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The federal budget is expected to splash out on a series of passenger and freight rail projects around the nation to shore up marginal seats and counter a frontal attack by Labor claiming the Coalition has cut spending on infrastructure.
The initiatives would be some of the “goodies” Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack last week said would be announced by Scott Morrison in an “infrastructure budget”.
Queensland will be a big focus with business sources saying they expect federal commitments of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Brisbane Cross River Rail Link, the Acacia Ridge to Brisbane port freight rail proposal, and the Brisbane Metro.
The Brisbane business community says the concentration reflects the Coalition’s recognition that the election will be largely decided in Queensland, with several marginal city seats in play.
“Government ministers have been spending a lot of time in recent weeks in marginal seats,” a Brisbane source said. “In order to win these marginal seats they really need to show commitment outside of Sydney and Melbourne.”
But those two southern cities are also expected to get a budget boost for rail funding, seen as more palatable to many voters than road projects as a public transport effort to reduce congestion.
The Committee for Melbourne believes the budget will have funding for faster rail services to regional cities Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong, along with improved commuter rail from the Melbourne CBD to suburban employment “hubs” such as Monash.
The Committee for Sydney predicts a specific allocation for Phase One of the Badgerys Creek airport rail project, the north-south link from St Mary’s.
The government knows Labor will intensify its narrative that the Coalition has reduced infrastructure spending. “Infrastructure investment will decline from what was anticipated to be in their own budget in 2016-17, some $9.2 billion, down to $4.2bn in 2020-21,” Labor transport spokesman Anthony Albanese said.
He pointed to public transport projects the Coalition had “cut”, including the Brisbane Cross River Rail project.
The government has also come under attack from industry lobby group Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, which has said last year’s budget “confirms the cut to ‘real’ budgeted capital funding to its lowest level in more than a decade”.
IPA chief executive Adrian Dwyer said “what’s important is that the commonwealth increases its hard-dollar funding commitments for infrastructure to prepare for rapid population growth in our cities and regions over the next 30 years”.
A spokesman for Mr McCormack said: “If all of the commonwealth investment is included, including financing and grants to local government, the government’s overall investment is relatively stable at almost $9bn per year over the forward estimates.”
The spokesman listed a $2bn loan to the $16.8bn WestConnex suburban highway project in Sydney, in addition to a $1.5bn grant, and an additional $8.4bn in equity for the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project.
The Brisbane Cross River Rail project is a commuter train project promoted by the Queensland government but which needs a big federal injection to go ahead, as does the $1bn Brisbane Metro high-frequency rail project proposed by the Brisbane City Council.
Committee for Melbourne chief executive Martine Letts said that when it came to the budget, “we know that a lot of it will be driven by a marginal-seat strategy, rather than a national economic strategy.”
She said the business community expected announcements in the budget on improved rail links from Melbourne to regional cities.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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