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Tony Abbott has confirmed there will be no Commonwealth money for commuter rail projects if he wins the election, directly contradicting Premier Denis Napthine's claim that the federal Opposition Leader's stance on public transport had ''softened''.
Desperate to head off a road versus rail debate, Dr Napthine said he had been reassured in private conversations that Mr Abbott was open to the idea of funding the metro rail tunnel from South Kensington to South Yarra.
''I've certainly had some discussions about Tony Abbott's issue with rail tunnels and he has softened, and he has indicated to me that they are prepared to have ongoing discussions on key infrastructure like the metro rail tunnel,'' Dr Napthine said.
But Mr Abbott seemed to think otherwise. In April he said the Commonwealth should ''stick to our knitting'' and fund roads not urban rail. On Thursday he bluntly denied he ever told the Premier he was open to funding urban rail.
''I would dispute that's the case,'' he said.
''What I say in public and what I saw in private is the same; we will not be committing to the metro rail scheme. I've made that absolutely crystal clear.''
The state government has tied its political fortunes to the road project, which will connect the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway. But it is also keen to avoid being seen as against public transport, saying it also wants to see the metro rail project built towards the end of the decade.
Mr Abbott's slap-down follows a decision by the state Labor opposition to unambiguously oppose the $6 billion to $8 billion east-west road link, creating a clear battleline for the 2014 state election.
With a raft of marginal Victorian federal seats up for grabs to the east and south-east of the city, the debate will play a central role in the looming federal election.
Federally, the Rudd government has promised to provide $3 billion to fund the metro rail tunnel, which is seen as a necessary precursor to other public transport projects, while Mr Abbott is backing the east-west road project, with a $1.5 billion commitment.
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese leapt on the confusion. ''What we've had here is either Denis Napthine verballing Tony Abbott or Tony Abbott saying one thing to the Premier and another thing publicly,'' Mr Albanese said.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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