Findings from Grattan Institute research into better transport infrastructure show too much money has been spent by Australian governments on the wrong projects in the wrong places.
The report, written by the institute's transport program director Marion Terrill, says investment over the past decade has not prioritised cities, which are the engines of economic growth.
"Instead, governments have spent up big in states and electorates where federal elections are won and lost," it says.
Too often factors other than the public interest take precedence, including political considerations, which result in highways popular with voters.
Over the past decade, government spending on new transport infrastructure has been the highest since records were first collected in 1987.
And on a per capita basis, governments have spent substantially more in Queensland and NSW than in other states.
The report argues considerations such as supporting economic and population growth in large cities, responding to major shocks to the economy and supporting the mining boom don't explain the disproportionate spend on regional roads.
It cites funding into road projects including Colac to Geelong, Bell Bay to Launceston and the New England highway, saying each are within, or close to, swinging federal seats which have changed hands in recent elections.
To improve things the report makes three recommendations:
- Prevent governments from investing in projects until a rigorous evaluation of the benefits is undertaken by an independent body and tabled in parliament.
- Once governments are only building projects where the benefits outweigh the costs, they should aim to build them all.
- Commonwealth funding of infrastructure projects should be disentangled from the distribution of the GST.
The institute argues having greater discipline over what is funded and built will have a double benefit.
It would mean less wasteful spending and better transport networks, where they will make the biggest difference.