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Infrastructure

Sep 6, 2017

Should this motorway report be secret?

No, Daniel Andrews, you can't spend $1 Billion of public money to get rid of the East West Link and then be secretive about the case for the West Gate Tunnel

Average distance between people and jobs in Melbourne. Forecasts based on VIF2014 (source: Veitch Lister)

The Age reported yesterday that Victoria’s Andrews Government is refusing to release a technical report evaluating the traffic modelling forecasts done for the West Gate Tunnel (Labor uses East West Link precedent in bid to keep West Gate Tunnel report secret):

The Andrews government is trying to keep Victorians in the dark on doubts over the proposed West Gate Tunnel, relying in part on a precedent of confidentiality set by former premier Denis Napthine during his failed bid for the East West Link…

The report by New Zealand transport expert John Allard is critical of traffic modelling done by project builder Transurban and the government. That modelling helped Premier Daniel Andrews justify his support for the toll road, and to claim it would return $1.30 to the Victorian economy for every $1 spent building it.

Mr Allard and another consultant, William McDougall, were appointed by the Government as peer reviewers of the traffic modelling done for the project. Both have expressed reservations about the assumptions and methods used by Veitch Lister Consulting. The Roads Minister, Luke Donnellan, is reported as saying Mr Allard’s report can’t be released because it’s “been part of Cabinet deliberations”.

Some points to consider:

First, Mr Donellan’s Cabinet in Confidence claim is rubbish. It’s open to the Government to release whatever it wants; the fact that it might have been to Cabinet is neither here nor there. Governments routinely release documents every week that’ve been to Cabinet if they advance their standing!

Second, The Age highlights the fact that Veitch Lister also did the modelling work for the discredited East West Link but, as I pointed out last month, it can’t and shouldn’t be assumed apriori that the firm’s “wrong” and the peer reviewers are “right” (see Has the case been made for the West Gate Tunnel?):

  • The same “team” – transport consultants Veitch Lister and management consultants PWC – is also the one that estimated the benefit-cost ratio for the East West Link is a miserable 0.45. It was the Napthine Government – embarrassed by the tiny number – that obfuscated the real economic value of the project.
  • Veitch Lister has a reputation for getting more accurate traffic forecasts than others. The firm famously did independent forecasts for Brisbane’s Airport Link that showed those of the proponent were way too optimistic (see Who got the facts on traffic forecasts wrong?).

The firm has published an explanation for its modelling and stands by the method its used (see here, here and here). The public should be able to see what all parties are saying and make up its own mind.

Third, I appreciate the Government’s concerned that a negative report will be used politically by opponents of the motorway without regard for the merits of the case. It’s regrettable but that’s politics, I’m afraid. All sides do this all the time and the Government is no exception.

Fourth – and this is the key issue in my view – the incoming Andrews Government spent a massive $1 Billion of taxpayer’s money in 2015 to stop construction of the East West Link because it didn’t stack up. It released publicly the hitherto secret business plan to justify its promise, made from opposition, that it would stop the project. It beggars belief that it should now turn around and withhold information that might help the public evaluate the wisdom of constructing the West Gate Tunnel.

A difference of opinion between peer reviewers and their subject isn’t a minor or trivial matter; it’s a very important issue that demands transparency. It might turn out to be a technical storm in a tea cup, but the public needs to satisfy itself of it’s importance. Given what happened with the Napathine Government’s secretive handling of the East West Link, the public has a right to demand information.

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3 thoughts on “Should this motorway report be secret?

  1. oz4lca

    “A difference of opinion between peer reviewers and their subject isn’t a minor or trivial matter; it’s a very important issue that demands transparency.”
    Billion dollar investments risking Treasury underwriting, will never be a technical storm in a tea cup. The public needs to be satisfied that risks are minimal. Where is the voice of the RACV and other public advocacy groups on this issue of public policy?
    The public has a right to demand information.

  2. Ian Fraser

    Alan
    Agree, you are spot on. This is such a big issue, not just for this case but also in my home city of Sydney.

    The arcane science (or is it art they way it is played by vested interests) of traffic modelling is nowadays so important to the decisions that are taken by government regarding massive billions of transport expenditure that the public deserves and should demand both disclosure with transparency but also education via proper explanations.

    As a previous blog by you pointed out the differences in basic statistics between the VITM model and Veitch Lister’s own modelling is so great that any member of the public knowing about it would just wonder how can two supposedly expert pieces of work differ so greatly. Then its the possible implications of that difference that are vitally important to decisions involving Victorian taxpayers in billions of dollars of funds that may or may not be being well managed on their behalf.

    So, please keep up the good fight. Politician need to be brought to account on these things. Cabinet-in-confidence is just being used as a screen to hide something I suspect, but we’ll never know unless that veil can be lifted.

  3. Itsumishi

    No arguments here Alan. Spot on.