As Brisbane's $1.5 billion Legacy Way tunnel project reaches another milestone, top infrastructure minds say governments need to act now to avoid the “last resort” of going underground again in the future.
Acting Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner this week announced a Wacol factory had produced the tunnel's 20,000th concrete segment, putting Brisbane City Council's largest transport infrastructure project on track to open in 2015.
But Infrastructure Partnerships Australia chief executive Brendan Lyon said the growing network of tunnels dissecting the city's underground represented little more than decades of failed urban planning.
His comments follow calls from Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd, published this week in the Australian Financial Review, that the nation ends its “obsession with tunnels” that can cost well over $200 million a kilometre, about four times more than surface roads, according to UK research.
"Tunnel-itis, as I call it, has contributed significantly to the cost of inner urban roads and railways. People have got to recognise that," Mr Shepherd told the AFR.
However Mr Lyon said the situation in Queensland is so dire, it was likely the state would build more subterranean development in the years to come, and they would likely be funded by sale of state assets – a reality the government “ultimately needed to front up to”.
He said although deep cuts to the public service were would go some way to covering costs, the scale of investment needed meant the private sector would also have to be wooed.
“We need to start seeing a bit of a discussion about where there are assets sitting on the books, particularly in the energy sector in Queensland, and how that can help the state to restore its financial capacity and be able to fund some of these urgent projects like the Cross River Rail, and potentially like Kingsford Smith Drive Stage 3,” Mr Lyon said.
“One of the reasons our transport infrastructure program is so expensive in major cities is that we haven't made long-term decisions to protect surface corridors for future transport connections, and that's why we had to see a suite of tunnels developed.
"It means there is no other option for the immediate to medium-term list of projects that need to be developed – we're going to have to tunnel because there's no other option.”
Mr Lyon said the state and local governments in Queensland needed to make the right long-term decisions when developing strategic infrastructure plans, but the first step was releasing a “clear vision” for infrastructure in the short, medium and long terms – up to 40 years down the track.
Based on current population projections, which show staggering growth for the region, Mr Lyon said likely projects could include a far-western orbital in Brisbane and a higher speed train service between the Gold Coast and the capital city.
While he admitted predicting the future could carry costly consequences – miscalculated traffic modelling for the Clem7 Tunnel was a key factor in RiverCity Motorway's collapse – Mr Lyon said the marginal cost of protecting undeveloped land now was far less than those attached to subsequent land resumptions for tunnelling the future.
But overcoming governmental reticence to invest in projects with little to no short-term kick-back was a factor that first needed to be overcome, Mr Lyon said, and he called for governments to start buying up land for future use now.
“Whether you use it ultimately for a rail line or a road line ... having the land available means you've got the options and you can later make the choice,” he said.
“No-one's saying these projects – these long-run, future projects – are bankable in the short-term. They're not, they're not required yet, but one of things that the public sector does control is where housing is going, so that should give them a very clear picture of where transport infrastructure will be required in the future.”
That picture was particularly important if the government was to attract the levels of private investment needed to minimise investment from the state's coffers, Mr Lyon said.
Although the massive losses suffered by Clem7 investors scared the market, Mr Lyon said people were willing to take a reasonable amount of risk if they were better informed about the forces at play.
Mr Lyon said former premier Anna Bligh's government had taken several steps towards achieving better infrastructure outcomes, but he described her successor Campbell Newman as an “infrastructure enthusiast” who came from the mayoralty at Brisbane City Council with a focus on transport.
Mr Lyon said governments should also look at “cut and cover” methods, where the infrastructure was placed underground but built from the surface down. This would also help protect some of the underground corridors likely to be needed for metro-rail and busses in the future.
“It seems silly, but it gets very crowded under the city very quickly,” Mr Lyon said.
Cr Schrinner said the council was focused on building critical infrastructure to tackle traffic congestion around the city, with Legacy Way set to cut peak hour travel time by almost half.
"The Lord Mayor has indicated that the next major project after Legacy Way is an expansion of Kingsford Smith Drive and planning and design work is currently under way on the next stages so it can be ready to go once Legacy Way is completed and funding becomes available,” he said.
Cr Schrinner said a feasibility study was currently under way into a bus-only crossing of the Brisbane River and under Adelaide Street, to cater for projected growth in bus passengers over the next 20 years. The feasibility study is expected to be completed by mid-2013.
A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Scott Emerson said the minister was committed to investing in innovative solutions to address transport capacity and congestion issues.
“Regardless of whether we are building public transport infrastructure or a new road we are committed to delivering better infrastructure and better planning without spending exorbitant amounts of money,” she said.
“While the Brisbane Inner City Rail solution requires a tunnel from Yeerongpilly to Victoria Park our other priorities in southeast Queensland include the Gateway upgrade north as well as the Newman government's ongoing commitment to the Bruce Highway.”
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney joined Mr Emerson and Local Government Minister David Crisafulli to announce yesterday they would travel to Canberra to ask the federal government to forward funding on new Bruce Highway action plan.
Mr Seeney reaffirmed the government's election pledge to contribute an additional $1 billion over the next 10 years off the back of increased commonwealth investment.
The 'Out of the Crisis' plan includes projects already committed over the next 10 years under base funding arrangements, plus additional projects that are needed to repair, improve and flood-proof “Queensland's 1677-kilometre backbone” he said.
The state government's scaled-back version of the Cross River Rail project is currently before Infrastructure Australia.