The Prime Minister Tony Abbott is often quoted as wishing to be remembered as ‘the infrastructure prime minister’. However, he has also been criticised for redirecting infrastructure funding away from rail and towards roads.
“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, then Federal Opposition Leader (4 April 2013)
Transport solutions should come after transport problems are identified and the best remedy to that problem is worked out. In many cases, such as for outer suburban areas with dispersed trips, it is indeed better for road based traffic solutions. In other cases, such as in compact inner city areas or into dense urban cores, it makes a lot more sense to use rail based public transport as a solution. It’s also important to remember that good road construction can also lead to bus, pedestrian, and bicycle access which rail cannot provide on its own.
This means that opposing all roads projects on the basis that they are a road project is actually just as bad as opposing all rail or public transport projects on the basis that they aren’t roads. When it comes to road vs rail, ‘it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition’ as former Tourism & Transport Forum head Christopher Brown would say. That puts a big question mark against the government’s desire to fund roads exclusively.
Mr Abbott, would argue that the Federal Government is merely providing certainty on road infrastructure funding, thus allowing the state governments to fund urban rail projects. Though he also claims to want to provide the infrastructure which will provide the greatest economic value to the nation’s cities, and in many cases that is rail.
But how tilted towards road funding is the budget? The forward estimates over the next 4 years show a total of $26,846m for road projects, with $2,712m for rail projects. This is not quite 100% for roads, though it’s about as close as you can get. Melbourne public transport advocate Daniel Bowen once explained that ‘if you want more people on public transport, provide more public transport. If you want more people on the roads, build more roads’, and the latter is clearly where the Federal Government is heading.
Even with situations where an exception might have been made, the Government has stood firm. For example, the future airport at Badgerys Creek will receive $2.9bn of Federal funding for roads, but not a dollar for a future rail line, despite the fact that the airport is being pushed by the Federal Government.
The one area where the government remains open to rail funding is with its “asset recycling fund”, where it will top up any funding state Governments commit from the sale of existing assets. The Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs recently confirmed that these funds will not be restricted to road projects. The fund will contain about $5bn.
But even if every dollar of this goes towards rail projects, the federal government will still be allocating almost 80% of its infrastructure budget for land transport towards roads. It would seem that this government is one that wants more people on the roads, rather than more people on public transport.
The Government would be wise to reconsider this strategy.