Seventeen billion? Can Melbourne afford not to do it?

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Introduction

In early 2011 Federal Liberal MP Greg Hunt spoke to Committee for Melbourne and called for a new type of bi-partisanship and a new type of community consultation.
It is preciesely that sort of consultation that is needed to solve Melbourne’s $17 Billion level crossing problem. 
I agree and followed up with this article: ‘Is it time for bipartisan liberalism?’, here.

Seventeen Billion? Can we afford not to?

Federal Liberal MP Greg Hunt spoke to Committee for Melbourne and called for a new type of bi-partisanship and a new type of community consultation.
“In Australia we look at bi-partisanship and community consultation in a superficial way”, he said. “We present our plan and demand people come on board.”
It is time to heed that call. The community must be empowered to engage in a genuine decision based consultation – a consultation that addresses the compromises we face in order to tackle the challenges associated with Melbourne’s growth.
Of the many challenges we face, and perhaps the most widespread, is the little understood $17.2 billion transport challenge posed by level crossings.
The separation of road and rail does not at first seem like a critical issue – but it is. In fact it could be considered one of the hinge point issue for Melbourne’s transport infrastructure.
Level crossings are one of the single biggest restricting factors in increasing train frequency in Melbourne.
Currently there are 172 level crossings within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary. Sydney, by comparison has only 8.
And this is the problem: If you put more trains on the network then the boom gates are down longer and the roads clog up.
This creates a series of problems for Melbourne’s community as safety becomes jeopardised by frustrated motorist avoiding boom gate closure, and the cost of congestion being forecast to rise from $3 billion per year to $6.1 billion by 2020.
If that is the financial cost, what about the practical?
Most public transport experts will tell you that for public transport to be truly effective service needs to be so frequent the time table doesn’t matter. Studies show this to be a service of eight minutes or more frequent.
That would mean on any given single line level crossing, a train would pass one way or the other every four minutes – and with a total closure time of two minutes that means every level crossing would be closed two out of every four minutes on single line crossings. On multiple line level crossings it would be more often.
Indeed if you were to put enough trains on the Dandenong line to meet current demand – not future demand – then the level crossings along the Dandenong line would be closed for almost the entire morning and evening peak period.
One doesn’t need to be a town planner to realise that such a disruption to traffic flow would create road chaos. So if the problem is evident why can’t the government fix it? The answer is cost.
At an average of around $100 million per level crossing the total bill would be $17.2 billion and government simply cannot afford it.
My question is, can Melbourne afford not to?
Our current rail network capacity is overloaded by roughly 40 per cent, and increasing. If we want more trains at increased frequency we have to accept that the roads clog up from level crossing closures, or we pay to upgrade the infrastructure.
Only two grade separations were completed by the Kennett government and two during the Bracks/Brumby government terms.
Currently the Baillieu government has committed to 10 in the first term, which is better than the predecessors. But at that rate it would take us 17 terms – or 68 years – to clear Melbourne’s level crossings.
If we chose to pay, either we fund them through government debt and taxation and accept the slow delivery program, or we look to offset the infrastructure costs by allowing mixed-use development over viable level crossing sites.
We all know that any form of commercial development around train stations and level crossings is likely to ignite NIMBYism, led by well-meaning but small focussed groups. But we need to accept at a broader community level that change is required to improve our greater metropolitan liveability.
There are many tough calls to make, and genuine tradeoffs to consider. The community must be consulted during these decisions.
The private sector is part of our community, and we see an opportunity for solution driven discussions to be focused on alleviating the problems of Melbourne’s most troubled level crossings.
The Committee for Melbourne would like to begin exploring ways which the private sector could help offset the economic, environmental and social costs of separating road and rail.  Our members have indicated to us there is an opportunity for business to assist in delivering some of this critical infrastructure if the community and planning frameworks are supportive.
We would like to see the birth of Greg Hunt’s vision for a new community engagement where business, community and government come together to discuss problems together with a focus on delivering solutions – not just plans and proposals.
We can not afford to continue sort term and shallow policy debate. We can not afford to continue a slow fix on issues like Grade Separation.
Issues like grade separation can be used to reignite longer term thinking and better policy across a broad range of areas and re-engage democracy. We have been lacking long term thinking and planning for some time. We need to bring it back.

More discussion like this is in: 

  
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