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Building the Melbourne Metro rail project would improve train times, tackle disadvantage and boost productivity by almost $400 million, according to high-level advice prepared for state and federal governments.
As Premier Denis Napthine pushes ahead with plans for an east-west road between Clifton Hill and Flemington, an economic report has argued in favour of the alternative rail proposal: an underground train line between South Yarra and Kensington.
The report was prepared last year for the Council of Australian Governments reform council. It says the Melbourne Metro would improve travel times, reshape employment opportunities, and ''significantly'' mitigate disadvantage in Melbourne's west by giving people more access to work.
In turn, labour productivity would increase by about $384 million over the next 30 years, and ''equality of opportunity'' would improve.
''The Melbourne Metro potentially represents a 'step change' in the development of Melbourne's spatial economy,'' says the report, produced by SGS Economics and Planning.
''As well as improving service coverage and quality for public transport users, this investment is likely to lead to a significant redistribution of future employment growth, favouring the inner west in particular.''
The Melbourne Metro would allow an extra 24,000 passengers every hour by building a new train line to complement the city loop, with five underground stations: Arden, Parkville, CBD North, CBD South and Domain.
But as The Sunday Age revealed last year, the business case warns that unless construction begins within two years, all train lines except Sandringham will be so busy that passengers will increasingly be left behind during the morning peak.
The Napthine government says it supports the rail project, but its immediate priority is building the first stage of the east-west link: an $8 billion tunnel to ease pressure for motorists using the Eastern Freeway.
During a fiery debate in Parliament last week, Dr Napthine talked up the tunnel, insisting it would alleviate congestion, boost productivity and had widespread support from the business community.
But Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews disagreed, and is now targeting MPs in south-east marginal seats as part of letter-box campaign opposing the road.
Letters have been sent to voters in the sandbelt seats of Frankston, Carrum, Mordialloc and Bentleigh telling residents the tunnel is the ''wrong priority'', particularly when TAFEs and health services are being cut.
''There is no business case, no traffic numbers, no sense of how the finances of this project work, and no benefit for the vast majority of Victorians - but they will have to pay for it,'' Labor's letter warns.
Like the east-west link, the idea of a cross-city Melbourne Metro was first outlined years ago, as part of a sweeping report by infrastructure tsar Sir Rod Eddington. Federally, Labor has committed $3 billion to the project, but the funding is not likely to begin until 2019. Meanwhile, the Coalition has pitched $1.5 billion towards the road tunnel in its first term, should Tony Abbott win government, but has ruled out funding urban rail projects.
Asked how Mr Abbott's refusal to fund urban rail could effect the Melbourne Metro timeline, government spokeswoman Larissa Garvin said: ''It is too early to talk about funding streams as construction is not due until well beyond the forward estimates and therefore any funding promises are not even included in the federal government's budget books.''
A Public Transport Victoria spokesman said the length and complexity of the rail project ''far exceed anything undertaken in Victoria before, including the Melbourne underground rail loop, the CityLink tunnels and the east-west link''.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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