If it wins this year's election, Labor in Victoria is promising to eliminate 50 level crossings in Melbourne at an est cost of $5 - $6 billion

Fairfax senior columnist Kenneth Davidson condemned both the Victorian Government and the state Opposition on Monday for their refusal to walk away from the proposed East West Link motorway (Labor’s east west link ‘policy’ is pathetic).

He says the case for the motorway follows “the dodgy precedent” set by the evaluation of the Wonthaggi desalination plan; in particular, there’s “no public business case (and) no cost/benefit analysis”.

Mr Davidson is of course right to question the wisdom of the East West Link; as I’ve pointed out a number of times before, there’re plenty of reasons to think it’s a dubious project (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

But there’s a bigger issue here. His complaint about the lack of a public business case applies to most of the transport projects being touted in the build up to the Victorian State election on November 29.

For example, the Government hasn’t released the business plan for the $8.5 – $11 billion Melbourne Rail Link tunnel it’s promised to build instead of Melbourne Metro. Given the hasty change in direction, it’s doubtful anything worthy of the term even existed at the time it was announced.

We know a business plan’s been prepared for Melbourne Metro and that Labor says it will proceed with the project if it wins the November election; but like the one for the East West Link, it’s also not public.

None of the 50 level crossings Labor promises to eliminate in its Project 10,000 policy statement is supported by a public business plan either, even though the estimated aggregate cost is $5 – $6 billion.

Mr Davidson tells us the Greens is “the only party going into this election with a coherent public transport policy”; yet it doesn’t have a public business case for any of the 17 tram extensions its promised to build (see Can the Greens’ tram plan be taken seriously?).

Indeed, the level of information provided to the public by both Labor and the Greens to support their respective level crossing and tram promises amounts to little more than a glossy media package. If they’re supported by in-depth, data driven analysis, it’s not being shared with the public.

Neither Labor nor the Greens make their promises conditional on a detailed assessment of costs and benefits.

While the East West Link attracts a lot of interest, other proposals seem to float by with minimal critical scrutiny. The media panders to its readers prejudices, focussing on what they want to hear and avoiding unseemly criticism of sacred cows.

Unfortunately, bad projects aren’t confined to roads; when infrastructure commitments are made in an analytical and data vacuum, bad projects can come in any mode and from any party.

As the Productivity Commission observes in the recent report of its Inquiry into Public Infrastructure, “selecting the right projects is the most important aspect of achieving good outcomes” from investment in infrastructure.

There are many examples in Australia of poor project selection leading to highly inefficient outcomes. In such cases, investment in public infrastructure is a drain on the economy and tends to lower productivity and crowd out more efficient projects.

The media has a key role in protecting the public interest. It shouldn’t be partisan by omission; it should question all major infrastructure promises from all parties.