New and upgraded transport links recommended by Infrastructure Victoria, including a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport (source: Infrastructure Victoria)

The Herald-Sun reported on Friday that next month’s Federal budget is expected to provide some funding for a rail line to Melbourne Airport (Melbourne airport rail link boost: Turnbull Government to pour cash into long-awaited project):

The (Turnbull) government is understood to be willing to make a multi-year commitment to kickstart it. The funding would be part of a Victorian infrastructure package worth more than $1 billion, which would also finance upgrades to the Bairnsdale, Wodonga and Warrnambool railway lines. The money is expected to flow from a federal-state agreement to pay Victoria more than $1 billion it is owed from the asset recycling fund for the sale of the Port of Melbourne.

The Prime Minister’s motivation has nothing to do with good policy. The intent is to help State Opposition Leader Matthew Guy scratch the gloss on the suite of transport infrastructure projects Victoria’s Andrews Government is implementing in Victoria. These include Melbourne Metro, level crossing removals, Mernda rail extension, signalling upgrades and additional rolling stock.

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Airport rail is an ideal political issue for the State Opposition for at least three reasons.

One, it’s a very popular idea. Although the airport has good public transport (SkyBus), it seems Melburnians are embarrassed by being among the handful of large world cities without a rail line to the airport. The Opposition recognised this long ago; it went to the 2014 election promising to build airport rail as part of its version of Melbourne Metro.

Two, it’s a point of difference with the Andrews Government, which relies on the advice of arms-length adviser, Infrastructure Victoria, that airport rail won’t be necessary until around 2030 at the earliest. The Government also contends that since the airport line is planned to join up with Melbourne Metro, it couldn’t in any case start operation until the latter is completed, expected to be in 2026. Premier Daniel Andrews supports the idea of airport rail but says the other projects his Government is pursuing are higher priorities (see Andrews government talks down Melbourne Airport rail as PM pledges cash).

Three, the “cost” to the Commonwealth for this exercise will be tiny in the context of the budget; probably less than a $100 million out of the 2017-18 budget. But it’s more than enough to put political pressure on Daniel Andrews. In any event, it’ll come from the $1.45 Billion “owed” to Victoria under the Asset Recycling Scheme as a reward for selling the Port of Melbourne.

It would be a bonus for Mr Turnbull and Mr Guy if the manoeuvre also leads to conflict between Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The Herald Sun reckons there might already be trouble (Opposition leader Bill Shorten says Melbourne Airport rail link is a ‘no brainer’):

The Labor leader has offered to work with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on developing a preferred route for the train to Tullamarine after the Herald Sun revealed funding for the project would be included in the upcoming federal Budget.

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There’s little opposition in Victoria to the idea of building a circa $3 – $5 Billion rail line from the CBD to the airport. Most everyone agrees it’s a good thing. The more ardent advocates make exaggerated claims about the costs and benefits, but the key difference is about timing. The Prime Minister’s contrived scheme doesn’t advance serious consideration of this issue, either way; his motivation is to win political advantage.

Timing – whether too early or too late – isn’t the only risk. Another possibility is that the status of Infrastructure Victoria as a source of independent evaluation of proposals could be severely weakened by Mr Turnbull’s political adventure. He’s already shown here he’s prepared to ignore its recommendations when it’s politically useful. Its standing could be weakened further if the Victorian Government caves-in to the political pressure triggered by his intriguing and ends up ignoring the “umpire’s” advice.

I’ve explained before that while it would certainly be a “nice to have”, the case for building airport rail right now isn’t compelling. There are other projects that should have a higher priority in the immediate future. In my view, Infrastructure Victoria has made the right call and the Government should continue to heed its advice (Is it high time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport?).

Nevertheless, it could help to defuse the political dangers if Infrastructure Victoria were to show more clearly how it arrived at its view on airport rail. It’s approach to date had necessarily been “broad brush”, but given the ongoing political machinations it should undertake a more detailed evaluation.

For its part, the Victorian Government needs to be less sanguine. It should show it’s actively investigating and planning for an airport rail line, as I’ve suggested before, so that it’s prepared to move earlier if circumstances change (e.g. see Government warned Melbourne Metro won’t support future airport rail link). It should also show it’s moving quickly to implement the recommendation made by Infrastructure Victoria to improve the existing bus service as an interim measure.

Deliver a high level of onroad priority to bus services linking Melbourne Airport to central Melbourne, including better signalling and managed motorway improvements, over 0-10 years. This will maximise the capacity, efficiency and reliability of these services and defer the need for a more costly investment in a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport to the 15-30 year period.

It’s important though that further investigations are part of a comprehensive plan to improve access to the airport from all parts of Melbourne and Victoria, not just via the CBD. It should examine all modes, as well as options for reforming airport parking and road-pricing on key access routes (see Should Melbourne Airport rail be put on the front-burner?).