Airport rail terminal, Brisbane

There’s a standard argument that the 2014 Victorian election was a referendum on the proposed East West Link and in some quarters even on urban motorways more generally.

However if that’s true then it could mean the electorate also rejected the idea of building a rail line to Melbourne Airport and, perhaps, even new rail lines to Doncaster and Rowville.

That’s because the former Napthine Government not only went to the 2014 election with a commitment to build the East West Link, it also made a clear and firm promise to start building a rail line to the airport in the coming term as part of its high profile Melbourne Rail Link project.

It also distinguished its public transport offering from that offered by the Opposition by promising to build rail lines to Doncaster and Rowville (although it was vague on the timing).

As things turned out, the Napthine Government lost office and with it went the commitment to build any of these rail lines. The new Andrews Government only promised to start building Melbourne Metro, the Mernda rail extension, and a number of upgrade projects e.g. removal of level crossings.

However I don’t think advocates of airport rail should be unduly worried by any of this because, as I explained soon after the election, the referendum argument is nonsense (see Three misconceptions about the East West Link).

That’s a pity in a way because both the East West Link and the Melbourne Airport rail line are dubious projects.

I bring up the latter because the Opposition Leader, Matthew Guy, revived the idea of building it on the weekend. He evidently doesn’t think the electorate rejected the idea when they kicked his Government out last November.

According to this report in the Herald-Sun on the weekend (Opposition Leader Matthew Guy backs Melbourne Airport rail link), Mr Guy reckons a rail line is the biggest infrastructure issue for the airport. He said:

It’s a no-brainer that Melbourne Airport needs a railway. It is in my view one of the major pressing transport problems for our city.

That’s a pretty clear signal the Opposition Leader intends to take the idea to the next election.

Public enthusiasm for an airport rail line is strong so I suspect Mr Guy’s on a political winner here, though by itself it’s not likely to win (or lose) government. It’ll probably be one of a suite of initiatives he promises.

I’ve pointed out many times before that this would not be a good project; at least not for some decades yet. There are much higher priorities at this time – with a greater social and economic pay-off for the scarce public transport dollar – than spending $2-$3 billion on replacing one form of public transport (SkyBus) with another (train).

Mr Guy’s enthusiasm highlights how politicians of all stripes can’t resist the temptation to make promises without evaluating the benefits and costs. Even more importantly, they don’t compare politically exciting projects with other possible ways that the money could be spent.

They’re not alone in this because the political culture around infrastructure encourages glamour over outcomes. Advocacy groups are just as prone to attaching themselves to dazzling projects that appeal to the lizard part of the brain (“press the right button”) of their supporters but don’t stack up under close and even handed scrutiny.

That’s why we badly need a credible, independent body to get in early and evaluate major projects in detail before they become the playthings of politicians and lobby groups.

Airport rail has been under active consideration for 15 years; potential routes have been studied exhaustively and an alignment reserved. Yet disappointingly – in fact shockingly – no government has ever provided the public with a thorough and credible evaluation of whether or not it’s a good idea.

That’s not unusual. The Andrews Government’s program to remove 50 level crossings at a cost of $5-$6 billion over eight years and build the 9 km Melbourne Metro tunnel at a cost of $9-$11 billion might well be good projects but we can’t know that for sure. We’ve never seen the sort of independent evaluation that expenditure on this scale surely warrants.

Even when a government provides the public with good information on a project, it’s usually to advance its agenda; the decision has already been made. In such cases the even handedness of the evaluation is questionable.

This makes the setting up of Infrastructure Victoria a key opportunity to do things better. The Government says it will “take short term politics out of infrastructure planning”. It will be “independent” and will be:

Tasked with ensuring Victoria’s immediate and long-term infrastructure needs are identified and prioritised based on objective, transparent analysis and evidence. Once established, Infrastructure Victoria will be required to publicly release a 30-year Infrastructure Strategy detailing short, medium and long-term infrastructure needs and priorities.

The new body should be able to evaluate projects like airport rail and provide information that guides and sets limits on public debate.

It’s a positive step but it’s a long way from the rhetoric to the reality; the experience with both Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure NSW shows it’s very hard to keep the politics out of infrastructure planning.

The role Infrastructure Victoria plays will depend mostly on the character of the responsible Minister of the day and on the independence of those appointed to oversee and manage the new body. None of that can be assumed; ultimately the best defence of the public interest is transparency and an active constituency.