Government video on North East Link
Government video on North East Link

It’s a truism that networks like to get denser; so there’ll always be pressure to fill in “black holes” in radial train networks and “missing links” in motorway networks. No surprise then that Victoria’s Andrews government yesterday promised to join up the southern and northern ends of Melbourne’s suburban metropolitan ring road. According to Roads Minister Luke Donnellan:

Joining the ring road is a no brainer to take thousands of cars and trucks off local streets and congested freeways – but governments have put it in the too-hard basket for decades.

The project is expected to take up to 10 years to build, cost up to $10 Billion, and be funded by a combination of tolls and government contributions. The government has allocated $35 million to develop the business case and select a route prior to the 2018 election.

Critics were quick to pounce. The Opposition says the announcement is light on detail; the Public Transport Users’ Association (PTUA) reckons any reduction in congestion will be short-lived and the sensible course is to build more rail; and any number of social media commenters warned of the environmental risks in Melbourne’s sensitive north-east.

The promise is indeed short on detail and in my view is premature. But the government emphasises the project is recommended by the state’s arms-length “umpire”, Infrastructure Victoria, for construction within 5-10 years. Infra Vic’s preliminary analysis puts the benefit-cost ratio at 1.4 – 2.1 (2.2 – 3.1 when wider economic benefits are included). That’s very strong; the ratio for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel is 1.2. And this project is much superior to that other “missing link”, the now abandoned East-West Link, with its sub-unity BC ratio (e.g. see What can we learn from the East-West Link debacle?).

The project illustrates the failure of politicians to embrace road pricing. If the government implemented a metropolitan-wide congestion charging regime over the next ten years to ration access to road space, the demand for the road could probably be delayed for decades. However, that’s politically unrealistic; probably the only plausible implementation over the next 10-20 years is a cordon system around the city centre like London, Singapore and Stockholm have put in place (and perhaps soon Beijing).

The PTUA is of course almost certainly right to say the new motorway will eventually become congested in peak periods. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a waste or shouldn’t be built. Absent a comprehensive pricing scheme, there are some other aspects to consider in assessing the warrant for this “missing link”:

  • It would reduce travel times significantly in non-peak periods i.e. during the day, at night, and on weekends. More trips are made off-peak than in the two peaks combined. The Eastern Freeway opened nearly 40 years ago and still provides uncongested travel in non-peak periods even after connection to Eastlink.
  • It would provide a big increase in the number of vehicles that could travel along the alignment in peak periods, albeit (eventually) at congested speeds. Expanding capacity is an important consideration given Melbourne’s population is projected to double by around 2050.
  • It will be tolled; that will moderate growth in peak period use compared to an unpriced road. Tolling is aimed at maximising revenue so it isn’t as effective at managing congestion as pricing, but the option is open to the government to design (or negotiate) a tariff that focusses on demand management.
  • Even with congestion in peak periods, it would reduce the social costs of crashes and improve the amenity of local neighbourhoods, relative to leaving cars and trucks to continue to congest local streets. It’s probable peak period trips on the new road will be faster than maintaining the status quo.

Suggesting better public transport is an alternative is a glib response; it simply isn’t a realistic option in this location. The “missing link” is in the suburbs, between Ringwood and Greensborough, where car use dominates; 74% of weekday trips in Melbourne’s middle ring suburbs and 81% in the outer suburbs are made by car. Travel is mostly from dispersed origins to dispersed destinations and accordingly favours private travel by car (and, if it were safer, by bicycle).

This isn’t the city centre where the combination of high parking costs, congestion and the legacy radial public transport system means cars aren’t competitive; out here in the ‘burbs travel by car is much, much faster and more convenient than public transport could ever hope to be. The average car trip in Melbourne’s outer suburbs takes 29 minutes; that’s much quicker than the average 48 minute public transport trip in even the relatively well-endowed inner ring suburbs (e.g. see Will simply building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

I suspect a lot of the opposition to the motorway I’m seeing reflects a knee-jerk antipathy to any road; on this view of the world there should be no new roads whatsoever. Adherents seem unaware that expenditure on public transport has increased markedly over the last two decades e.g. the Victorian government is spending $11 Billion on Melbourne Metro, $8 Billion on level crossing removals, $1.8 Billion on outer suburban public transport improvements, and billions more on upgrading tracks, signalling and rolling stock (see also Do governments spend too much on roads?).

Most tellingly, it ignores the fact most Melburnians don’t live in the inner city or even the inner suburbs; and most don’t work in the CBD where public transport is high quality and cars have limited utility. In the real world where most residents live and work in the middle and outer ring suburbs – especially a world on the verge of autonomous vehicles – it’s vital to take a more reasoned and selective view of road projects. There’s definitely a need for better public transport in the suburbs, but cars aren’t about to go away or become uncompetitive.

There are big potential environmental issues with this project as this is an environmentally valuable area, but it doesn’t follow that it must necessarily be a disaster. It’s non-negotiable that most of the route will be in tunnel so the risks can be managed. Still, this is an aspect that must be closely watched. It suggests the government’s cost estimate – and hence the BC ratio – shouldn’t be seen as hard and fast.

I think it’s too early to say definitively if the North East Link is, or isn’t, a worthwhile project because the necessary research hasn’t been done. It’s disappointing the government has unnecessarily committed the state to such a massive project off the back of what is essentially preliminary work by Infrastructure Victoria. It should’ve commissioned an in-depth evaluation and consulted with the public before making the decision; it smacks of opportunism.