The Turnbull government’s commitment to developing urban rail plans for Australia’s five largest cities has been warmly welcomed by built industry bodies, along with plans to hold an inquiry into controversial road user charging.
The commitment was part of a response to Infrastructure Australia’s Australian Infrastructure Plan, released in February, which highlighted the challenges of infrastructure provision in Australia, providing 78 recommendations based on an audit of infrastructure stock and needs.
The government response has recommended 69 of those recommendations, while noting six and rejecting three.
Responding to a recommendation to “accelerate the delivery of high-quality, higher density development within established urban areas”, the government said it would work with the state and territory governments to develop urban rail plans for the five largest cities.
“This work will include examining global trends and drivers of urban rail (including technology developments and changing demographic patterns) and linkages between rail and urban planning, and its outcomes will better inform government investment,” the response said.
The Property Council of Australia welcomed the response, and said the focus on rail as a national infrastructure priority was a welcome expansion of the government’s infrastructure agenda.
“There is a clear nexus between the productivity of our cities and the road and transport infrastructure that supports them”, PCA chief executive Ken Morrison said.
“The government has recognised that infrastructure funding must prioritise major urban areas where significant population growth is occurring and where most of Australia’s GDP is generated, and we wholeheartedly agree.”
He said the urban rail plans represented “a big leap forward”.
The Green Building Council of Australia’s senior manager – government & industry Jonathan Cartledge agreed, saying the commitment to collaboration and determining to work with state and territory governments was the best way to deliver value.
“The promise to develop urban rail plans across Australia’s largest cities, together with a new national freight and supply chain strategy and land transport market reform, recognises the importance of working with all modes of infrastructure to deliver a system that works in the national interest,” he said.
Greens Senator for Victoria and public transport spokesperson Janet Rice, meanwhile, said public transport needed to be a funding priority, in addition to the plans.
“This government has shown no sign of doing that, so I hope that’s about to change,” she said.
“I’m hoping the government’s response to Infrastructure Australia’s Infrastructure Plan is to commit to actually putting their dollars where their mouth is and funding public transport, otherwise we’re just going backwards on solving congestion.”
Ms Rice said currently only one per cent of federal funding in Victoria was going to public transport. Three billion dollars of money that was once slated to the Melbourne Metro had now gone to roads.
The government has committed to funding 14 of the 15 priority projects on Infrastructure Priority List, though most are road projects, including Sydney’s controversial WestConnex.
Could the government be prepared to employ road user charging?
Consult Australia also welcomed the response, particularly support for a public inquiry into road user charging, which many transport planners say is vital to an efficiently functioning transport system, but which most politicians have shied away from, as it widely regarded as political suicide.
Chief executive Megan Motto said the study into benefits and impacts of private vehicle road user charging was “a sensible way of addressing both the lack of robust information regarding the current pricing system and the emotionally charged nature of this highly political issue”.
In Parliament today (Thursday) Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “Governments and the community need to be comfortable that any new system of road pricing is fair, and that the benefits outweigh the costs before any change is made over the longer term.”
A media statement from minister for urban infrastructure Paul Fletcher also said that any move to implement road user charging would be “a 10-to-15-year journey”.
Ms Rice said the inquiry was a sensible way forward, but the Greens were worried about fairness, because those without a choice may be forced to pay. Any scheme also needed to encourage uptake of low-polluting vehicles, she said.
What wasn’t agreed?
Recommendations rejected included creating a National Population Policy to identify growth pathways and outline options to shape it. The government said the intergenerational report was used to assess long-term sustainability of government policy, while migration levels were set annually in response to a range of factors.
Another rejected recommendation was to evaluate the viability of reporting debt under a more transparent structure to allow for greater clarity and support increased investment in productive infrastructure. The government said this would likely add complexity without commensurate transparency improvements.
The government did also not agree with a recommendation to establish an independent national body to deliver a National Water Reform Plan, which it said would duplicate the existing National Water Initiative.