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No matter what you think of the East West Link, taxpayer funds should never again be so blatantly wasted on such an appalling display of political brinkmanship.
As the state government finalises the provisional settlement with the consortium, it's hard to pinpoint who is most culpable.
On the one hand, there's Daniel Andrews, who scuttled the tunnel for inner-city votes; claimed the contract wasn't worth the paper it was written on; and is now spending at least $420 million to not build an arterial route the city might eventually need.
On the other hand, there's the Napthine Government, which rushed a project that struggled to stack up, covered it in spin, and then signed an unconscionable side letter designed to booby-trap its political opponent.
And let's not forget Tony Abbott, who committed $3 billion without seeing the business case, and now wants to keep the money in a "locked box" rather than use it to fund other Victorian transport projects.
If nothing else, the battle over the East West Link validates the need for a non-partisan body to take the politics out of infrastructure planning, and highlights the urgency for an alternative solution to meet the demands of a city growing by an average of 1500 people each week.
Fortunately, the government seems to agree. Behind the scenes, plans are being drawn up for an independent umpire – Infrastructure Victoria – to ensure the state has a steady pipeline of major projects to meet its medium and long-term needs.
A second agency, Projects Victoria, also will be established to deliver those plans "on time and on budget", and new laws could soon be introduced to stop major proposals being rushed through within weeks of an election.
Made up of public and private sector members, think of Infrastructure Victoria as part urban planning body and part economic-modelling agency, designed to do what Infrastructure Australia was set up to achieve before it was subverted by Abbott's roads-over-rail ideology.
Decisions on whether a project proceeds will remain with the state government of the day, but the new agency will identify the kind of infrastructure the state requires, look at financing options, and release its advice publicly to ensure transparency and broader debate.
The irony is that Infrastructure Victoria could one day recommend an East West Link – and the government would be bound to consider the idea on its merit.
Interestingly, Andrews has also softened his rhetoric in recent months, opening the door to the western section of the link, provided it has a positive cost-benefit ratio. When asked whether he would consider building the connection between the Western Ring Road and CityLink, the Premier replied: "I don't think any good government would be ruling out things like that".
"There are many other projects where, for ever dollar you spend, you'd get more than a dollar back. I think Victorians want a government that has an open mind to many of those things, and is prepared [to look at them], whether it be through Infrastructure Victoria, or through other rigorous processes."
Andrews' comments offer a glimmer of hope for thousands of motorists stuck on the West Gate every day, desperate for an alternative river crossing. But the government already has its share of election priorities that require some funding in next week's budget, and they're not cheap.
Based on Labor's pre-election costings, the removal of 50 level crossings will require up to $6 billion over the next eight years. The so-called West Gate Distributor will need between $500 million and $680 million, depending on whether additional freeway lanes are taken into account. And then there's the Metro Rail Link, the biggest public transport project since the City Loop, conservatively priced between $9 billion and $11 billion.
At least $300 million has been promised in Labor's first budget, but it's hard to see how this project will become a reality without private sector and Commonwealth investment. Andrews admits Abbott won't fund the policy, but remains optimistic that "maybe a different federal government at a different time will have a different set of priorities".
One can only hope. As an early Metro Rail business case warned, the city's train network is at a tipping point, and without additional infrastructure, all corridors except the Sandringham line would be so squeezed in coming years that more and more passengers won't be able to board in the morning peak.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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