Do we need another freeway?

As part of a traffic study in 2008, Sir Rod Eddington proposed a freeway connection between the Eastern Freeway and Citilink; most of this freeway was to be in a tunnel, and cost estimates in the several billion were bandied about.

The Sunday Age revealed recently that the Bailleau government has resuscitated this road proposal with possible 'improvements', such as exit ramps to the CBD, and putting part of it above ground along Alexandra Parade in Clifton Hill to reduce the astronomic cost.

Business groups and unions have apparently been pressing the government to proceed while the Greens and Yarra Council have come out in strong opposition.  Critics have suggested that tolls might have to apply to existing roads such as the Eastern Freeway connection to Hoddle Street in order to pay for such a costly project.  And Eddington has claimed that as traffic has worsened since 2008, the freeway should proceed forthwith.

Indefatigable Julianne Bell of Protectors of Public Lands Victoria has wheeled into action and is urging everyone to register opposition on-line in the Melbourne Leader but ho-hum, in the end most people vote for parties and persons not single issues, and the pollies don't take much notice unless it's in a swinging seat.

So what are we to make of all this, and if this is a rational world, what should ideally be done to establish what are the facts that should influence public policy like this; a lot of good things could be done for that amount of money! 

But first the general background.  The great failure of post war planning in our cities has been its bias for freeways rather that railways, a warped emphasis favoured by both political parties. The pre-eminence of funding for roads is under scored in the good book by Newman and others,  'Back on Track; Rethinking transport policy in Australia and New Zealand',where they say that,

'In the five Howard-Costello budgets delivered between 1996 and 2000, and in the November 2000 roads statement, no less than $8 billion has been allocated to national, State and local roads.  This is bout 100 times the amount that has been allocated to rail works by the Howard government to date.  It is hard to see why the United States allocates nearly 20 per cent of its Federal land transport funds to rail and mass transit and Australia only allocates 1 per cent of such funds to this important area.'

They go on to partly explain why, that there are six well funded lobby groups in Canberra pressing for more Federal money for roads and dispensing considerable donations to both sides of politics, while groups representing rail and urban public transport interests are few and far between.  So it's not surprising there is such an imbalance favouring roads rather than rail.

Unfortunately this pressure for roads ignores the vital importance of rail in cities.  Cities didn't change much in size over thousands of years, their size had always been constrained by how far people could walk in half an hour, and most earlier cities didn't exceed five kilometres in diameter and had defensive walls until the motor car changed things forever. 

Cars enabled cities to expand outwards in all directions for thirty or forty kilometres, residential densities were lowered even further and employment centres could be located anywhere.  Rail corridors that could bring people twenty kilometres into the central city area in half an hour were developed.

No technology has been able to provide a better solution to the movement of people in cities than trains, and a hundred years later most cities still rely on them.  The reason is simple; one rail line can move 50,000 people an hour,
a dedicated bus lane can move up to 7,000 but at most a freeway lane can only move 2500 people per hour. Even four freeway lanes in each direction are only going to move 20% of a dual rail line!  Far from being an obsolete form of transport, rail is critical if cities are to work efficiently. 

Electrification of suburban trains started in Melbourne in 1919, and the extensive railway and tramway systems built in the early twentieth century were to shape land use and the growth of Greater Melbourne for decades afterwards.  This rail system has progressively been unable to cope as the city has grown, and postwar governments of both persuasions have overwhelmingly favored roads rather than rail.

As a result our cities have become among the highest per capita car users in the world at this time, (only US cities exceed our car use) and ever since the war governments have pandered to this powerful roads lobby by building freeways rather than new railway lines.

Continuing suburban expansion and development is still being approved without much thought to the building of the public transport infrastructure needed to sustain it, and rather than amplifying the existing railway system a large freeway network has been built in Melbourne.  In the absence of any orderly plan for the expansion of the public rail transport system, most of these freeways were added in an ad hoc way at different times to solve particular traffic (and political) problems.

 Transport economists have demonstrated conclusively that car dependent cities like Melbourne have much higher transport costs because of this bias towards roads.  This isn't just because of the direct costs of buying and running so many cars but also the high infrastructure costs of urban sprawl; sprawl which is of course, one of the chicken-and-egg reasons why cars are used so much.  There is no doubt that this extra cost will become critical as the push for sustainability becomes more pressing when climate change really takes hold and the suburbs become even more desirable places to live. 

This background helps explain what happened, but doesn't get us far in discussing what to do about this very costly underground freeway connection.  And it's a difficult issue to query.  Even if all the traffic counts were made available and you had the competence and large enough computers, you would be constantly having to make estimates at every turn, of the percentage of traffic for example, that would choose one option against another, how many people would exit at a particular place, what the growth would be, and so on; unfortunately it's not just a matter of adding up all the figures and getting an unequivocal answer.  You would have to make judgments at every turn, which would be alright except that past experiences have shown that even the experts' best guesses, sorry estimates, often get it quite wrong.  There is one road tunnel under the City of Sydney that more than ten years later has still never achieved the traffic flow (and therefore income) that was predicted for it so we are still subsidized it.

Too many of the earlier road proposals are like this one, trying to patch up a road system that isn't working well, and there is no realistic way of being confident that what is proposed would achieve the desired result or not, or for how long.

The Bailleau government is presumably being advised about the need for this freeway by one set of traffic experts, reinforced no doubt by powerful background advice that 'it would be good for business' and 'it will create jobs', both mantras familiar from the Brumby years to justify any large investment no matter how dubious.  And it will be certainly good for some business-es (and profits) and provide some jobs for a while.

An open enquiry could be held to try and adjudicate between rival experts to try and arrive at a logical conclusion, but it would still be riddled with opinions, estimates and judgments from all the different experts;
it depends who you believe!  Not a very good way to proceed in the absence of any agreed overall plan for road and rail traffic in the metropolitan area.

Lined up against the government will be the Labor opposition (who would be proposing some sort of freeway if they were in office, so their heart wont be in opposing this one unless it's in a marginal seat!) plus the local councils in the areas that will be directly affected. Then there will be a coalition of people everywhere who feel in their guts that another freeway isn't the answer, either in terms of energy use and emissions (one third of the green-house gas emissions that are heating up the planet come from cars) or in terms of moving people efficiently at least cost. And the anti-instincts of this coalition of ordinary people like you and me would no doubt be reinforced by the thought of more expensive PPP financing with traffic volumes (and profits)  'guaranteed' by the our government for the clients of those lobby groups.

It's a pretty hopeless situation and there are no easy solutions. The government will win if it decides to proceed, and our only option then is to vote them out, probably before the road is even completed, so this isn't an effective option; by then this freeway will be forgotten and in any case, the other lot are just as bad!

There is one long term solution however, that would make an enormous difference to our democracy, and not just about freeways.  What we need is the democratic and legal right to propose citizen initiated referenda. 

We need to take back government.  Why should the only things we can argue about or vote on be those initiated by governments?  Particularly if both the major parties more or less agree, as they do about roads.  Do you really think that if a referendum were held about this freeway it would it be passed? 
I doubt it, so why is the government so detemined to ignore the views of the people  And if they really think they are doing the right thing, then they shouldn't be worried about having a referendum to prove it.

Peter Holland of the unChain group has reminded me that citizen initiated referenda were seriously discussed and almost incorporated into the Australian Constitution in the 1890s.  The Australian Labor Party at that time incorporated it into its platform, and it remained there until 1963.  It's one of the main planks of the Swiss system of government, and is used in a number of places in the USA, particularly in California. 

It's therefore hardly a radical idea, and is firmly rooted in the democratic concept that a decision made by the people as a whole will be right more often than a decision made by any elite group no matter how educated and wise they are or how many experts they have advising them. The major political parties are suspicious of referenda because they don't want to relinquish any power; they have a strong elitist approach and are always sure they know what's best for us! But our democratic system needs constant improvement, and I think that a system of Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR) in Victoria would be a very good first step.

I hope this cri-de-coeur will start a serious public discussion that will bring forth the champions to pursue this cause.  There might even be some real democrats within the parliament!

I suggest that the way CIR should operate could be something like this:

•  A referendum could only be initiated if ten thousand registered voters signed a petition advocating it;  this should be sufficient to deter too frequent or too frivolous proposals. 

• When the proposers got the numbers, the referendum must take place within six calendar months.

• Voting would be compulsory.

• If more that 65% of the people vote YES, the government must put legislation to parliament within six months to implement it.   

• Referenda on taxes and money bills would not be allowed.

• A referendum would be held automatically on any government proposal to spend one hundred million dollars or more on any one thing, like big ticket defence items or this freeway! 

• Citizen Initiated Referenda should also apply to local councils as well as the State government.

Just think about it, real democracy in action.  Pie in the sky you'll probably say, the pollies would never give up their power.  First we should have a referendum about whether to try CIR?  Is it too radical?  No! Experience has shown that people are conservative and use this power in an intelligent and discriminating way.  Zurich for example, has one of the best public rail systems in the world, but it took three referenda over a period of years before the citizens were finally confident enough to decide what to do about their transport system. And even the politicians would win, they could proceed confidently, knowing that they had majority support and that everyone would love them.

I don't think we need another underground freeway. 
My answer is NO, use these billions to build more railways instead; we have to become more sustainable!

Don Gazzard
April 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are they called freeways, they should be renamed costways!

 

and often financed by expensive PPP arrangements.  PPP means Public Private Partnerships although experience has shown that they could well be called Public Pirate Partnerships as they have usually been both ineffective and more expensive, and any time is a good time to break the nexus and take a cold hard look at the options. 

 

Eddington also proposed various rail tunnels in the same study, the necessity for which were trenchantly demolish-ed at the time by Dr Paul Mees of RMIT in his paper,
'Does Melbourne need anther central city rail tunnel?