The Andrews Labor government in Victoria is hell bent on proceeding with the controversial West Gate Tunnel project despite serious community concerns and transport experts condemning it as a lemon.
The $5.5 billion toll road project has been put forward as an alternative to the West Gate Bridge and includes a tunnel under Yarraville, the widening of the existing West Gate Freeway, a new crossover the Maribyrnong River, and a series of city off-ramps and flyovers.
Daniel Andrews went to last election saying that he would fix the traffic problems in the west by building a $500 million West Gate Distributor. Now, the project has blown out to billions.
The private firm Transurban will contribute $4 billion to the project, and in return will be allowed to operate the new toll road. As an added bonus they will also be given a 10-year extension on their licence to toll City Link. This will be a huge windfall as Transurban already makes around $700 million a year from City Link tolls.
The government claims the project will reduce congestion for drivers in Melbourne’s west but in reality, this project is designed to benefit the big transport companies. Corporations like Transurban and the big trucking companies will get richer while ordinary commuters will be forced to cover the costs via tolls.
The transport expert John Allard is critical of the modelling carried out for the project and contests the state government’s claim that $1.30 will be returned for every $1.00 invested. The Andrews government is keeping their traffic projections secret just as the Liberal Napthine government did with the thwarted East-West Link project.
By keeping their reports confidential it means that the road project cannot be properly assessed, even by the government’s own handpicked experts. Indeed, the transport engineer and planner, William McDougall was removed from his position working on the project after he raised concerns about the figures.
McDougall said that spending billions of dollars of public money was “based on flawed modelling and cost-benefit analysis”. He went so far as to say the traffic numbers were “fudged”, or in other words deliberately distorted.
Just like with the East-West Link, at the behest of their big business backers, the government has cooked the books in an attempt to dress up a project that is not in our interests. While no doubt many working class people would use the road once built, much more benefit would be gained if the same amount of money was invested into public transport projects.
It has been demonstrated that public transport does more to reduce congestion, it is better for the environment and it creates more long-term jobs.
Trucks could be removed from residential streets and traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, could be reduced if a plan was developed to transport the bulk of our freight via rail. A port rail shuttle that connected the port to distribution hubs across Melbourne would be a much better use of taxpayer dollars.
But rather than relying on the private sector to build it, the government should bring the project in-house. By removing the profit motive, and the layers of contractors that will all seek to take their cut, millions of dollars could be saved and pumped back into public transport initiatives such as new passenger rail lines and increasing the frequency and capacity of passenger trains.
This type of approach to infrastructure would require the Labor Party to abandon its pro-big business agenda and start to prioritise projects on the basis of people’s needs.
Bold community campaigns are required to stop these types of profit-driven projects. The example of the campaign against the East-West Link shows that with a fighting approach even the biggest of them can be stopped.
The big picture however is that communities shouldn’t have to just fight one dodgy project after another. The solution is to build a political alternative to the major parties, both of which have tunnel vision in the interests of the road lobby and other big businesses. It is only by confronting the corporate agenda as a whole, and winning support for socialist planning policies, that community interests and welfare will be met.
By Michael Naismith