former has won the day, no doubt for the sorts of reasons previously discussed here.

The East-West Link is planned to run from the end of the eastern freeway at Clifton Hill through to the Western Ring Road. However stage one, estimated to cost $6-$8 billion to construct, will only connect the eastern end to the CityLink and Tullamarine freeways at Flemington.

The road was suggested in a 2008 study by Sir Rod Eddington. That work implied the benefit-cost ratio for the complete route would be negative, possibly as low as 0.5.

Premier Denis Napthine insists the business case for stage one is positive and he says it’ll be given to Infrastructure Australia. It hasn’t been released publicly though and it doesn’t look like it ever will be. (fn 1)

Despite the enthusiasm of Dr Napthine and Mr Abbott, it’s hard to see how a compelling case can be made for building the eastern section first when most of the issues the East-West Link was intended to address are in the west.

Stage one won’t do anything to address the fact that the West Gate Bridge is at capacity. It won’t improve the access of trucks to the Port of Melbourne or help residents afflicted by severe impacts from road freight.

It won’t give residents of the west – where much of the future long-term growth of the metropolitan area is expected – significantly better access to jobs and facilities in the centre of the metropolitan area.

The western end of the East-West Link would seem to offer substantially greater economic benefits than the eastern end. On the face of it, it should be done first.

There are other road projects too that might possibly offer greater benefits than stage one.

The $6-8 billion might be better spent on projects that also improve access to Melbourne’s next port at Hastings (or the alternative favoured by industry at Bay West in Werribee).

Other possibilities include improving north-south movement along the Hoddle St/Punt Rd corridor or construction of the North-West Link between the eastern and western ends of the metropolitan ring road.

Or the non-private component of the envisaged funding could be applied to grade-separating a substantial number of Melbourne’s 170 level crossings. That would benefit rail too because overloaded level crossings limit the frequency and hence capacity of rail services.

Neither Dr Napthine nor Mr Abbott has made the case that the eastern end of the East-West Link will provide the greatest economic benefits for Melbourne relative to other potential road projects (let alone Melbourne Metro). It’s not even clear that the benefits of stage one exceed the costs.

They should show why stage one is preferred over other options, both road and rail. In the absence of that sort of information, it’s easy to conclude that prioritising stage one of the East-West Link is more about shoring up electoral advantage in the eastern suburbs than maximising the well-being of all Melburnians.

Dr Napthine and Mr Abbott might also care to take a look at the report the Property Council of Victoria is releasing this afternoon, Supercharging the Victorian Economy. It claims to present “a bold new reform agenda the Victorian and Federal Government’s can adopt to get our state moving again”.

One of the key proposals advocated in the report is introduction of congestion charging on Melbourne’s roads:

The ideal place to apply such a system would be the recently announced East-West Link. Tolls could also be applied in congested periods to motorways that are currently free.

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(fn 1) I assume Dr Napthine is referring to stage one and not the full road when he says the BCR is positive. Certainly he’s made that claim in discussions that were explicitly about stage one.