Possible route options for the North East Link between Metropolitan Ring Road and Eastern Freeway/Eastlink (source: The Age)

Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, announced yesterday there’ll be $100 million in next month’s budget to start planning the promised North East Link motorway. The Premier emphasised the project will complete the “missing link” in Melbourne’s metropolitan ring road, running from Greensborough in the north-east to the Eastern Freeway/Eastlink in the south-east. It’s expected to take around ten years to complete, create more than 5,000 direct jobs, and cost up to $10 billion. It will be funded by a mixture of government contributions and tolls.

The key benefits, the Premier says, will be “more jobs, and less congestion in the north, east, and south”. Roads Minister Luke Donnellan added: “when we complete the ring road, you’ll be able to drive from Ringwood to Tullamarine without stopping at a single traffic light.” The RACV says it will improve freight movement across the metropolitan area.

Apart from the instinctive appeal of the “missing link” meme, the Government is relying heavily on the recommendation of Infrastructure Victoria, the independent “umpire” established by the Andrews Government in 2015. The organisation identified the North East Link as the next highest priority infrastructure project for Victoria. As I noted here, its preliminary analysis puts the benefit-cost ratio at 1.2 – 1.7, or 1.7 – 2.4 when Wider Economic Benefits (WEBs) are included.

Naturally there’s plenty of concern at the idea of another big motorway concurrent with the Government’s recent commitment to the West Gate Tunnel project. Memories of the East West Link debacle are still fresh too. Opponents believe the project will enable car-dependence; won’t reduce congestion; will increase emissions; will take funding away from public transport; and is bound to have a major impact on the environment. Some argue a public transport option would be a better solution for the region.

I think it’s appalling the Government has committed to a project of this scale without releasing to the public for prior debate a much more detailed analysis than Infrastructure Victoria was able to undertake within the limited timeframe it had available. This will inevitably be a case of developing a business case to support a decision already taken on limited evidence. I know that’s not unusual in our political culture and I know there’s bipartisan political support for the North East Link, but this is huge project and has the potential to be very controversial.

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Despite the Premier’s claims, the project won’t do much in the medium term to reduce peak-hour road congestion. That’s due to the well-established phenomenon of induced demand. Yet governments still want to build motorways even while they’re also, as in the case of the Andrews Government, building major rail projects. So, is there a case for the North East Link? Are all motorway projects inherently bad? I want to revisit some points I made last year, when I argued there are some other aspects to consider in assessing the warrant for the North East Link (see Is this motorway obviously a really stupid idea? and Does the impact on trains kill the case for this road?).

While it will eventually congest, the North East Link will nevertheless reduce travel times significantly in non-peak periods i.e. during the day, at night, and on weekends. That’s especially important for freight movements. 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 will also provide a big increase in the number of vehicles that could travel across the region 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.

A large proportion of the capital cost will be paid by motorists via tolls. Tolling 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.

The motorway will reduce the social costs of crashes and improve the amenity of suburbs like Rosanna that currently experience high levels of traffic and truck movements. Notwithstanding the inevitability of congestion on the new motorway, it’s likely it will offer faster peak-period trips than maintaining the status quo.

Public transport isn’t a plausible alternative to the North East Link in this location. It’s an orbital motorway and it’s 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 currently 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).

There are big environmental risks as this is a sensitive 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 many of the risks can be managed. The scale and location of interchanges is likely to be critical.

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In looking at a distinctively suburban road project like this one, it’s important to understand the great majority of Melburnians don’t live in the inner city or even the inner suburbs where road projects like the East West Link and West Gate Tunnel are proposed. And the great majority don’t work in the CBD where the standard of public transport is high and cars have limited utility.

Most Melburnians – existing and future – live and work in the low-density middle and outer ring suburbs where 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?).

So it’s vital to take a reasoned view of suburban road projects. There’s definitely a need for better public transport in the suburbs, but it won’t replace significant numbers of private vehicle trips; cars aren’t about to go away or, in the absence of comprehensive road pricing, become uncompetitive relative to other modes.

Apart from the dismaying lack of transparency and analysis, I think the biggest issue will be how the detailed design of the road evolves, particularly in response to environmental concerns. There’s potential for construction costs to increase and thereby compromise the benefit-cost ratio.