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THE blinds for Ruth Illich's $1.1 million warehouse in Footscray, which has been undergoing a $75,000 renovation for the past four months, were due to turn up this week. So were the builders.
On Thursday, Illich was trying to cancel both, after learning - through a bungled compulsory acquisition process - that her home would probably be demolished to make way for a new train line.
Some Footscray residents only learnt their houses were likely to be taken for a new rail line when a Channel Nine reporter knocked on their doors about 2pm on Monday. Premier John Brumby had announced the route hours earlier. Others, such as Illich, heard nothing until Tuesday night, when the Department of Transport finally called. ''A woman rang and said: 'I'm calling about the letter you got.' We hadn't got any letter.'' (It arrived the next day.)
Illich, a Labor supporter who threw a party when the Kennett government lost office in 1999, has been bewildered by the lack of open process behind the probable demolition of the 440-square-metre warehouse conversion her family settled on in April. Its sleek concrete floors have just been polished and an expensive new hydronic heating system installed.
Illich knows the railways need improvement, and does not want to be portrayed as being only interested in her backyard. She just wants to know why the process for deciding where a new rail line would go was so secretive.
What became clear this Monday, as Brumby hosted a lunch for 300 transport industry figures at which he reannounced his government's many transport plans, is that the public process for how Victoria decides its transport priorities is, on the most generous assessment, confusing. With Victoria's state election only 132 days away and transport a key focus, there are many big plans. The $4.3 billion Regional Rail Link, which may sweep away Illich's home, at least has funding. Others - such as the $5 billion WestLink freeway from the Port of Melbourne to West Sunshine, a train tunnel from Footscray to the Domain that will also cost $5 billion, and a vague $6 billion plan for a freeway through Heidelberg - do not.
Brumby repitched some of these plans this week, along with a publicly funded ''report card'' on the government's transport achievements in the past 18 months.
Labor, increasingly on the nose with Victorians as key issues of crime and transport burn up political capital, hopes the cash-strapped federal government will fund these projects. Many of them run through Prime Minister Julia Gillard's electorate of Lalor. But Canberra's Building Australia Fund contains only $10.4 billion; state governments have asked it to fund projects totalling more than eight times that amount. The lack of funding hasn't stopped the state government launching a two-year, $5.5 million ad campaign, paid for by the public. Research by the Department of Transport in 2007 showed people were prepared to put up with delays and inconvenience if they could be persuaded there was ''a plan''.
''We want people to understand the bigger picture, not just concentrate on the disruption to their journey, and that short-term inconvenience will be worth it,'' says a December 2007 briefing note, from the department's head of public affairs, released to The Age under freedom of information.
As Footscray residents learnt this week, the government's plans appear to evolve rather than be carefully evaluated and publicly reviewed. Projects such as the Regional Rail Link, which gained federal funding last year, are rammed through without much explanation, while others such as a freeway link between the Eastern Freeway and CityLink are ignored or put in the ''long-term'' basket.
The state's most pressing transport problems include Melbourne's arterial roads grinding to a halt under the pressure of 1700 new residents a week, trains and trams so overcrowded they are throwing out timetabling, causing even bigger reliability problems, and a huge increase in freight transported by truck from the Port of Melbourne. The West Gate Bridge carries 160,000 vehicles a day and is said to be nearing capacity; a soon-to-be-completed $1.4 billion upgrade to add an extra lane to the bridge and much of the Monash Freeway is expected to accommodate about a decade's more growth. It is not clear why the $5 billion WestLink freeway, which would accommodate the journeys of an extra 60,000 vehicles a day, is proposed as an alternative to the West Gate, rather than other ways of moving people and freight.
LABOR'S view of how planning should be handled for big transport projects was perhaps most candidly explained last September, in a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the state's train system.
Government backbencher Jennifer Huppert, member for the southern metropolitan area, questioned former Victorian government and World Bank transport planner Ed Dotson about the implementation of major projects. ''Putting things out in the public too soon, before final decisions are made, allows for scaremongering about people losing land,'' she said. ''From a good policy perspective, it is important to actually make a decision before putting out any options that are uninformed. That allows people living in areas that may be affected by the new tracks to be properly informed - in an orderly manner.''
Dotson, who in 2008 helped evaluate parts of the government's Victorian Transport Plan, disagreed, saying it was ''a little strange'' for governments to work on big projects such as a new rail line without being prepared to say what options it was considering. ''But then I am working in an environment where I think matters like this should be made public,'' he said.
Dotson worked for eight years in Victoria's Public Transport Corporation before going to Washington in 1991 and spending more than a decade working for the World Bank on such projects as developing Mumbai's rail system. He told the inquiry that Victoria was bucking the world trend on planning big projects. ''Normal practice is to go in for full public consultation, including involving the public in writing the brief for the studies. That is the way that has been found over time to reduce the amount of concern and reduce the potential political backlash at a later date.''
The Victorian government asked for submissions when writing its 2008 Victorian Transport Plan, but it was never clear what notice was taken of the 2300 it got. This, Dotson said, was not how other countries did their planning.
''You actually go out to the public and you talk to them about the issue you are going to address … You ask them to make suggestions about how you may solve the problem, and then you go away and take that on board, together with the stuff from the technical people, and work up some solutions, come back to the public and say, 'Here we have three solutions. These are the costs, these are the benefits and these are the downsides we see. What do you think?' … The reason that public consultation started in transport projects was to stop people laying down in front of bulldozers on projects they did not like.''
Melbourne University transport academic John Stone did his PhD on ''community consultation''. He says the chaotic scenes this week as residents learned from reporters that their homes could be swept away are a direct result of the government being so guarded about releasing information. For his PhD, Stone studied Vancouver's 30-year plan for its transport needs: ''When they got to the point of saying 'we need to build a new train line', it had been part of a plan for years and people could see that there were no other alternatives that were cheaper.''
Switzerland's railways undergo a similar process. ''There the [transport department] is so much more scrutinised and constantly told by the government to go back and look at doing it again,'' he says. ''If they said there they needed to bulldoze some houses, people would say, 'Is there a cheaper way to do this?' We haven't done that, and there are all these rail tracks already running through Footscray. To say there is no way they can be used is just not credible.''
Stone says public transport planning in Victoria, as in Sydney, is in a mess. ''You need a competent planning agency, which we do not have, and we need a public process for evaluating proposals, which we also don't have. When you just announce these things and tell people it's in their own best interests - and you have a track record of failure like myki - people understandably say, 'Why?'''
Although people such as Stone are critical of the lack of open process under Labor, more of a mystery is what would eventuate under the opposition if it wins government on November 27. Public Transport Minister Martin Pakula says that, two years after Ted Baillieu promised a transport strategy, there is nothing to show. ''All he's done,'' says Pakula, ''is threaten to scrap billions of dollars in key transport projects,'' a reference to Baillieu's pledge on Monday to look at the legal options for scrapping the myki smartcard.
Train patronage in Melbourne over the past decade has doubled to about 4 million passengers a week and this, Pakula says, is why new rail lines such as the Regional Rail Link are being planned. Other projects the government has on the go are a 3.5-kilometre extension of the Epping line to South Morang, the electrification of suburban trains to Sunbury (so politically unpopular that Brumby promised residents this week they would not lose their V/Line services), and 50 new trams and 38 new trains. Pakula says the Liberal Party, under Jeff Kennett, ''ripped the heart out of our public transport system before, and they will do it again''. It isn't clear if the Victorian public is still listening to lines like this.
Transport groups such as the Public Transport Users Association say the heartache for Footscray residents this week came from the government's failure to explain why projects, and specific routes, were needed. ''It doesn't bode well for the management of the Regional Rail Link, that they got such a simple thing so wrong,'' says president Daniel Bowen. The explanations offered for the $4 billion project in the two years since being put forward by Sir Rod Eddington have been baffling, he says.
One Footscray resident facing compulsory acquisition, Nick Fahey, was incredulous when told by three transport department officials yesterday it did not know how many trains would run on the new rail line each hour.
Bowen says: ''We would hope they'd have an idea of what services they wanted to run, and design infrastructure around that. Instead they have a vague plan for the infrastructure, and no idea what sort of services they will use it for. They are making things up as they go along.''
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