Should the federal government fund urban transport?

Posted: April 9, 2013 in Transport
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The federal Liberal Party's transport policy consists exclusively of road projects, with no committments to public transport. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Our Plan Real Solutions For All Australians, Liberal Party, page 32)

The federal Liberal Party’s transport policy consists exclusively of road projects, with no commitments to public transport. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Our Plan Real Solutions For All Australians, Liberal Party, page 32)

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declared last week that he would be committing no funding to public transport ahead of this year’s election, despite having committed $4bn to road projects in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

“We spoke to Infrastructure Australia and their advice was that the most pressing road priority in Melbourne was the east-west link. The Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads. We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”Tony Abbott, Federal Opposition Leader (4 April 2013)

His first point, about the highest priority road project in Melbourne, is correct because he is talking about road projects specifically rather than transport projects in general. However, according to Alan Davies at The Urbanist, the East-West Link road is only on Infrastructure Australia’s “Real Potential” stage, the second of four categories, while the Melbourne Metro rail project is in it’s top “Ready to Proceed” category. At best, Mr Abbott is asking the wrong question, at worst he is committing money to a project with a benefit cost-ratio of only 0.50 (i.e. the benefit is less than the cost), when he could be funding the Melbourne Metro with a benefit-cost ratio of 1.30 (figures from Alan Davies’ article linked to previously).

His second point, on the Commonwealth government having no history of funding urban rail, is just flat out wrong. As Daniel Bowen points out when listing just some of the urban rail projects funded by the Commonwealth, “perhaps the Federal Coalition has no history of funding urban rail, but the Commonwealth most certainly does”.

“I think all but the most car-centric person would see that in modern growing cities, you can’t move everybody around by road — that rail, particularly in inner-city areas, is much more efficient. Unfortunately unlike some of his Liberal colleagues (and unlike conservatives in such places as the UK), Tony Abbott does appear to be the most car-centric person. It comes down to this: if you want more people on public transport, provide more public transport. If you want more people on the roads, build more roads. Abbott is clearly backing the latter.”Daniel Bowen (5 April 2013)

The decision to fund road projects over rail is not a merit based decision, it is a politically based on (and one which I have criticised the Labor Party for doing in the past on both WestConnex and the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link). As a comparison, urban rail has received a majority of Infrastructure Australia funding when merit is used as the criteria.

“Fifty-five per cent of Infrastructure Australia nation-building money went to urban rail on merit.” –  Professor Peter Newman, Infrastructure Australia advisory board member (4 April 2013)

The state governments in Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia, all governed by Mr Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition, have also all publically voiced their opposition to his decision.

“We will continue to vigorously pursue federal government funding for this important infrastructure development.” – Denis Napthine, Victorian Premier (4 April 2013)

“Given the current Federal (Labor) Government’s support of $236 million for rail infrastructure at the Perth City Link and $3 million towards planning of the MAX light rail project, we expect that future Federal governments, whether Liberal or Labor, would consider the benefits of funding such important transport initiatives based on merit.”Colin Barnett, WA Premier (4 April 2013)

“The reality is if there is not federal funding for these projects, they cannot proceed, we cannot afford to do them alone. We’ll continue that process of lobbying the federal coalition and federal Labor.”Scott Emerson, Queensland Transport Minister (4 April 2013)

Feeling the heat, Mr Abbott later clarified his statement, pointing out that his government would still fund freight rail and interstate transport, and that it was only commuter urban rail projects that he was referring to. On his side is the division of powers set out in the Australian constitution, where the Commonwealth government is responsible for freight and interstate transport, leaving state governments responsible for urban transport. While Mr Abbott is well within his rights to follow a strict interpretation of the role of the Commonwealth government, it is also true that such a view would preclude federal funding of schools and hospitals, given that they are a state responsibility. This is why the days of health, education, and transport being funded solely by the states has now long gone.

This is where his argument starts to fall apart on constitutional grounds, and it becomes clear that it is ideologically driven. He seems much like American conservatives, who see public transport as a socialist means of transport “for the masses” requiring government subsidy while seeing the private motor vehicle as a form of transport that is liberating and free and more in line with their small government philosophy. He looks at the inner city areas which most heavily use public transport and sees Labor and Greens leaning voters, then at the car dominated outer suburban areas are where the swinging voters he needs live and decides that the politically astute thing is to build more roads.

“Public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still [a] hideous drain on the public purse…Mostly though…there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads”Tony Abbott, Battleline, page 174 (2009)

Not all conservatives still think this way. NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has successfully championed public transport despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW Chairman Nick Greiner and CEO Paul Broad, while London Mayor Boris Johnson is pushing an ambitious £913m expansion of his city’s bike network. They understand that you can’t build your way out of congestion with more roads and that, while roads play an important role, so does public and active transport. It’s disappointing to see that Mr Abbott hasn’t worked this out yet.

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