'Capital of the west' ... The proposed East Werribee project includes plans for 20,000 residents, 50,000 jobs - but no new train station. Photo: Laura Little
IN THE 1880s Melbourne was a study in contrasts. It was the fastest growing city in the British Empire and one of the most prosperous. It was also the smelliest, with an appalling infant mortality rate and up to 3 per cent of the rest of the population dying of typhoid every year.
Melbourne has a superb public transport infrastructure - for 1935.
The economists and the germ theory deniers said that this was the way things were, and the best thing to do was to do nothing. People in the wealthy suburbs south of the Yarra weren't worried by the smells since they could pay to have their sewage carted to the river and dumped in it. The poor would have to put up with the smell, which served them right for not being rich.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
The rich weren't troubled by the smells, but they were victims of typhoid. They caught it from their servants and food suppliers: germs didn't respect suburban boundaries.
A royal commission reported in 1888 that the only way to control typhoid was to arrange for the sanitary removal and treatment of sewage; and every household had to be connected to the system before any of them were safe. A Board of Works was established, funded from a property rate and began work in 1891 in spite of a fierce economic crisis; and by the start of the 20th century the smells, and the deaths from typhoid, were a fading memory.
Melbourne in 2012 faces another crisis, not of contagious disease but looming economic stagnation. Once the transport system serving a city reaches its limits developers no longer want to build and building owners no longer want to maintain: eventually the city decays into a few buildings in a sea of bombsite car parks, like downtown Dallas or Los Angeles.
Los Angeles and Dallas are spending huge sums building up their public transit systems, not because of some sentimental leftie belief in the virtues of public transport, but to bolster inner-city property values and to get developers interested in the bombsites.
Melbourne has a superb public transport infrastructure - for 1935. The affluent have crossed the Yarra and now colonise almost all of the zone-one public transport area, delighting in the benefits of the public transport system built by our ancestors. They enjoy frequent tram services and fast and comfortable trains. They own cars and use them for shopping and visiting friends and relatives; but they don't rely on them to get to the city for work or play.
Extending Prahran-class public transport to all the built-up areas of greater Melbourne would cost a considerable amount; but generate far more in increased property values, as well as keeping Melbourne's CBD vibrant and prosperous. Our debt-shy state government won't do anything significant to save the city, whichever party is in power: both have prolonged the appointment of public servants who believe public transport is for losers and the best that public transport users should expect is an occasional bus on a crowded freeway.
We must go back to the future and establish a public authority, funded by property rates, with a mandate to build a genuine world-class public transport system. With such a system in place, no more than 5 per cent of Melbourne households would be more than 800 metres from a fixed-rail transport service. A rate of 0.1¢ in the unimproved capital value dollar would raise about $1.7 billion per year, while half of all households would pay no more than $11 a week. This is less than it currently costs outer suburban households to register and insure their third car.
Over a 20-year period such a public transport authority would raise and spend about $35 billion on Melbourne's fixed-rail infrastructure. This is sufficient to deliver the Footscray to Caulfield tunnel, the airport and Doncaster rail lines, and then build an additional 100 kilometres of twin-track heavy rail, add an express track on 100 kilometres of existing rail routes, build 1200 kilometres of light rail and tram routes, and eliminate 10 level crossings.
This would be a fantastic bargain for suburban battlers: over 20 years their transport rate would cost no more than $12,000 while their property value rose by $80,000. The attraction might seem a little less in Toorak or South Yarra with their excellent tram and train services built by preceding generations; but their property values would be protected from the consequences of the collapse of CBD values if the city were to be choked by inadequate transport.
The government has attempted to remove the politics from public transport by setting up Public Transport Victoria; but the people that it has appointed to the board have been involved in a series of disasters, not just myki, that have left Melbourne travellers paying too much for not enough. They are the people who scrapped 90 trams just as patronage started to rise; who closed two tram depots and sold the land, then sent their minister to tell the public that a new depot would cost half a billion dollars; who signed dodgy contracts with the first batch of franchisees giving Melbourne 20 bouncing trains and another 20 trains that wouldn't stop; who sent out their ministers to make public fools of themselves by saying new trams would cost $20 million each and a three-kilometre extension of the Epping line would cost $300 million.
The government has hinted at the creation of a public transport development authority funded by a metropolitan improvement rate. This will be a great idea, but only if visionary people like Sir Harold Clapp and Sir Robert Risson are in charge. The current crop of public servants can't be trusted with the future of Melbourne.
John Legge is an educator and consultant. He lives in zone one.