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VPELA seminar on Transport and Infrastructure

Last Wednesday I attended a VPELA seminar on transport and infrastructure.  The guest speakers included Adam Fennessy from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (also on the board of Infrastructure Victoria), Henry Turnbull from Traffix Group and Sallyanne Everett from Clayton Utz.

With the delivery of transport and infrastructure always a topical issue, the event proved interesting with a range of views from the speakers, followed up by pertinent questions.

Some interesting information from the evening: since 1955 car ownership has quadrupled and public transport patronage continued to decline, only recently returning to 1950 levels; in this period there has been a strong emphasis on investment in road infrastructure; as generally well known, with the exception of the city loop, the railway network has not changed significantly since 1940 and as Henry Turnbull stated, it was the borrowing of 100 million pounds from the Bank of England that largely funded the construction of the early railway network.

It was pointed out that the existing road network is at capacity and while road infrastructure projects such as completing the missing links in our freeway network remain important, investment in public transport infrastructure is the main way to accommodate mobility needs of population growth.  Clearly, there needs to be a balance between investment in public transport and road infrastructure. 

Given the bulk of investment has been in road infrastructure for the last 50 years or more, it is obvious that the focus needs to shift to upgrading our public transport network in order to redress the balance.

As a way of funding the delivery of public transport, it was suggested that a petrol tax be imposed of about 5 cents per litre.  This would have the added benefit of encouraging greener cars. 

While for various reasons the proposal was not well received by many in the room, it was pointed out if communicated clearly with the public at the outset, in terms of the objective and where the revenue was to be spent, from the outset this would increase the chances of implementation (sounds very like ideas from a certain new political leader).

The view was put that the Victorian government should increase its debt levels by borrowing money to fund public transport infrastructure.  The problem with increasing government debt is its politicisation and the off-put negative that increasing debt is bad for the economy. 

But if public debt is increased in a responsible way to invest in public transport infrastructure, surely such investment will generate jobs and eventually revenue which will stimulate the economy. 

Conversely, relying on a public transport system (which ironically was largely funded by debt!) that is already showing signs of being outdated, will be a cost to our economy in terms of higher and higher maintenance requirements, growing congestion of our roads and revenue lost from lesser patronage.

As with investment in any public area, the problem with government investment in transport and infrastructure is that it can be constrained by the election cycle.  For this reason, we welcome the principle of the establishment of Infrastructure Victoria, an independent body, whose role is to advise the State and Federal Government on infrastructure projects. 

Adam Fennessy advised that Infrastructure Victoria has recently released a discussion paper on a 30-year plan for Victoria’s infrastructure needs.  We welcome the release of this discussion paper and hope that the development of a long term plan for Victoria’s infrastructure will shift the focus for government away from the election cycle and toward delivering projects that are important to Victoria.

All in all, it was an interesting seminar that repeated the message that the time to invest in public transport is now.  As we are well aware, we are still benefitting from the money that was borrowed to complete our railway network in 1940. 

Hopefully we can learn lessons from the past and make a bold move again based on what Victoria really needs.

This article appeared on Collie's website. Michael Collie is Director at Collie Pty Ltd, a multi-disciplinary Southbank-based firm with interests in strategic planning, development planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

Lead image courtesy SMH

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