Improvements to transport infrastructure – committed and potential (source: Chapter 3, Plan Melbourne 2017-50)

The exhibit is from the transport chapter of Plan Melbourne 2017 – 2050, which was finally released by the Victorian government on the weekend. According to Planning Minister Richard Wynne, the new strategic planning document is a light “refresh” of the original Plan Melbourne published in May 2014 by the former Napthine government.

The exhibit purports to show “committed and potential” improvements to transport infrastructure in the metropolitan area out to 2050. It includes several “committed” Andrews’ government projects like the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, the Mernda rail extension and various motorway upgrades.

But there aren’t many “potential” projects shown on the map. In fact, the proposed outer ring road and a freight terminal are the only ones. That seems extraordinary given the time frame of Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 is 35 years; and given the expectation Melbourne’s population will grow from 4.5 million in 2015 to 7.9 million by 2051.

I’ve consistently argued that the priority should be to use existing infrastructure more efficiently before embarking on new projects, but I don’t imagine for a moment that a city could nearly double in population without having to build new infrastructure such as rail lines and motorways.

Where, for example, are the future stages of Melbourne Metro, like the proposed Clifton Hill – Newport rail line running via Fishermans Bend? Where is the North-East Link motorway the government is making positive noises about? Where is the rail line to Melbourne Airport that Infrastructure Victoria reckons will be required within 10-30 years?

It’s not just mega projects. Where’re the smaller scale possibilities, like new fast orbital public transport routes – whether BRT or rail – that will be needed well before 2050? Where’s the network of bicycle super highways? Where’s the inner-city congestion pricing cordon? Where are the extensions to the tram network? Surely by 2050 the CBD will require extensive street closures to support its role as the key production and consumption place in the state?

My point isn’t about the merits of specific projects; it’s the virtual absence of the idea of long-term projects from a document that purports to show how Melbourne is going to grow over 35 years. Looking no further than the restricted horizon of the current government’s budget outlook (i.e. committed projects) isn’t the purpose of a strategic plan; it should be looking long-term.

I’ve criticised strategic plans for being overly focussed on physical actions like land use and infrastructure to the exclusion of intangible policies like road pricing. But Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 fails on both counts. For example, notwithstanding its long timeframe, it proposes no policies to manage the way roads are priced. It also blithely acknowledges new technologies such as self-driving cars “will change the ways people live and work between now and 2050” but proposes no consequential actions.

A document like this should give us the good news and the bad new upfront. It should set out the specific adaptations – both policies and projects – that currently seem necessary to deal with the forces driving long-term change. It should have statements that go something like, “given the assumptions about change, it’s expected this rail line (or this policy) will be needed at this time and at this cost”.

I should be able to see scenarios for 2030, 2040 and 2050 showing where population might be distributed, what infrastructure might be built, and what policies might be needed, to support that scenario. I should, for example, be able to see what a fully segregated cycling network needs to look like in order for Melbourne to function effectively under various scenarios. In short, I should be able to see a long-term plan.

Of course, those adaptations must necessarily be provisional; we can’t be sure from today’s perspective whether the demographic, technological and economic changes will happen in the way we’re anticipating. We can’t know if there might be higher priorities in the future, perhaps in education or health. There’s a risk too that governments might simply draw up impossible wish-lists of projects like advocacy groups tend to do without regard to cost or who wins and who loses.

But we shouldn’t settle for virtually nothing; setting down concrete ideas would help build a long-term consensus across the political spectrum around which projects and policies will be required to support the city’s development. It would help in a practical sense too e.g. reserving land. A key reason we don’t have them, of course, is governments don’t want to buy a fight over an idea that will only happen well after they’ve lost power.

Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 has other failings I’ll discuss another time, but the biggest one is obvious: it’s not a plan! It took eons to undertake the light “refresh” of the original Napthine government document (from 2014 until 2017), but we still don’t have a real plan. It’s mostly a confection to market the Andrews government’s budget program for the remainder of its current and, it hopes, next term.

As it stands, it’s hard to see what value this vague and glossy document adds to policy-making and debate in Victoria; perhaps the Minister’s decision to keep it in “refreshing” status for 27 months of its 34 month life is the best evidence of its limited practical value. It might be time to give Infrastructure Victoria a bigger role in preparing draft plans for public consideration.