Forecast levels of overcrowding in the peak hour on Melbourne trains under three scenarios. The green line includes possible works improvements, including Melbourne Metro (Source: PTV - Network Development Plan)

Legend has it there was once a time when politicians running for election pretty much limited their promises to what they could deliver, if elected, during their expected term of office.

That magical era must’ve been before 1999, because that’s when Victorian Labor promised from opposition to extend Melbourne’s Epping rail line 3.5 km to outer suburban South Morang by 2003. Labor subsequently won the election and was in office until 2010 having won two further elections; however the extension wasn’t opened until 2012 (by then, under a Coalition government).

The issue in that case was delay; there was no doubt about the terms of the promise. An arguably more insidious practice is when politicians imply they’ll do something when, in reality, they’ve covered their arses with a “get out” clause in the fine print.

In the 2010 Victorian election campaign, then opposition leader Ted Baillieu gave a convincing impression of leading a party committed to expanding the rail system with new lines to Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport. But all he actually committed to was the preparation of feasibility studies (which were all duly done for around $5 million a pop).

Another technique is to promise big but avoid committing on crucial details like timing and funding. The current Victorian election campaign provides a prime example of putting infrastructure “on lay-by”.

Both the government and the opposition are promising to build their own versions of a new rail tunnel under Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a vital investment to increase the capacity and improve the reliability of the entire metropolitan rail system. (1)

Each party’s version sounds visionary and exciting and conveys the impression that if you vote for them you’ll get rewarded with a brand spanking new rail line sooner rather than later. But when the political hype is cleared away it’s evident that no matter who wins the election, neither version of the new line will materialise any time soon.

The government says it will start construction of its $8.5-$11 Billion Melbourne Rail Link in the coming term if it’s re-elected on 29 November.

However it won’t be fully operational until 2026; that’s three terms away. Moreover, the governments only budgeted $830 million over four years for the project and most of that won’t be spent until 2017. That’s less than 10% of the total cost; the rest of the money is unbudgeted in future years.

The government doesn’t appear to have a strategy for finding the money for the project either. The Commonwealth government is the usual source of big splashes of cash for major projects, but it says it won’t fund urban public transport.

And the private sector won’t invest in public transport because it doesn’t cover any of its capital costs and only around a third of its operating costs. Firms will be very happy to build and/or manage it in return for a handsome fee of course, but the government still has to find the funds to make the periodic “availability” payments.

If it’s re-elected, the government would have to make politically difficult decisions about reallocating spending or increasing revenue from taxes. Trouble is, it isn’t saying what those hard choices would be. (2)

Last weekend the Premier also blithely promised to buy 75 new trains as part of a $3.9 Billion rolling stock package, but they come into service between 2019 and 2026 i.e. not this coming term but over the two following terms. Again, how it’ll be funded isn’t explained. (3)

Labor’s version of the tunnel – Melbourne Metro – is arguably even more uncertain. If elected on 29 November, Labor says in its transport election manifesto, Project 10,000, that “$300 million will be committed to complete the planning, design and early works” for the $9-$11 Billion project.

That’s only 3% of the total cost! Moreover the need to spend an entire four year term on further design and planning is arguable; around $50 million has already been spent by the Brumby and Baillieu governments since 2009 on bringing the Metro to shovel-readiness.

There’s no timetable for the rail line in Project 10,000; nor is there any indication when construction would start in earnest or, most importantly, when the new line would be operational.

Labor is no firmer on funding than the government but at least it’s more upfront. It says it’ll put up one third of the cost and seek another third from the private sector. It goes on to say, without apparent irony, that the Commonwealth Government “will be lobbied aggressively” to contribute the remaining third.

The coyness and tricksyness of politicians tells us something about the nature of the problem and something about us. We want better public transport – especially new rail lines – but very few of us are prepared to pay the extra cost, whether in fares or taxes, that serious expansion requires.

Similarly we don’t want it to come at the expense of all the other things we expect government to do. Surveys show Victorian voters are more concerned about health, education and law and order than they are about public transport or roads.

And it’s surely evident, given the massive cost of retro-fitting infrastructure in urban areas, that cities like Melbourne can’t realistically build their way to a brighter future; they can’t put a lot of eggs in the shiny new rail line/motorway basket. They have to think much harder about ways of using existing infrastructure more efficiently and managing demand better.

None of that excuses the apparent deterioration (or is it the Pollyanna Principle at work?) in the standards set by politicians. In their defence though, I will concede I haven’t seen anything so far in this campaign from any party that comes close to this mind boggling example of bad behaviour from the 2010 campaign (See Why have the Greens dug a black hole? and Does the Greens public transport plan cut it?).

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  1. The two versions have the same strategic purpose but envisage different alignments; I’ve explained the differences here: Transport plans. Are we being routed?.
  2. One option would be to tax CBD businesses that benefit directly from the rail system. That’s how Melbourne’s city loop was partly funded.
  3. The package also includes 75 E-Class trams and 24 Vlocity rail cars for VLine.

 

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