East West Link - planned interchange with CityLink

Guest writer Andrew Herington is a former adviser to Premiers Bracks and Brumby. He is taking an active part in the current Assessment Committee Hearings on the East West freeway on behalf of community groups:

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The $8 billion East West Link project is being pushed ahead by the Victorian Government in a bid to secure it before the State election at the end of the year.

However, community opposition to the project is more widespread than the Government expected. The current Assessment Committee hearings have received 1,430 objections and are being closely followed on a community blog, East West Link Blog.

Opinion polls are finding big majorities of people favouring public transport over more road spending. So the Government is repositioning with a heavy advertising campaign on public transport, and has now dropped mention of the East West Link from leaflets.

However Premier Napthine is not the only person suffering freeway election nightmares. Labor leader Daniel Andrews is caught in a difficult dilemma about what to do about the East West Link if he wins the election and contracts have already been signed.

The formal position of the Labor Party is that if they are elected they will not proceed with the proposed East West Link; but if contracts are signed they will honour them. Labor has produced a detailed transport plan called Project 10,000 which prioritises grade separations, the Melbourne Metro, selected road projects and foreshadows some line extensions.

The roads centrepiece is a widening of the Tullamarine freeway approaches to Melbourne Airport and the Westgate Distributor- an arterial link to create a new route between the Port and the western suburbs. This would bypass the Westgate bridge which is reaching capacity (despite the addition of a lane in Labor’s last term). Both are eminently economically justified projects – not focussed on commuter traffic.

This policy has partially rebutted the very active campaign being run by the Herald Sun in favour of the East West Link on the grounds that it will create construction jobs. Putting up more productive construction projects as an alternative means Labor has fended off the criticism that being pro-public transport would be bad for the economy.

This week three inner city Labor MPs and the Shadow Minister for Planning, Brian Tee, delivered strong submissions to the Assessment Committee considering the “Comprehensive Impact Statement” for the East west Link. This statement bundles together all the required approvals into a single decision within a compressed timeframe of 3 months.

Mr Tee concluded by calling on the Committee not to approve the freeway saying “In particular, there is no business case and the traffic projection data is insufficient, contradictory and in any event does not justify the financial cost or warrant the assault on Melbourne’s liveability.”

There was no doubting the depth of opposition being expressed by Labor to the freeway. Colleen Hartland from The Greens was equally strong, highlighting the importance this issue will have for inner city politics and the likelihood of civil disobedience campaigns during construction.

There is little ambiguity in the statement by the Shadow Roads Minister, Luke Donellan, an outer city MP who recently told The Age that new traffic modelling showed the government was “on a road to nowhere with the east-west tunnel”. He said $6 billion to $8 billion would be spent “and congestion will be no better at best, or worse in 12 years’ time on Alexandra Parade … Mr Napthine’s congestion busting tunnel is bust.”

Shadow Treasurer and former Roads Minister Tim Pallas also weighed in last July predicting the project could “strangle the life out of Victorian budgets for decades to come”.

Denis Napthine’s East-West Link requires Victorian families to accept financial risks of greater magnitude than any comparable road project recently constructed in Australia.

However, Labor’s contract caveat is causing considerable angst. When pressed by journalists, Labor leader, Daniel Andrews concedes that if the contract is in place and effective when there is a change of Government then it will be very difficult for it to be overturned. This is a fact of life in Westminster Governments albeit sometimes very inconvenient.

Inner urban resident groups opposing the freeway are incensed that this suggests Labor will quietly let the freeway be built. They urge Labor to pledge to “tear up the contracts” arguing that the ink will be barely dry and the normal arguments about sovereign risk and payment of damages hold little weight if the validity of the contract is questioned in advance. (1)

When in Opposition, the Coalition made much noise about tearing up contracts for myki, the Desalination plant and Regional Rail Link. The Baillieu Government held reviews into each project but decided after considerable delay and consequential cost increases, it had no option but to proceed with all three.

There is also the complicated question of what constitutes the “contract”. This is not a simple matter of a Government signing a piece of paper and be done with it.

The concession deed to construct the East West Link will be a very complex document. It will contain numerous provisions and conditions and, if the same model is followed for the Eastlink and CityLink projects, it will need to be supported by substantial legislation – in the case of EastLink Project Act over 180 pages in length.

This would confer all the necessary powers on a private authority to carry out various types of work and to formalise the financial arrangements and the obligations on Government.

Another reason why the passage of legislation before Parliament rises on 16 October is critical is the Eastern Freeways Land Act remains in force and this provides for the acquisition of land for the purpose of the freeway and the Doncaster railway in the median strip.

Passing legislation in a situation where the Government lacks a majority in the lower House means the attitude of Geoff Shaw to the freeway will also be critical. There is absolutely nothing that the freeway offers his electorate of Frankston. However should the legislation pass, the task of unpicking any deal would become all the more complicated.

There are growing signs that the Government is alarmed that it has misread the public mood by putting all its eggs in the East West Link basket. A prime argument used by opponents is that the $8 billion commitment to the freeway will sap the ability of any future Government to invest in alternative public transport projects for the next decade.

A flurry of public transport announcement have been made by Premier Napthine – lower fares for the outer suburbs, a level crossing removal project to partly match Labor and the long delayed order for new trains have amounted to a public transport blitz. This has been backed by saturation advertising about “Moving Victoria”.

The nightmare for the Napthine Government is that the East West deal becomes the centrepiece of the election which becomes a referendum between freeways and public transport – with them on the wrong side. The nightmare for Daniel Andrews is that a contract is signed and legislation passes sufficiently far in advance to lock in any future Government to the freeway option.

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  1. To explore these themes a “legal seminar” to be addressed by Dr Nick Seddon a contract law specialist from ANU, has been organised for 16 April by the campaign group Public Transport Not Traffic.