As one of Australia’s fastest growing cities, Brisbane has faced more than its fair share of growing pains. South Brisbane’s population is expected to treble by 2031, while Greater Brisbane’s will rise to 2.95 million.
Anticipating this dramatic population surge, the Palaszczuk Labor government has begun substantial infrastructure projects, committing to a $944 million urban Metro service and a $5.4 billion second Cross River Rail project to be tunnelled under the Brisbane River.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has claimed the project will provide 7700 jobs, with construction set to begin by mid 2019.
But as with any transport infrastructure project on this scale, the government’s big spend has attracted some very bad press.
Its $4.4 billion purchase of a new rail fleet was delivered two years late, cost an extra $150 million and did not conform to state disability laws. It was later followed by an inquiry that cost another $45 million. Chris Hale, a transport strategist and urban economist told The Fifth Estate in an earlier story that the Metro service is not a well thought out project.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he told The Fifth Estate. “I think they’ve come up with the word Metro without specifying what they really want to do, like an election commitment.”
The latest furore has been a long running dispute over the viability of the CRR project, a bold initiative to future proof Brisbane’s inner city rail network with an extra 10 kilometres of track, five new stations and a 5.9 kilometre tunnel.
First announced by the Beattie Labor government in 2007, it was embraced by the Palaszczuk government in 2017 with initial funding of $2.81 billion over the next four years.
That figure has now grown to a $5.4 billion.
Serious misgivings on the cross river rail project
The decision to go ahead with a second cross river rail project attracted formidable resistance from the federal government and Queensland’s LNP opposition. That was bolstered by Infrastructure Australia’s misgivings as to the business model adopted for this enormous project.
IA’s report concluded that the projected estimates of growing rail patronage were exaggerated by a factor of seven and misjudged the passenger capacity of the network.
These criticisms were seized upon by One Nation’s Queensland leader Steve Dickson, whose specious claim that IA had stated the project was not required till 2036 was debunked by the ABC. Despite its reservations, IA retained the project on its Infrastructure Priority List.
But Dickson’s claims added to the government’s headaches, as the Feds withheld funding aid from the project. More disasters were in store – the opposition has claimed the project is eight months behind schedule and a major building proponent had its building licence temporarily suspended by the Queensland Building and Construction Commission, after it failed to satisfy financial requirements.
Residents are not happy – half of promised improvements are carried out and not the bits that help them
Brisbane Residents United spokesperson Elizabeth Handley says the loss of green space and increase in high density apartments, particularly around Woolongabba, will mean a drastic decrease in resident’s quality of life, as well as the quality of actual constructions.
“They’ve implemented half of the things you’re supposed to do with high density building and that is the bit that makes developers money, but they haven’t implemented the part that makes those developments liveable.
“If you want people to move into high density areas, you need to make those areas attractive for people to want to live. It’s distressing that we’ve taken the foot off the pedal of regulation so much that poor quality development is the norm.
“We do need a range of housing options but we all need areas we can go to for a walk or kick a ball, rather than assess constructions on just how much yield we can get out of these buildings, yields that are projected to be higher than in Singapore, in this instance.”
But with the demand for Brisbane’s rail services forecast to triple by 2036, it was clear that something had to be done.
But there are much wider social benefits
Warren Rowe is the former Director of Planning, Environment and Transport at the City of Gold Coast. He has a wide understanding of public transport projects like the CRR, including transport infrastructure projects in Sydney. He’s in no doubt that Brisbane needs a project like the CRR.
“The viability issue is one that would be assessed in terms of costs and benefits,” he told The Fifth Estate.
“But these projects, as we’ve seen nationally are starting to be judged, not purely on the basis of transport benefits, but on a broader suite of benefits that ultimately point to improved urban renewal city building outcomes.
“As we’ve seen in NSW with the significant infrastructure spend that’s going on there, the benefits of this sort of investment in infrastructure are profound in supporting the development of catalytic projects that not only improve transport outcomes, but are part of an opportunity to improve the city building outcomes and that’s what they’re now being judged on.
“Transport benefits for the CRR are often talked about as being just for the CBD, but really the benefits are much broader. They really are network wide and the impacts of the project as a key piece of the public transport network are going to be felt well north, well south, and well west.”
The main source of criticism centred on the media-fuelled assumption that the CRR was a project that would only benefit inner city people, as that is where the project would manifest. The government’s contention was that it would increase capacity across the entire transport network and that once the initial investment was made, that it would be a region and city shaping land use strategy that would provide a significant social dividend.
We are still struggling to convey just what a change in opportunities and accessibility to future jobs, services and education this project represents
Associate professor Matthew Burke of the Griffith University transport research team says that misapprehension was a key factor in the project’s poor PR performance.
“It shows we are still struggling to convey just what a change in opportunities and accessibility to future jobs, services and education this project represents,” he said.
“The largest set of beneficiaries are the million or more people clustered along the Cleveland, Beenleigh and Gold Coast lines and along the future Flagstone rail line.”
“Gold Coast residents, for instance, will be about 20 minutes closer to the Queensland Parliament building or QUT Gardens Point campus, or Eagle Street Pier, by public transport. They will have a reduced run time into the CBD and enjoy the better station location at Albert Street. That’s a very significant change in accessibility unlocked by the project.”
Warren Rowe contends that IA’s assessment of the project’s viability may have been based on faulty criteria.
“I’m not really across the details of their assessments, but it’s been difficult to really pin down the specific concerns of IA – again when you look at how IA have dealt with similar projects in NSW and Victoria, you have to ask, what are the major differences?
“Their assessments would suggest that they’ve judged the CRR heavily on the transport outcomes of the project and clearly projects of this type need to ensure they do satisfy those demand requirements of providing additional capacity and patronage.
“I’m aware there’s been significant modelling done by the Queensland government to underpin some of those assessments and I assume in assessing these projects IA have utilised their own figures.
“The interesting thing about patronage modelling is it comes back to the assumptions that you make about modelling and we’ve seen recent examples here in Queensland where some of the projections about traffic and revenues resulting from traffic have not proved to be as the modelling suggested.
“Again that goes back to what were the assumptions made in determining those figures.”
Infrastructure Australia assessment may well have skewed results
Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University agrees that an assessment by IA may well have had skewed results.
“Cost benefit analysis is not a precise science,” he observed. “Everyone comes up with different outcomes by tweaking variables and assumptions. It’s always a combination of scientific principles and political priorities.”
Rowe says that the CRR’s $5.4 billion price tag, as benchmarked against similar projects currently underway in Australia “sounds about right”. Perth’s public transport plan investment for 2031 comes in at a total of $4.1 billion, with lower population growth projections.
Meanwhile the headaches continue for the CRR, with a major 91-storey high rise development in trouble as its projected earthworks have been found to be impacting on the route of the tunnel. But Paul Burton says any such impediments will be outweighed by the benefits of Brisbane’s expanded infrastructure ambitions.
“As a project I think it’s a political challenge to see these developments in a wider context. Not to see Brisbane as a distinct political entity but as the largest and most significant component of Southeast Queensland.
“We’ve got a SE Queensland regional plan and a city deal in the making and this is a key piece of infrastructure which aligns with both pretty well. This project is in the centre of Brisbane but it will have an impact not just as a congestion buster and productivity improver, but will have benefits across a wider area. It’s a pinch point for the whole of the SE Queensland region and getting rid of that pinch point will improve the connectivity of the whole region.”