Tollway operator Transurban has announced via a market announcement to the Australian Stock Exchange that it has won approval from the Victorian Government to proceed to stage 3 assessment under Spring Street's 'market-led proposal interim guidelines'.
In a nutshell, the Transurban proposal is to widen the existing West Gate Freeway between the 'Western Gateway' (the junction of the M1 and M80 freeways) and the West Gate bridge; construct a tunnel portal near the Williamstown Road interchange with a tunnel running under Yarraville to another portal on the West bank of the Maribyrnong river; and have a bridge traverse the Maribyrnong and then the road would run on an elevated structure above Footscray Road to the eastern side of Citylink.
The proposal from Transurban is one of the first projects to be made public under Spring Street's market-led proposal interim guidelines. At the time of writing, the register of projects which under the interim guidelines is supposed to be updated as projects complete phase 2 has not been updated, however Transurban have published information pertaining to the project on their website.
On the face of it, this proposal seems like a sweet deal for the Andrews Government. Little Victorian taxpayer contribution, a lot of private capital flowing in and it likewise appears to fit within the ideology of the current Prime Minister who thinks the Federal Government should only be funding roads.
Yes, this project is more than likely to take a lot of trucks off the West Gate Bridge and local road network up and down the west bank of the Maribyrnong, yet reading through the Transurban media release they are making claims - admittedly the audience is their shareholders which would benefit from more traffic using their roads - which fly in the face of countless amounts of research both here and globally.
Transurban claim that "the Western Distributor would nearly halve travel times for trips to the city from the M80 - West Gate Freeway interchange during the morning peak and help wipe 15 minutes off trips to the city from Geelong and Ballarat". That might be so for a short period of time, but in the long run?
Firstly on Ballarat and Geelong: the Regional Rail Link is not far off from opening which will see increased services and clearer paths taken through metropolitan Melbourne resulting in an improved and more consistent service from the city to those regional areas.
Secondly on car trips to the city in general: why on earth should that be encouraged in the first place? It might be a goal for the private operator but it should never be the goal for a growing central city that is increasing in density by the day.
Just last Friday we re-published an article from The Conversation titled 'Do more roads really mean less congestion for commuters'; where, after explaining the concept of induced demand, it concludes by saying:
Even without the extra road users that new roads create, if the new roads are built in the wrong locations congestion may actually become worse simply because of the way people behave. Roads alone do not solve congestion in the long term; they are only one (problematic) tool in a transport management toolkit.
For me this proposal is more about opportunism using a faux veneer of actual need. In fact, it's overkill.
If we do have a serious problem with trucks clogging up local road networks in and around the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong then why isn't this proposal targeted directly at freight?
Wouldn't targeting freight users of the existing road network be better carried out by reducing the scope of this proposal to having a freight-only lanes in each direction inside the current West Gate Freeway corridor that leads to a freight vehicle-only tunnel under Yarraville and then a freight-only road connection from the west bank of the Maribyrnong to Footscray Road?
Do we really want to completely encircle the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong with Freeways/tollways? What kind of a legacy is that going to leave on the new Fishermans Bend employment precinct and mooted redevelopment areas between Dynon Road and South Kensington station?
While I have no problem with the notion of the private sector approaching the State Government with transport project proposals, and the way in which early disclosure is occurring as evidenced today is very welcome, however a positive cost to benefit ratio is not enough.
If Governments truly want to "balance" our motorised transport mix in Melbourne then they're not going to achieve it by giving the go ahead to road projects like this all the while public transport projects have decade long timeframes on them.
Spring Street should send Transurban back to the drawing board to come up with a solution that is more targeted toward freight, will not induce excessive private-vehicle demand nor encourage more people to drive to the centre of the city and will not entrench auto-centricity in the western suburbs of Melbourne.