With a population expected to grow by 60 per cent, or 3.5 million people, over the next 30 years, the degree of challenge facing Victoria from an infrastructure planning perspective cannot be understated.
This is especially the case given many of the state’s existing problems. In a number of outer urban areas of Melbourne, housing development has run ahead of public transport infrastructure provision, driving the creation of suburbs where residents are dependent upon cars and in turn feeding into more road congestion.
Decades of neglect have seen an aging rail network groan under a combination of problems related a lack of short traction power, outmoded signalling, long stretches where trains are invisible to signallers, life-expired CCTV cameras and complex rail junctions and run down stations, according to a Fairfax Media report in July. A rail system which largely operates around a central core makes commuting from outer urban areas to other outer urban areas difficult.
In roads, having only one major corridor connecting the eastern and western suburbs and one Yarra River crossing creates havoc where, for instance, breakdowns or accidents occur on the West Gate Bridge.
Of late, efforts in dealing with these issues have been haphazard. A plan for how Melbourne will look by 2050 which was released in 2013 has essentially been put on hold by the new state government while it is being ‘refreshed.’ In an episode which inflicted untold damage upon the state’s reputation, the former state government entered into a $5.7 billion contract to build the first stage of the $15-$17 billion East West Link only for the new government to cancel this following its election in late 2014 in favour of an $11 billion rail project and the removal of dangerous level crossings.
Nevertheless, action is now happening. A fledgling agency known as Infrastructure Victoria has been tasked with providing advice to government on infrastructure matters and preparing a 30-year plan for the state’s infrastructure system. In its introductory report released on November 23, the new body called for the community to have its say on the type of infrastructure desired going forward.
James Larmour-Reid, president of the Victorian branch of the Planning Institute of Australia, says the state has a number of challenges.
Congestion – the cost of which according to Infrastructure Australia is set to triple to more than $9 billion by 2030 if nothing new is done – will need to be dealt with, he said. While it has recently been announced that a public private partnership will fund the $11 billion Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel, how longer-term projects such as rail links to the airport, Doncaster and Rowville will be funded remain unclear. Even the 50-year lease deal to fund a $6 billion crossing removal program remains in doubt.
In terms of energy, meanwhile, a ‘sleeper’ issue over the longer term revolved around a shift away from reliance on brown coal and greater use of clean energy, Larmour-Reid said.
Finally, parts of Melbourne bayside suburbs and some coastal towns may be vulnerable to rising sea levels over decades to come.
While the new body and work on the long-term plan were a step in the right direction, Larmour-Reid said the state had not done well at infrastructure planning in the past.
“I must say, I don’t think we’ve done very well in Melbourne over the last 10 or 15 years in terms of long-term integrated thinking about transport,” he said. “There have been big ticket items like CityLink and the Western Ring Road, but it has been patchy. The one that I guess has delivered some recent success has been the Regional Rail Link in the west which has tidied up some regional rail services – that’s been an important improvement.”
“But it has always been hard to work out how these bits fit together and how they are linked closely with our land use plans.”
By all means, Victoria is not the only state where challenges are occurring and action is happening. In October, Queensland – where the population is expected to more than double over the next 50 years – unveiled a draft infrastructure plan, though that plan lacked detail about specific projects and covered only a five to 15-year timeframe. Massive road and rail projects designed to address congestion issues, meanwhile, are underway in New South Wales.
Victoria’s moves also come amid growing criticism about the state’s approach toward infrastructure in the wake of East West Link. Monash University Law Professor Graham Hodge wrote in The Conversation recently that recent episodes involving the road project (where the newly elected Labor government did manage to re-negotiate the contract) and the desalination plant (which the then-newly elected conservative government reportedly tried to re-negotiate after coming into office) have "put into doubt the state’s professional planning capacity and resulted in arguably illegitimate project proposals being implemented through long-term privately funded infrastructure contracts."
Victoria, Hodge wrote, had to stop burning money on "stupid Taj Mahals."
Asked about critical priorities, Larmour-Reid said Metro Rail was crucial in light of the need to deal with current rail challenges. He added that a second road link across the Yarra River was a ‘must’ and longer term a rail link to the airport was important. In the shorter term, significant gains could be made through improving bus services and creating precincts which were friendly to bicycle and pedestrian traffic, he said.
Meanwhile, he stressed that it is important to get both sides of state politics as well as the federal government behind the infrastructure program which arises out of the current process. He added that the infrastructure plan currently under construction works in an effective manner in tandem with the refreshed version of Plan Melbourne.
He said the moves at a state level regarding Infrastructure Victoria are encouraging, as are moves on the part of the new Prime Minister to set up the Minister for Cities and be open to funding rail transport at a federal level.
“I think things are stacking up in the right direction - it’s just a lot of work to do because we have an infrastructure deficit,” Larmour-Reid said.
Like most other states, Victoria faces significant challenges in terms of infrastructure planning.
Exactly what the future of infrastructure investment will look like going forward will become clearer as the plan takes shape progressively throughout 2016.