Original proposal for West Gate Distributor promised by Labor from Opposition at 2014 Victorian Election (source: VTAG)
Current proposal for a Western Distributor from Transurban subsumes the government’s original proposal for the West Gate Distributor (source: VTAG)

Guest writer Russell A Smith is a strategic planner with Saturn Corporate Resources P/L:

As Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews went to the 2014 Victorian election proposing to build the West Gate Distributor to address longstanding freight issues, including taking 5,000 trucks per day off the West Gate Bridge. For $0.5 billion, the West Gate Distributor aimed to widen the Footscray Road (Shepherd) Bridge over the Maribyrnong River, improve Whitehall Street, and build ramps between Hyde Street and West Gate Freeway.

But having won the election, Mr Andrews expanded his focus to Transurban’s unsolicited bid, a much larger project, titled the Western Distributor. The Transurban proposal incorporates a version of the original scheme’s ramps onto the West Gate (southern section) but does not deliver it until between 2018 and 2022 with the rest of the Transurban proposal (the original project is still needed for hazardous placarded trucks that are prohibited from using Transurban’s tunnel).

Transurban wants to build a mega project linking several freeways and arterials ; it is eleven times larger than the original West Gate Distributor.  It can be strongly argued that Transurban’s Western Distributor does not deliver the optimal outcome for the majority of Victorians for the following reasons: 

1 – The Government’s electoral mandate was for a smaller road solution

This is not being delivered as promised. Only the first northern part of the original West Gate Distributor from the port to Footscray is under construction by VicRoads, with no further funding set aside for the southern section past Yarraville to and from the West Gate Freeway.

2 – It achieves wrong objectives

Transurban’s proposal does not reduce port and West Gate truck traffic in an economical, socially-acceptable, and environmentally responsible manner and does not provide a second Yarra River crossing. It only crosses the Maribyrnong River.

3 – Deliberate over design to maximise toll revenue

Transurban’s design creates a mega-road cluster linking other major arterials extending out to the M80 Western Ring Road, with the West Gate Freeway widened to 12 lanes to accommodate the additional traffic that will be induced. The proposed size of the West Gate Freeway, tunnel laneways and on-off ramps are all excessive and will attract unwanted additional road traffic to Melbourne CBD and the Western suburbs.

4 – Denies western suburbs residents proper public transport services

Transurban’s project will divert the capital needed for proper development of train, tram and bus services for the western suburbs for several decades, locking in car- dependent futures for people in one of Melbourne’s fastest growing regions. Extensions of Melbourne’s rail or light rail and Smart Bus services in the west should all feed into a high capacity passenger rail system as part of the solution rather than entrenching car dependency and forcing people and businesses to pay road tolls.

5 – Truck problems in the western and inner suburbs will be exacerbated

Transurban’s proposal risks attracting more (port) road cartage contractors into the western suburbs from the north, east and south thereby increasing truck traffic congestion, road trauma, and community health problems particularly due to truck noise and diesel emissions. Additional secondary truck trips will then be needed to double-handle containers from the western suburbs container yards to end users in the north, east and south.

As Transurban’s tunnel will prohibit oversize trucks and tankers carrying hazardous chemicals and fuels, these will continue to use public roads close to schools, residences and public places unless existing or new truck curfews are enforced. Passenger delays on trams and buses will increase on these and related routes due to additional traffic congestion. Residents in Melbourne’s west will find themselves commuting on a more congested West Gate Freeway linked to other tollways and freeways, all carrying bigger trucks and loads.

6 – Shifts freight from rail to road

Transurban has over-engineered the road to ISO1600 Standard to carry monster trucks up to 160 tonnes that are currently illegal in Australian cities. This is to facilitate such trucks rather than trains to shuttle to and from container depots in Altona and Brooklyn.

The Federal and State Governments have failed to provide Webb Dock with its own Container Examination Facility (CEF) which will mean that all containers subjected to anti-terrorist, anti-contraband X-ray scanning will have to be trucked from Webb Dock to the Appleton Dock CEF and back (i.e. some 800 containers a day either over West Gate Bridge or along Wurundjeri Way). 

7 – Blights land, parkland, pedestrian-bicycle trails and waterways

The Footscray Road boulevard gateway to the western suburbs will be roofed and destroyed by the elevated tollway Transurban proposes to build above it. Valuable land like the former wholesale fruit and vegetable market site and E-Gate site will be blighted, as will many properties near noisy ramps (including Scienceworks) unless international standards for night-time and daytime truck noise (especially near ramps and gradients) are stringently applied.

8 – Funding is inequitable

Transurban will be the main beneficiary of the project, not Victorians. Toll roads are immensely profitable in Melbourne. Toll revenue generated from the project is predicted to be well in excess of the cost of the building it. Therefore, why shouldn’t the State Government fund the whole project through borrowing from the public (e.g. public infrastructure bonds) and retain the toll revenue after paying out such loans? The Government could leverage its strong balance sheet and take advantage of low interest rates to invest in economic infrastructure projects without risking Victoria’s AAA credit rating.

9 – Flawed consultation, planning and appraisal processes

Transurban has failed to feed back to affected communities its understanding of community concerns and needs. Many issues and design alternatives repeatedly raised by citizens have been dismissed and neglected including significant problems like night time noise and carcinogenic ultrafine diesel articulates. Only selected local micro issues are described on Transurban’s website after being dumbed down.

The promised EES process needs to be rigorous and comprehensive to enable widespread public input and a full investigation of what additional infrastructure will add value for money and public benefit in the inner West.

10 – Lack of governance and objectivity

The ‘business case’ was redacted by the State before its release so there are major doubts over its assumptions and claimed community and industry benefits. The economic evaluation of the proposal was excluded from the role of Infrastructure Victoria that advises the Government on the merits of all other infrastructure options. The Government’s terms and conditions of this EES are diminished and allow fast-tracking rather than comprehensive studies e.g. no epidemiological study component.

Transurban’s proposal will be city-shaping for the worse by creating many problems and negative community impacts unless proper governance and objective appraisal processes are adopted to balance the conflicts between public and private interests. Before spending $5.5billion on a new mega road network, it is critical that the Andrews Government stops and clarifies its priorities. For example it should answer the question of whether this spend would be better used as a down payment on Melbourne Metro 2 to follow on immediately from Melbourne Metro 1.