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When a rail link to Melbourne Airport was first proposed, in 1958, the airport was still a dozen years from being opened. The city’s population was not much more than 1.5 million.
Today, the population is surging towards 5 million, the Melbourne-Sydney air corridor is the world’s fifth-busiest, 35 million people pass through the airport each year, and the city’s arterial roads, large stretches of which are tolled, are gridlocked for much of the day. The rail link has still not been built.
The link has been faithfully announced by generations of politicians, by government after government, ALP and Liberal, but has been stymied by politics. The question is not whether an effective public transport link to the airport – an area so big it has its own postcode – is needed.
That has been evident for, well, the entire 60 years since the Tullamarine site, almost 25 kilometres from the city centre, was selected by a government panel. One of the first proposals was that the entire journey be via a tunnel. Another, by an experienced French consortium with the financial backing of its government, was for a monorail.
The Liberal Party has previously generally backed
a direct, dedicated line, while the ALP has wanted to integrate such a link into the existing rail network.
This time the Coalition’s first preference is understood to be a line going through Maribyrnong – which it believes would be more profitable – with the state Labor government favouring a route through Sunshine – which may be quicker.
With Melbourne growing each year by about a tenth of its 1958 count, traffic congestion has become Victoria’s biggest economic problem, and infrastructure has become one of the hottest political and social issues – with a state election a matter of months away.
The airport rail link has reasonably come to be seen as almost mythical, but the federal government’s promise of $5 billion towards what may eventually become a $15 billion bill may at last bear fruit.
The need for commitment has become urgent. The project can be a fine investment, as a viable business and an expansion of Melbourne’s tourism sector and of the state’s overall commercial capacity.
It can only be hoped that Canberra’s fiscal incentive proves the fillip to finally bring about the link. But it risks being another source of frustration and inertia if the project is not assiduously tendered, vetted and monitored. And none of that can happen until full due diligence has been done on the various options.
There is much research on which to draw to help finalise some key issues. Should the project be limited to a direct rail link from the city? And what form of rail – light, heavy, elevated, underground? What control, if any, should the federal government have? Should regions be connected to the link to encourage decentralisation and take even more pressure off the metropolitan network?
The operators of toll roads and the Melbourne Airport parking monopoly are among the only potential losers, if the project is done well. The likely winners – including commuters, taxpayers and domestic and international travellers - will be many.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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