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IN AN extraordinary change of pace, Ballarat is now growing faster than the Gold Coast, as commuters in search of cheap housing are descending on Victoria's regional cities to make their new homes.
For perhaps the first time since the gold rush, Ballarat is outgrowing Melbourne and is now the fastest-growing city in Victoria. Last year it added 1867 people, a growth rate of 1.9 per cent - the equal third-fastest of Australia's top 20 cities.
V/Line reports that more than a million passengers a year are now taking the train from Ballarat. Passenger numbers on the line have swollen 126 per cent in five years, thanks to the regional fast rail program.
Ballarat mayor Mark Harris says the duplication of the Western Freeway and the new trains have kicked the city's growth rate up several gears, and not everyone likes it.
''We'd been growing at a half to 1 per cent a year for most of my life and people were used to that. It's been challenging for us to have growth at this pace. Our infrastructure has fallen behind and our unemployment rate is above-average,'' he said.
''My aim is to have jobs in Ballarat and for the city to grow independently of Melbourne. We've set aside land for an extra 30,000 residents in the west, but we're putting in job zones as well.''
House prices in Ballarat are far cheaper than in Melbourne, providing a big attraction for young families. The same is true for Bendigo, Geelong and the Latrobe Valley, which are all seeing rapid growth for the first time in decades.
V/Line figures show passenger traffic on the four lines has more than doubled since 2006. Spokesman James Kelly said it has no more rolling stock to meet the growth in demand, and worries that peak-hour passengers might soon have to stand from Ballan.
Last year the four cities between them added 7500 people, or close to 10 per cent of the state's population growth. But growth was slower in Warrnambool, Mildura and Shepparton, which are out of commuting range.
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