Distributing a myth: will a second river crossing solve congestion?

Since the last state election, Premier Daniel Andrews has been on a mission. While the previous state government managed to get itself stuck in a perpetual state of inertia very early on, the current Premier has been determined to be a man of action.

East West Link contracts torn up? Tick. Level Crossing removals out to to tender? Tick. Melbourne Metro funding bought forward? Another tick. But then he pulled a rabbit out of the hat that left even the most ardent of soothsayers flat footed: the Western Distributor. Essentially just a watered down version of the old Westlink proposal, is this the congestion messiah we have been waiting for?

The timing is extraordinary. Just weeks after coming to an agreement with the East West Link consortium to abandon an expensive road thought unnecessary, the Premier replaced it with a project to build an expensive road we don't need. It is a brave move. Crazy brave, as there are some startling comparisons to its defunct predecessor: no business case exists and it wasn't taken to an election, so technically there is no mandate.

The fact both major political parties have flipped from their previous positions (for the sake of political expediency) highlights one very unfortunate fact: the Western Distributor is a boondoggle.

There, I said it. Cue outrage from commuters stuck on the Westgate Bridge every day. Cue derision from motor interest groups like the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV), who have have been spewing forth their "We need a second river crossing to solve congestion on the Westgate" rhetoric with impunity for years, ignoring the inconvenient fact it will be neither the second crossing (we have six already), nor will it solve congestion.

Despite all this, Daniel Andrews has taken a punt on Western Distributor. Why?

Assessing East West Link, the project failed for a myriad of reasons, including trying to solve a problem that didn't exist. Only 5% of cars went from CityLink to the Eastern Freeway, hence there existed no real public appetite to build it. Add its exorbitant cost at $11 billion (the state would bear the brunt of, as well as all of the risk if it didn't perform financially) and it was no surprise to see East West Link disappear.

However, Daniel Andrews thinks he has mitigated those issues with the Western Distributor, and technically he has… in theory.

The political posturing continues. Image courtesy The Australian

As mentioned before, there certainly is an appetite for it: if I had a dollar for every time someone told me "We need a second river crossing", I would be a very rich man. The reality is we already have six in the vicinity of the city: the Westgate itself, Footscray Road, Dynon Road, Smithfield Road, Fisher Parade and Maribyrnong/Raleigh Road.

There are two well known political idioms at work here: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story", and the Tony Abbott special "If you say something often enough, it makes it true". The RACV have done a great job of tricking commuters in believing the second river crossing myth. Given we have six river crossings already, is a seventh one going to make a difference? It won't, hence why the RACV drumming on the notion we only have one.

The other argument Daniel Andrews has mitigated is the cost. That's the real jewel in the crown of the Western Distributor, it's free! The cost of this new piece of infrastructure will be covered by three sources:

  1. Tolls on the distributor itself.
  2. A further concession on the tolls Transurban collects from CityLink.
  3. Federal Government funding originally set aside for East West Link.

None of these factors are problematic given it results in no cost to the state government. Furthermore, Transurban have allegedly agreed to take over the cost of building the original West Gate Distributor project too. As it has already been budgeted for by the state, this actually results in a $500 million net saving for the government. That's two new mega projects and money back.

All of this good news won't hide the very damning truth: it won't solve congestion on the Westgate!

The widely accepted science of Induced Traffic will ensure the distributor becomes yet another car park within five years, not to mention the extra traffic it will pump into the city at the end of Footscray Road, just like the East West Link would have done to Hoddle Street as predicted by the Linking Melbourne Authority's own modeling. Whether it results in no cost to the state government or not is essentially irrelevant.

It just serves to reinforce the myth that we can solve congestion by building more urban freeways. This just ingrains the car dependence culture, which inevitably results in more funding being pumped into freeways in the future. It is a vicious cycle.

We have all heard the argument we need 'balanced funding for road and rail', this is nothing more than a political mantra. Balance is such a nice word which implies everyone gets what they need, however funding between roads and public transport has been anything but balanced in the last 20 years, it has been heavily skewed towards roads.

Pumping the same amount of money into mega road projects and into public transport does not produce the same outcomes. While the Western Distributor will inevitably reach capacity within five years, we will still be reaping the benefits of the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel in half a century and beyond, albeit at twice the price.

Sadly wrapped up in this debate - but now pushed out of mind - is the issue the original West Gate Distributor was meant to tackle: taking trucks off local roads. It was never meant to ease commuter congestion on the Westgate Bridge, rather it was about taking trucks off roads in the West, such as Yarraville's Francis Street.

It would have made the inner west safer and less polluted for residents, whilst aalso facilitating faster and more efficient trucking routes to the port. This very focused objective would have resulted in a relatively small price tag by today's infrastructure standards: $500 million. While this problem is still being addressed, the argument has been hijacked by cars, and thus its price increased tenfold. An unfortunate outcome all around.

Existing and proposed freight routes for the West Gate Distributor. Image courtesy Maribyrnong Truck Action Group

I fear for the long term planning of this state. The more common prospect of one-term governments has scared them into throwing all long term planning out the window, pushing short-term projects where political expediency is the only driving factor. It's a sad state of affairs when projects are delivered to satisfy public perception, despite knowing they won't go close to solving the problems, and in turn perpetuating long held myths.

It takes a great amount of political courage to make the tough decisions: not building any more urban freeways, tackling traffic head-on via congestion charging, borrowing money to fund major public transport upgrades, and forcing people to change decades long travel habits. But it seems political courage continues to be in short supply, at least where public transport is concerned.

Mr Andrews, you're better than this. You should be applauded for removing level crossings, a project decades overdue. You should be applauded for getting on with the Melbourne Metro, a project which, to quote Robert Doyle's words, will save Melbourne from a "100 year catastrophe".

But the Western Distributor is a case of "two steps forward, three steps back". You have got this far by being a public transport champion; it is those guns you need to stick to, to ensure Victoria's future is the main game here, not the 2018 election.

For further insight on the topic, see the Public Transport Users Association's take on the myth that freeways relieve traffic congestion.

Lead image courtesy Transurban.

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