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Transurban has been asked to prove that the West Gate Tunnel's controversial off-ramps into Melbourne's city centre need to be built at all.
And at the first day of hearings into the impacts of the $5.5 billion project, VicRoads was granted secrecy over evidence it will give – because of what it says are "national security" concerns over the West Gate Bridge.
A preliminary review of the proposal by Planning Minister Richard Wynne's hand-picked experts, released on Wednesday, queried fundamental aspects of the project.
The tollroad includes a connection to Dynon Road in West Melbourne, which has raised serious concerns from residents and Melbourne City Council over traffic flooding local streets.
The council estimates it has spent $20 million over the last three decades reducing traffic in both West Melbourne and North Melbourne.
By Transurban's own estimates the new tollroad when it opens will pump an extra 9000 cars into the area each day.
The panel of planning and transport experts appointed to scrutinise the project have asked for an explanation from Transurban and the government authority overseeing the tollroad on the importance of "the Dynon Road connection in regard to achievement of the project objectives".
Mr Wynne's experts also want to know if any alternative options were considered before proposing the off-ramps, and what could be done to minimise the harm caused by thousands of extra vehicles driving through the area.
A spaghetti junction to be built in West Melbourne as part of the West Gate Tunnel project. Photo: Western Distributor AuthorityThey have also asked about the importance of the planned extension of Wurundjeri Way, the major road through Docklands that the Andrews government wants Transurban to extend and widen as part of the project. They also asked what alternatives had been considered.
At the hearing, a lawyer for VicRoads also told the panel chair Nick Wimbush that concerns over security had led the roads authority to ask that some of their evidence be heard confidentially.
The road authority controls the West Gate Bridge, which has been speculated on as the target of terrorism plans in the past. Such were concerns over a terror attack on the bridge and its surrounds that in 2006 boom gates were built at its entrances.
"It goes to national security and it is limited to the western side of the bridge," said Rory O'Connor, a lawyer for VicRoads when asked why the evidence needed to be given in private.
Mr Wimbush said he would allow VicRoads to present on its submission confidentially, because it concerned national security.
A request to VicRoads' for a copy of the submission was refused.
Recommendations made by Mr Wimbush and his fellow planning and transport experts are not binding on the Andrews government. But Mr Wynne will be reluctant to ignore any serious concerns they raise.
Premier Daniel Andrews has said construction of the road will begin next year.
Six weeks of hearings, starting in earnest in August, will see dozens of lawyers, planning experts and residents dissect the impacts of the six-lane tollway and tunnel on the city's booming west, and its likely effect on Melbourne's transport network.
More than 500 submissions have been made to the planning experts about the road's impacts.
Mr Wimbush said that, broadly, the public submissions related to the impacts of the tollroad on the western suburbs, and particularly roads such as Hyde Street in Yarraville and Millers Road in Brooklyn.
Submissions had also been received on air quality and the health implications of the road's construction, traffic predictions and congestion across Melbourne, business impacts, and "broader issues related to transport planning ... [and] preferences for public transport rather than this project".
Some time at Wednesday's hearing was dedicated to whether they should be made widely available.
All public comments made on the last big tollroad proposed for Melbourne, the East West Link, were put online by the Napthine government. This was not planned as part of the West Gate Tunnel hearings.
Mr Wynne said on Wednesday, via his barrister Susan Brennan SC, that he would like all submissions placed online. Mr Wimbush later said it was likely most submissions would be put online.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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