The Victorian government is rushing through its West Gate Tunnel project, on Tuesday signing a contract with CIMIC Group’s CPB Contractors and John Holland, and promising to start construction within weeks.
In a bizarre re-run of the last state election in Victoria, when Labor won government on a platform that included the controversial cancelling of the East-West Link, leader of the opposition Matthew Guy has threatened to cancel the West Gate Tunnel project if elected to government.
The news also comes a day after a report by six planning academics warned the project would increase Melbourne’s traffic congestion and increase car dependency, calling for it to be rolled back.
Full steam ahead
The government on Tuesday revealed that, rather than being rolled back, the project – a Public Private Partnership with Transurban – had increased in cost to $6.7 billion (up from $5.5 billion) with the tunnels now twice as long as initially planned in the original business case.
The government said this would “improve traffic flow and protect homes” and provide “better city connections, additional noise walls, the creation of massive new open spaces and more cycling paths”, while air quality monitoring would be extended for 10 years.
Transurban is contributing $4 billion to the project in exchange for an extension on CityLink tolls to 2045, which could see revenues of $15 billion or more (though the Opposition and Greens are moving to block the extension).
CPB and John Holland have already begun to move into a construction compound at Footscray with construction to begin in a matter of weeks. The speed at which the government is moving on the project is being seen as a way to stop the project becoming an issue in the November 2018 state election.
“The time for talking is over,” Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said. “This project will deliver a long-overdue alternative to the West Gate Bridge, create thousands of jobs and construction starts next month.”
Project challenged by planning academics
Though this week planning academics from the University of Melbourne and RMIT released a report into the project (though the former $5.5 billion iteration), saying it would not meet most of its stated objectives.
The project, the academics said, would not improve transport capacity along Melbourne’s M1 corridor; would not reduce reliance on the West Gate Bridge; and failed to give western suburbs residents better access to employment opportunities. Freight access to the Port of Melbourne and city would only be partially improved, and the ban on trucks would only slightly improve community amenity in Melbourne’s inner west, they said.
“International and local evidence overwhelmingly shows that when it comes to improving traffic congestion, building new roads is only a short-term solution,” RMIT University’s Dr Ian Woodcock said.
“By building extensive new road capacity that simply entrenches car-based transport, the West Gate Tunnel Project will introduce new transport complexity to the west and the rest of the city, and will compromise many decades of carefully developed aspirations for the central, inner-west and north Melbourne.”
The report also raised other concerns, including:
- the project’s overreach and overstatement of benefits
- the poor planning process and lack of overall strategy
- a lack of transparency in the market-led proposal
The government said that it had on Tuesday released a project summary, concession deed amendments, an exposure draft of the West Gate Tunnel Bill and the value for money assessment. It will also soon release the contracts with Transurban.
In a case of history repeating, however, opposition leader Matthew Guy has threatened to kill the project if he is elected come November, with the Greens backing the move.
The academics, meanwhile, have recommended that the government revert to a 2014 plan to build the $500 million West Gate Distributor, which they said would address access to Port Melbourne and trucks on inner west roads.
The University of Melbourne’s Dr Crystal Legacy said all sides of politics needed to commit to an integrated transport plan.
“For too long, Victoria’s transport planning and infrastructure investment has occurred in a policy and planning vacuum,” she said.
“We therefore call on Parliament – and all sides of politics – to support urgent action for the preparation of an integrated Victorian Transport Plan, as required by the Transport Integration Act 2010.