Saturday, 22 May 2010

Westlink, Schmestlink

Is there somewhere else we can squeeze a freeway?

Amongst the many freeway proposals the Brumby government keeps spruiking, the "number one priority project" is Westlink.

Westlink is a proposed six lane tunnel and freeway joining the Western Ring Road to Docklands. It is currently estimated to cost $5 billion, although that figure is climbing fast - it was just $3.5 billion two years ago.

Documents just obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Greens MLC Greg Barber show that Federal funding was rejected from this project because Victoria could show no net economic benefit for the project.

There is in fact no overall transport or environmental benefit either. Westlink will in peak hour deliver another 5,000 vehicles an hour - including trucks - into the Docklands area. This is hardly a way of removing congestion.

The proposal will also take money away from public transport - a far more efficient people-mover than any road. A normal road lane carries 700 cars an hour - tops - and in Melbourne each car carries an average of 1.1 people. But a peak our train whisks by in seconds with just as many people, and you can have several of them in an hour. A freeway lane in good conditions can carry 1500 - 2000 cars an hour. That's two trains. The proposed route of Westlink substantially follows rail lines all the way. For a fraction of the cost of Westlink, we could actually deliver an efficient rail service along that line.

And it's not as though there are not good proposals for removing the trucks from inner Melbourne. When the containers are unloaded from ships, they are stacked on the wharf and then loaded onto trucks which wait in queues before moving off. Every truck that has to carry a container must converge on the Port of Melbourne, and that is what causes the congestion.

Move the containers by rail from the Port of Melbourne to freight terminals on the outskirts of Melbourne at Laverton, Melton, Kalkallo and Dandenong, and let the trucks use these hubs to pick up the containers. That would bring considerable relief to inner Melbourne, and overall greater efficiency - at present many trucks queue for hours in the one big terminal.

Westlink is also the first stage in the Eddington East/West Tunnel proposal. We thought we'd won that struggle, but the documents obtained under FOI show that the government is quietly pressing ahead with it. In their submission to Infrastructure Australia in October 2008, the Victorian government said:
"following further expansion of the project [Westlink] there will be an east west link north of the CBD between the eastern freeway and the western ring road"

Compare this with the public statements of Minister Pallas at a joint press conference with the Premier John Brumby on 9 September 2008:
REPORTER: Is an east-west tunnel now more likely to be west-east tunnel that will start west and work its way back?

PALLAS: Oh, look, once again, that’s an issue of the priorities that government needs to set and we’re going to continue to work through those issues in a considered way.

REPORTER: But that’s a possibility?

PALLAS: Oh, it’s a possibility that it could be built west to east, but certainly the issues that are on the table need to be considered in a substantial way and a considered way. We’re not going to rule anything in or out.

The RACV openly states that Westlink only makes sense if it is part of the East West tunnel.

The East West Tunnel threatens several parks - the proposal had the freeway coming up in Royal Park and Holland Park for example. But it will also be part of the same old 1950s road-building mindset that has got us into this gridlock in the first place.

John Brumby's response to the furore over the stupidity of Westlink was telling. He just doesn't get it. He thought the only alternative to Westlink would be another road - whether on a bridge or bulldozed through suburbs. He is pressing ahead with Westlink despite the lack of any credible economic case. What he doesn't appreciate is that the real, rational alternative to his expensive white elephant is viable public transport.

With peak oil approaching, and with dangerous climate change now looming as a serious worldwide threat, we can no longer afford this kind of dull, old thinking. Smarter transport solutions are needed - and they are not roads.

As Albert Einstein said:
The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.

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  1. Perth transport expert Peter Newman told a meeting that this freeway would never go ahead (in response to a question from me) because it would never get the funding. I'm not sure but I think he may underestimate the bloody-minded stupidity of the current government. But you can rest assured that the plan will meet with maximum resistance from the residents of West Footscray, Sunshine West and everywhere along the route.

  2. correction to your stats Brian - a freeway lane carries 1500-2000 cars an hour, so westlink will carry 5000 - 600 cars an hour max. This is the same number of people as can be carried by an extra 6 trains an hour