Transdev proposes building dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the expansive central median of the Eastern Freeway originally designed to take rail lines

The Age reported last week that global transport giant Transdev has pitched to the Andrews government a proposal to build and operate a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system connecting the Doncaster region in Melbourne’s east with the CBD.

The company submitted its proposal under the Victorian Government’s guidelines for market-led proposals; it wants to build and operate the BRT system for 30 years in return for outlaying $500 million on infrastructure. The Age tells us:

Modelling by engineering consultancy AECOM found the bus rapid transit system would provide a reliable 30-minute journey between Doncaster and Southern Cross station. Currently that journey takes 47 minutes or more in the peak due to inner-city traffic jams. 

The proposed Doncaster BRT system would effectively replace the existing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) service currently managed by Transdev. DART lacks much of the dedicated infrastructure that defines true BRT.

We don’t know the detail of Transdev’s proposal, but if the claims its making stand up to closer scrutiny it looks like an attractive idea. The Age’s leader writer certainly thinks it’s pretty good (see Eastern Freeway transport plan is a bus route to a better future for Melbourne). I even floated the idea in passing myself back in 2010 – see here (in Comments).

A cost of $0.5 Billion is a lot better than the proposed $4 – $6 Billion required to build a rail line from Doncaster Hill to Victoria Park station, not to mention the additional cost of expanding rail capacity to the CBD (see Are all new urban rail lines wise investments?). We don’t know the benefit-cost ratio for Transdev’s proposal, but it’s bound to be a lot better than the figure for rail; Infrastructure Victoria estimated the BCA for Doncaster rail is “very low, at 0.1 – 0.2 with WEBs included”.

BRT would improve the welfare of eastern suburbs residents by providing increased peak capacity for CBD trips (3,000 passengers per hour at three minute frequencies). Dedicated lanes mean it would greatly improve reliability and journey predictability, as well as significantly reduce existing average journey times. If and when a train were warranted, the freeway bus lanes could be repurposed for rail lines.

It wouldn’t be quite as good as a train on most metrics, but then it wouldn’t cost anywhere near as much either or have as appalling a ratio of benefits to costs. Because buses can start from a range of different origins within the region, BRT would also have the advantage of giving residents a single seat journey to the city centre rather than having to change from feeder buses to a train.

It’s hard to justify the expense of a train in a low density area where residents are hostile to more intensive development. As I noted here, this is not a region whose residents welcome development.

The City of Manningham’s population grew by a mere 0.3% per annum over 2006-11. In comparison, the inner municipalities of Yarra and Port Phillip grew 1.4% p.a. and 1.5% p.a. respectively over the same period; Melton and Wyndham grew by 8% p.a. and 9% p.a. respectively.

Manningham’s projected to grow by just 0.85% per annum over the period 2011 – 2031. That compares with projected growth for Greater Melbourne of 2.1% p.a. over the same period; the cities of Melbourne, Wyndham and Melton are projected to grow by over 4% p.a.

They get caught in traffic, but buses are already an important mode of transport in Australia’s major cities. In Sydney, they carry more residents than trains. In Melbourne, they account for more journeys by residents that trams. The future though is BRT; Transdev operates BRT systems in Bogotá in Columbia, and the French cities of Rouen and Nantes. Brisbane has one of the world’s notable BRT systems.

A potential issue with Transdev’s proposal is how the dedicated BRT lanes in the inner city would be provided. This is a relatively dense and transit-rich part of Melbourne; dedicated lanes can be and should be at the expense of cars, not trees. The new “continuous flow” intersection treatments in Hoddle St the Government promised at the last election might also be affected by provision of dedicated BRT lanes.

The touted cost should be treated with caution. Early estimates are almost always too optimistic. Constructing lanes and ramps in existing carriageways is difficult. I doubt it would approach the cost of light rail though, which would likely be in the order of $1.5 – $2 Billion to construct. Light rail has advantages relative to BRT but they’re routinely exaggerated (see Should light rail to Doncaster be a key priority for Melbourne?).

The key question, though, is how Transdev would make money from the proposal. Public transport isn’t profitable; so ultimately the Government will have to pay the company for building and operating the infrastructure. But as the history of infrastructure privatisations in Australia shows, governments are notoriously weak at negotiating with the private sector.

Some think there’s scope to sell development air rights at stops on the Eastern Freeway but that’s highly unlikely; other than in a handful of cases, suburban property values simply aren’t high enough to justify the substantial extra cost of building over operating roads and railways. Anyway, it’s not clear the likely patronage for BRT platforms isolated in the middle of the freeway (e.g. see herehere and here) would justify the cost of provision.

If it proceeds, Transdev’s proposal won’t come free; taxpayers will ultimately pay for it. So, one issue is whether or not it could be done as well, or better, by the Government directly.

Another important issue is whether, even if Doncaster BRT has a favourable benefit-cost ratio, there are nevertheless better projects the Government should do ahead of it; for example, improving public transport in established suburbs with greater redevelopment potential, or in fringe suburbs with limited local job opportunities. Indeed, it’s reasonable to ask why the Government wouldn’t simply improve the existing DART service by providing  more dedicated roadspace, especially in the inner city, and more frequent services.

If the stated claims stack up, Transdev’s proposal should improve the wellbeing of Doncaster area residents. But until we have better information, we should treat the company’s assertions with caution. Most of all though, we need to be especially wary of the idea that the Doncaster area is somehow “owed” priority over the rest of Melbourne because it didn’t inherit a rail line. DART isn’t perfect but that doesn’t mean Doncaster is the most pressing public transport priority for scarce dollars in Melbourne.