The Greens proposed extension of Tram route 3 to Chadstone Shopping Centre via Malvern Station (source: Twitter account of Greens candidate for Prahran, Sam Hibbins

It’s election year in Victoria and the major contenders are working hard to come up with proposals that have popular appeal but also seem sensible and responsible. Labor’s pitch includes removing Melbourne’s “50 worst level crossings”, while the Government’s suite of promises includes reducing fares for outer suburban public transport users.

This week the Greens promised to build 56 km of new tram lines that the party says will better connect the network to major shopping centres and rail stations (Fix missing links in tram network: Greens). In a policy released on Wednesday, Connecting Melbourne’s Trams, the party says:

For often strange historical reasons, many of Melbourne’s tram lines end short of shopping districts, train stations and other desired destinations.

At a cost of $15 million per kilometre, our plan will invest up to $840 million in 17 low-cost tram extensions that will link existing services through areas that have missed out on connected public transport.

This commitment comes on top of a promise earlier this year to buy 50 additional trams to ease existing overcrowding. That’s likely to cost at least $300 million.

The plan requires serious money but the idea that it’s correcting past mistakes and thereby improving efficiency is bound to have political appeal. So of course is extending the reach of the network to ever more suburban households.

Connecting Melbourne’s Trams lists the 17 proposed extensions but inexplicably doesn’t have a map. Extending the tram network is an old idea so you can get a sense of what the Greens have in mind from this Wiki, Proposed Melbourne tram extensions. (Update 18/7/14: The Greens candidate for Prahran, Sam Hibbins, has posted maps of 5 of the extensions on his Twitter account. Update 20/07/14: 15 of 17 maps now posted here).

Compared to $8 billion for the proposed East West Link motorway and $11 billion for the Melbourne Rail Link tunnel, getting 56 km of new tram line for a little under a billion dollars seems a bargain.

It’s appealing politically, but that’s not a relevant comparison – what matters is what benefits, broadly defined, the travelling public would get from investing this particular $0.84 billion in these 17 projects.

Melburnians should expect to know if the $15 million per km capital cost rule-of-thumb assumed by the Greens is reliable. While few would disagree that tram stops should link with stations and major trip generators, they should also know if correcting those oversights now would lead to significant and worthwhile changes in behaviour and land use.

There’s a range of pertinent questions that require answers: How would these 17 projects change patronage? What would be the impact on the operating subsidy? Are there better ways to achieve the same objective? How will the extra demands on system tram operations and support infrastructure be accommodated?

And some of the specifics need explanation. For example, is there really likely to be enough demand to warrant connecting Kew and Ivanhoe by 6 km of tram line? Would a new crossing of the river and freeway be required? If not, how would road space be shared between trams and other users?

Most importantly, it’s imperative to know if this is the best way that nearly a billion dollars could be spent to improve public transport in Melbourne. Are there are other projects, perhaps rail or bus, that might give a bigger social and economic bang for the buck e.g. in distant outer suburbs like Mernda?

These are routine questions that ought to be asked of any project before a commitment to funding is locked in politically. If the Greens’ plan makes sense it’ll come up positive. But while it looks good at first glance, there’s reason for caution.

As increasingly seems to be standard political practice these days, the party has committed to this proposal but doesn’t have a business case to support it. And nor is it making the promise contingent on a positive analysis of the costs and benefits. This is a pure political play. (1)

That’s a real worry, because the estimate of $15 million per kilometre is absurd in light of current costs. A 2.8 km tram line completed in Adelaide in 2010 cost $34 million per kilometre to build, more than double the Greens’ estimate.

And that’s highly likely to be well under today’s costs. The contract was tendered five or six years ago; infrastructure costs have risen by an order of magnitude since then. More recent projects offer a better guide to likely costs.

These are all estimates and there’s a fair likelihood they’ll go up, not down. Projects under construction offer a better guide.

The Gold Coast’s new 13 km G:link line, which commences operation this week, cost $123 million per kilometre to build.

Extrapolating from these more recent projects suggests it could cost $4.0 – $7.5 billion to build the 56 kms of new line proposed by the Greens. (2) Even if Melbourne could build new lines at half the cost the Gold Coast can, the Greens’ plan would still cost a not inconsiderable $3.4 billion.

A more realistic appreciation of the likely cost highlights the fact that the 17 projects proposed by the Greens aren’t necessarily all “no brainers”.

In my view, there are about half a dozen that detailed evaluation could possibly show would be good investments e.g. Route 1: link Park Street South Melbourne to St Kilda Rd; Route 3: extend to East Malvern station, then on to Chadstone; Route 5: extend to Darling station.

But there’s also a bunch that look decidedly marginal e.g. Route 72 north: extend to Doncaster Rd (link with tram 48) and then to Ivanhoe station; Route 75: complete Route 75 extension from Vermont South to Knox City; Route 86: extend to South Morang.

Before contemplating further outer suburban expansions (the proposed Route 75 extension crosses Eastlink!), I’d like to see attention given to the benefits of focussing investment on ways of prioritising trams over traffic on the existing network.

But most of all, I’d like to see the Greens’ tram plan made contingent on a detailed business case should the party ever be in a position to implement it. And I’d like to see an end to the denialism about the reality of infrastructure costs; the Greens should focus on ways to reduce the crazy cost of construction in Australia, not on denying reality. (5)

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  1. While Tony Abbott committed funding to road projects while in Opposition without a business case, at the 2010 election the then Victorian Opposition promised to undertake feasibility studies of the Doncaster, Rowville, Avalon and Airport rail lines.
  2. There might be added costs from loss of scale because under the Greens’ plan the 56 km of new line is made up of 17 separate projects.
  3. $15 million per km might’ve been a reasonable estimate 10 years ago when the Vermont South, Box Hill and Docklands Drive tram extensions were completed, but as everyone should know and acknowledge by now, construction costs have risen by an order of magnitude since then.
  4. The Greens seem to have a serious problem with acknowledging the real cost of building infrastructure.
  5. I also think Greens Leader Greg Barber might be over-egging the idea that the tram plan will “make for better cross-town links, not just radial trips towards the city centre”, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.