Daniel Andrews’ West Gate Tunnel vision for Melbourne not the way forward

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Melbourne City Council is, on the whole, a conservative organisation, and not just because lord mayor Robert Doyle is a former Liberal Party state leader. Its senior officers and councillors have long tended towards the risk averse.

Take the council’s 2013 response to the doomed East West Link project. Despite serious internal concerns about the tollway, what made it into the council’s public response was a polite argument against the road’s more egregious impacts on Royal Park and Moonee Ponds Creek.

Today, Transurban’s West Gate Tunnel is the latest tollroad on the agenda – an attempt by the Andrews government to deal with Melbourne’s rapid population growth in the west.

The $5.5 billion road starts in Altona North, dives under Yarraville and emerges in West Melbourne, allowing traffic from the west to go either north on the Bolte Bridge, or into the city.

The council’s submission to government hearings on the road, starting on Wednesday, shows it has for once shrugged off its usual reluctance to criticise.

The off-ramps Transurban wants to build into the city centre spurred the council’s opposition: 18,000 cars a day will be disgorged into North and West Melbourne from those ramps – undoing $20 million the council has spent since the 1980s reducing traffic in the area.

One of these city off-ramps will be created by carving up public land next to North Melbourne railway station. Known as E-Gate, this land has been set aside for more than a decade for eventual housing.

Instead of simply admitting it is bad news for the area, the government argues the West Gate Tunnel will attract residents and businesses to the urban renewal precinct because of increased connectivity.

The council’s response? “The City of Melbourne considers this statement to be false and there is no evidence provided to support this claim.”

Think about that. The city council is either accusing the Andrews government of lying, or of being so loose with what’s actually going on that it isn’t much bothered about what Transurban’s toll road does to 20 hectares of prime public land.

Then there’s this: the council’s submission makes clear the full extent of what is to be done to Footscray Road. Transurban wants to build a six-lane elevated freeway above an existing 12-lane road.

It’s less than Houston’s world-record-holding 26-lane Katy Freeway but, with 18 lanes, Footscray Road will surely win the Australian prize for the road with the largest capacity.

The council says adding road infrastructure on this scale will overwhelm for evermore what is a fairly degraded area – deleting any chance of it being anything but a freight wasteland.

Another damning observation concerns ramps for trucks to and from the Port of Melbourne near the Maribyrnong River.

“The scale of infrastructure being introduced [there],” the council argues, “appears to be disproportionate to the level of access actually required.”

Perhaps worst of all, as the submission also points out, is that cars coming off the tollroad will almost certainly slow trams and buses servicing the rest of Melbourne.

There is widespread agreement among economists and transport planners in Victoria that improving access to Melbourne’s central city area will boost the state’s economy.

But the Andrews government, like the Napthine government before it, is clinging to an outdated view that driving a car into the city should still be encouraged. Why else would it allow a road like this with new city exits to even be considered? Surely not just so Transurban could make money.

Instead of encouraging tens of thousands of cars into the city centre via a new toll road, the government should be finding new ways to get people into town by public transport, or by walking or cycling if they live nearby.

The government’s own agency Infrastructure Victoria has recommended in its 30-year strategy a range of projects to speed access to the central city. None are freeways.

Melbourne City Council’s submission to the West Gate Tunnel hearings cites a second Melbourne Metro rail tunnel as a better idea than the West Gate Tunnel. “This is a much higher priority for use of scarce capital funding”, it says.

It also floats Melton rail electrification, higher-capacity metro trains, better bus services and expanding the SmartBus network, increasing the Regional Rail Link’s reach, tolling more freeways or just improving the existing rail system with high-capacity signalling as other projects that would be more beneficial to Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Instead, what Melbourne is getting, is another big road that will – to once again quote the council – “deliver a significant gain for the private company which proposed it”.

Victorian taxpayers will pour billions into building this road. As more facts emerge about it, the gains for Transurban become clearer. The gains for the rest of us less so.

Clay Lucas is The Age‘s city editor.



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