'The promise of new freeways delivering free-flowing peak-hour traffic is a mirage.'
On Monday afternoon three trolley loads of documents were lodged with the state government containing the competing designs for the East West Link – and more importantly the initial price tags.
The three consortia shortlisted last October include many large Australian and overseas engineering, banking and construction companies. They will present their ideas for the best design for a tunnel cutting through Royal Park. An optional extra is their price to build an elevated freeway viaduct down Moonee Ponds Creek as a second stage.
The public will not find out what is in those boxes for at least another three months, when the Napthine government plans to sign a binding deal and push legislation through Parliament before it rises on October 16th for the state election.
Strangely, equally in the dark will be the independent Assessment Committee currently writing its recommendations on whether planning approvals should be granted. Its hearings were completed two weeks ago and it must report by the end of May on the adequacy of the so-called “Comprehensive Impact Statement”. The Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, will have until the end of June to decide whether to accept those recommendations.
The committee hearings were based on a “reference design” produced by the Linking Melbourne Authority which may or may not be similar to what the bidders will propose. The recommendations will look closely at some of the contentious features of the current design including a 20-metre-high flyover at Hoddle Street, the extent of open-cut construction, two proposed interchanges in the middle of Royal Park, extensive loss of sport grounds and the route of the proposed viaduct taking traffic within metres of apartments in Flemington.
The consortia have been given a limited opportunity in July to amend their bids to take into account these recommendations from the Assessment Committee. There is a great risk that the recommendations will be ignored or overruled by the Minister in the rush to get a contract signed.
Significantly, Sydney has taken a very different approach in assessing two similar freeway projects – completing the tender and design process before seeking final planning approval.
NorthConnex is a nine-kilometre tunnel (twice the length of Melbourne’s East West Link) which will connect the M1 and M2 freeways in Sydney’s northern suburbs. It is being planned over a two-year period – double the time allowed in Melbourne.
The bids were received from three companies in November 2013 and a decision was made on the preferred tender in March 2014.
Critically, the environmental assessment was only started once there was a firm design and will now run for the next six months until final approval is given. Construction is expected to start in mid-2015.
Similarly WestConnex is a four-stage freeway project to widen the M4 western freeway, extend it under Parramatta Road and subsequently build a tunnel to Sydney Airport and connect to the widened M5 freeway to the south-west.
In March the shortlist of contractors for the initial widening project was announced with environmental assessment planned for later this year and construction during 2015. The other stages will be planned over three years with construction being phased for completion by 2023.
The contrast to the rush to approve the East West Link could not be more stark. Basing the assessment on the design the successful consortium proposes to build is a fundamental difference.
Another important difference is that the NSW Parliament required the business plan for WestConnex to be tabled so that its implications could be considered before a final decision is taken.
In Victoria, the East West Link business case is being treated as a state secret. It has been hidden from the public and Assessment Committee alike. Documents obtained under freedom-of-information legislation disclose the strong criticisms made by consultants of the methodology used to produce a positive financial return.
The inclusion of “wider economic benefits” delivering over 40 per cent of the claimed return has been widely criticised. No justification has been offered. Minimal information has been given about the tolls to be charged and the impact on driver behaviour.
The traffic modelling evidence is that congestion levels will be worse than the present within 10 years. One only has to observe the peak-hour crawl on CityLink or the Burnley Tunnel to see that the promise of new freeways delivering free-flowing peak-hour traffic is a mirage.
The government has put the cart before the horse and hopes to finalise the design and construction contract in secret to present it as a done deal in the dying days of this Parliament. This is Victoria’s largest ever infrastructure project which will be a burden on taxpayers and drivers for the next 30 years.
The case for full disclosure to the public is compelling. This should be through normal processes to fully assess and debate the merits of the project. It looks like the government is risking its hand that neither the Parliament nor the Supreme Court will bring its rush to the finish line undone.
Andrew Herington is a former Labor adviser who assisted community groups present their case at the recent Assessment Committee hearings.