Victorian Transport Budget - Teaser

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Public transport announcements may be less than they seem...

With public transport being the #1 election item for Victoria in 2014, the Napthine government is promising billions here and billions there.

What do the Napthine's 'promises' mean?

Here is the PART 1 of our pre-budget analysis from Andrew Herington.

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By Andrew Herington

On Tuesday 6th May, the Victorian Treasurer Michael O’Brien will bring down his pre-election budget. Unlike the horror federal budget to be brought down the following week by Joe Hockey, the Victorian Budget is meant to be full of pleasant vote-catching surprises.

Judging by the carefully timed pre-announcements, the focus is very much on public transport with all manner of new investments being promised. The lack of detail released so far and the evasiveness on timing leaves a great deal of uncertainty about the substance of these promises. The State Budget papers are meant to reveal all, but on recent performance they may leave as many questions as they answer.

The Government is playing a game of “look over here” to distract public attention from the increasingly problematic East-West toll road funding issue. Sadly, each of its recent announcements has a pea and thimble element to them. 

Fare changes

The biggest immediate hit on the budget will come from introducing a common charge for Zone 2 travel into Zone 1 and the introduction of free trams in the CBD. This was announced as costing $100 million a year with no details how this was calculated.

This is not the same as abolishing Zone 2 – and the government has tripped itself up in its own advertising which suggests people within Zone 2 will actually have a fare increase. The position will probably remain unclear until the actual fares to apply after 1 January are released – which funnily enough is normally done just before Christmas which of course is after the election.

It is also unclear how the cost will show up in the budget as payments to the private transport franchise operators are far from transparent and the total fare box is not broken down in any detail. However there will be a short and long term budget impact.

Dandenong line

The biggest new investment is an “unsolicited proposal to spend $2-2.5 billion” on selected upgrades to the Dandenong line and purchase 25 new generation trains. The basis for this bid and its costing remains very murky. It apparently comes from Metro Trains, UGL Rail Services and John Holland Construction but how it will turn into reality is a well kept secret.

It is unclear what, if any, of these funds will be committed or disclosed in the budget and on past record the proposed timing of the spending will not appear in the budget papers.

The only way to find out more is to go to the Dandenong Transformation Consortium website - https://www.tenderlink.com/dtp/. Sadly, this is password protected and the public can’t find out about the deals being done behind closed doors.

Melbourne Metro

Despite previous commitments to the Melbourne Metro project, progress has been slow and $40 million from past state allocations for planning and design remain unspent and technically there may be no need for any new money in this budget. Infrastructure Australia estimates the Melbourne Metro project will now cost $11 billion to fully implement.

The Abbott government will be cutting the $75 million the Gillard government had allocated for pre-construction works. The previous federal government funded 65% of the Regional Rail Link project, but the Abbott government says rail projects are not its responsibility.

In contrast, Daniel Andrews has committed Labor to $300 million to advancing the project to construction stage within the next term. He assumes the Commonwealth, the state and the private sector would each commit to fund a third of the project.

The project has become confused by three proposed revisions to the original scheme. Firstly, the redirecting the tunnel to South Yarra is hard to reconcile with the government’s plan to prioritise a new standard gauge line through central Melbourne to serve a new port at Hastings. There is no room for additional surface tracks from South Yarra to Caulfield.

Secondly, the detailed design has apparently ruled out a Swanston St alignment with Russell St now preferred – at the expense of an easy interchange to other lines. The third, almost inexplicable design change is that the Metro tunnel would go through Southern Cross and Fisherman’s Bend which is incompatible with it connecting to the Dandenong line.

These announced variations are supposed to be confirmed in the Budget but they are mutually inconsistent and seem to indicate that the original concept has been binned.

Melbourne Airport Link

Premier Napthine’s announcement at a Liberal Party Conference that the government would fund an Airport Link in the budget has been widely criticised for lack of detail and no timetable for construction. There is also confusion about exactly what service will be provided and how it will integrate with the Sunbury line services.

We will have to wait for the Budget to see how much has been allocated – but according to the Linking Melbourne Authority, it is a $3 billion project. This is surprisingly high given the announced plan is to just electrify the Jacana line and build new tracks on the airport land reserved after the last Airport Rail study in 2003 and confirmed in 2008.

Ideally, the new station should be built in the basement of the new Terminal 4 due to be built by 2018. This would give direct access and the shortest walk to Terminals 1 to 3. The Premier’s announcement talks about an “elevated station” without being clear where this is located – it could be as far away as the long term carpark. Brisbane Airport station has been something of a disappointment because it is hard to access from the terminals.

The Premier says there will be six trains an hour in the peak with 25 minutes travel time to Southern Cross. Critics say a lot can be done in the short term to improve the existing SkyBus which runs every ten minutes around the clock and takes 20 minutes to the airport, providing and up to 40 minutes in peak hour because of the lack of enforcement of the bus lane on Citylink.

Other SmartBus routes could also be linked to the airport to service the northern and western suburbs which won’t benefit from the Airport rail.

How the Airport link will be provided for in the budget is unclear. The government may be looking for a private operator to build the project with only a modest state funding commitment. This year it may only allocate, say $10 million for planning and design work with no actual commitment to construction.

Tony Abbott has ruled out funding rail to Badgerys Creek and presumably will do the same for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link. His argument is that by funding 80% of "major roads" it will free up state money for rail projects.

Southland Station

The announced commitment of $21 million to Southland Station was actually included in the 2013 Budget but the amount was not disclosed. This was to avoid criticism that it was a 50% blowout on the election promise of $13 million.

Yet the station is a barebones stop without any of the promised facilities or a direct link to the adjacent Southland shopping centre. The project has been in the design stage for four years and no firm commencement date has been given for construction – although a highly optimistic date of 2016 has been nominated for opening.

Labor promised the “full deal” station at a cost of $45 million – a position justified by recent patronage modelling that found the station would become the fourth busiest on the Frankston line. Voters in the four marginal seats that fell to the Coalition in 2010 may well feel badly short-changed by this outcome. 

 

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