Federal funds finally flowing to Victoria
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Federal funds finally flowing to Victoria

What a difference a year makes, particularly when federal and Victorian elections are in the offing.

After significantly short-changing ALP-run Victoria on infrastructure funding in the 2017 federal budget, the Coalition has leaked several details of the multibillion-dollar partial catch-up Treasurer Scott Morrison will re-announce on Tuesday evening.

The centrepiece of the $7.8 billion package for Victoria is the $5billion federal contribution to building the long-overdue rail link to Melbourne Airport.

Hang in there, spending on roads is catching up.

Hang in there, spending on roads is catching up.Credit:James Davies

It would, though, be churlish to be cynical about the timing; the increase in investment in public assets needed to relieve Melbourne’s much-discussed growing pains is welcome and crucial. Melbourne’s surging population is putting pressure on the transport system, as well as necessitating extra schools, hospitals, suburbs, shopping centres, parks and other assets that underpin economic growth and community amenity.

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Traffic congestion has become the biggest impediment to economic growth, as well as causing tens of thousands of commuters daily frustration and costing business billions of dollars in lost productivity. While there is a valid debate to be had about the optimal rate of population growth, immigration has been of massive benefit – economically, socially and culturally – to Australia, and should continue at relatively high levels. The solution is to increase investment in infrastructure, rather than to slam the door on immigrants, who account for about 60 per cent of our population growth.

So, having the federal government partner with the state government to pump money into roads and public transport is good news, and should pay handsome economic and social dividends – on the condition that projects are selected on merit and need, and managed with transparency and accountability.

At this stage, that appears to be the case – with the exception of the West Gate Tunnel, business details of which have been concealed despite the $5.5 billion project being initiated by a private company, Transurban, and not being put out to tender.

Aside from the airport connection, the money Mr Morrison is allocating will help build the North East Link, new tunnels and extra lanes on the Eastern Freeway and two new rail lines, including a link to Monash University’s main campus, a project even more overdue than the airport link.

Of course, much detail is yet to be wrangled, and there are significant disagreements to resolve: some between the competing state political forces, for example on whether the university line should be heavy or light rail, and some between the federal government and Victoria, including on where the airport link should be constructed.

Victoria’s almost $8 billion chunk represents a third of Mr Morrison’s updated infrastructure spend in the 2018 budget, and comes after a startlingly parsimonious allocation of less than 10 per cent (over five years) in 2017. Victoria is home to a quarter of the nation’s residents and accounts for a third of population growth.

Whoever is victorious in the coming ballots, they need to work together to actually get the projects done; the population pressure is set to intensify.

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