Greg Hunt's Melbourne 2200 vision is an expensive flop, but... (Part 1)

Recently Greg Hunt appeared to throw off the shackles he was operating under in his role as salesman for one of the stupider bits of Coalition policy, issuing, seemingly a propos of nothing and having spent fully five minutes with responsibility for cities, a long-term infrastructure plan for Melbourne to the year 2200.

Hunt's plan is certainly bold. In the sense that he appears to want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars of public money on projects that would deliver negligible public benefits. But Hunt does deserve a measure of praise for the ambitious breadth of several elements of the vision. I think it's important that those elements of the plan are factored in to the broader debate about Melbourne's infrastructure needs, it would be a pity for the entire plan to sink under the weight of its own megalomania.

The Hunt plan was essentially based around six major projects.

Public Transport Projects

  • Build Melbourne Metro Rail - $11-15 bn
  • Undergrounding All Metro Rail Lines - uncosted

Freeway Projects

  • Build East-West Link - $6-8 bn
  • Connect Eastern Freeway and Eastlink with Metro Ring Road - $6 bn
  • Monash widening project - $200m

Urban Renewal Projects

  • Relocating the Port of Melbourne to Geelong and Hastings and
  • Rezoning that land for medium density housing - uncosted

It's important to actually determine what Melbourne's long-run transport planning needs and goals actually are, before we can properly measure the merits of the proposal. Hunt's plans exclude any discussion of improvements to the tramway or bus networks. I've decided to exclude tramways accordingly from my response, although we do address the bus network as integral to increasing the size of the catchment areas for train stations and CADs.

These priorities take as their starting thesis that the road network is operating at near capacity. It takes as its startpoint the assumption that most of the grand suburban freeway dreams for this city have now been realised, and that public rather than private transport investment must be the medium term priority in order to increase the capacity of Melbourne's transport network as a whole.

Public Transport Aims

  • A significant increase in public transport mode share, particularly for daily commuters, freeing up the existing road network, which is approaching capacity.
  • A transition of the network to a metro-style 'turn up and go' system
  • Removing the rail network capacity constraint created by the City Loop.
  • Removing the rail network capacity constraint created by outdated signalling
  • A significant increase in the ability of the public transport network to service existing public transport "dead zones", again enabling significant mode shift towards public transport.
  • A radical reformation of the suburban bus network to drastically improve integration with the train network and provide more effective feeder services to that network
  • A public transport system that facilitates the development of key suburban activity centres by increasing their effective catchment area.
  • A public transport system that operates less radially from the city centre, and better enables an increase in public transport mode share to key suburban destinations.
  • A public transport solution that enables future greenfields suburban estates to be planned around public transport infrastructure
  • An effective mass public transport solution for the Fisherman's Bend urban renewal area

Private Transport Aims

  • A private transport solution to the bottleneck at the end of the Eastern Freeway - most particularly for those journeying to the CBD.
  • A private transport solution to Punt Road gridlock
  • Adding significant north-south capacity to the outer east, particularly improving access to the Eastern and Monash freeways
  • A second river crossing to free up capacity on the West Gate Bridge

Urban Planning Aims

  • The development of housing for a large number of new residents within brownfields sites catered to by existing infrastructure
  • Significantly reduce the number of frieght movements carried by truck on inner city and suburban roads. The model here should be moving freight in bulk from container ports to multi-modal suburban distribution centres - trucks are only needed for "final yards" transport to destination.
  • A solution to pending capacity constraints at the Port of Melbourne

Failing Public Transport

How does Hunt's proposed solution stack up against these criteria? I would argue it meets most of the private transport and urban planning objectives well, and the public transport ones very poorly.

At its core, the proposal to underground all suburban train lines is utterly bizarre. This would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And not deliver one iota of new capacity on the network or improved amenity for its users.

Unless the suggestion is that all travel by the year 2200 will be mandated as subterranean owing to climate chaos. That would at least be consistent with Mr. Hunt's climate policies.

The only other public transport priority addressed by the Hunt plan is the capacity constraint issue with the Loop, solved by Metro rail.

But make no mistake, this is an absolutely pivotal time in this city's evolution. We are planning for a very rapid rate of near-term growth, and the nature and needs of a metropolis of five or six million are very different to the needs of the city at the start of the nineties, when Jeff Kennett offered Citylink as the great panacea for our transport ills. We absolutely have to get the prioritised spending of scarce infrastructure dollars absolutely correct, or we will put a significant artifical chokehold on Melbourne's and indeed Victoria's ability to continue to grow, both economically and physically.

I make the case that such a correctly prioritised list now must favour the urgent and growing list of needs of the rail network well ahead of any other. As we can see above, the list of needs there is long, and the rail network is going to be asked to do the majority of the lifting in improving the capacity of the transport network as a whole.

And we are in an age when that case looks pretty incontrovertible to even the likes of the RACV and VicRoads. The consensus around our public transport needs and the broad-based desire to dramatically improve the network means a significant policy window is now ajar.

And it is clear that the network needs are not incremental in nature, they are transformational, therefore they demand the bold, the radical and the visionary. That's what we mean by the difference between what he have now and a proper metro rail network. We will not derive a bold new transport network by incrementalism from the existing one. And on this basis Hunt again deserves some praise, although he's attracted Mr Kennett's ire precisely for his plan's pie in the sky nature, although Kennett bizarrely supports undergrounding rail lines. But Minister Hunt has opened up a couple of possibilities that have notionally been off the table due to expense and ambition.

Move the Port

If we sat down and designed Melbourne anew today, the version that had the city's main Port located right at the heart of the city centre, when all the heavy industry is in the outer suburbs would go straight in the bin. The upshot of this is thousands of avoidable cross-town truck movements every day. We've tried and failed dismally at getting freight on to rail from this location, and it now appears it would require significant further investment at this location to change this.

We are going to require new housing for, depending whose numbers you use, somewhere in excess of another couple of million people over the course of the next fifty or so years. This land could scarcely be more central, already on a railway line, and utterly massive when you consider the railyards would get pulled up too. This is the place to be doing urban renewal.

Suburban Metro Underground

The other game-changing element of the Hunt vision is a willingness to spend vast sums on suburban underground rail. As stated, that's totally misguided for the existing network, but provides much greater flexibility to and therefore amenity from the possible set of suburban network extensions. If we're willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars tunneling through the suburbs, let's make it meet the maximum number of goals above.

So, boldly enabled by the new possibilities of this new 'Hunt doctrine', I have devised a network development plan that seeks to maximise the benefits that can accrue from transforming the network to a metro rail system. This will be covered in part two.

This article originally appeared on Adam Ford's blog.

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