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Speech: put safe local roads ahead of polluting urban tollways

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 27 Aug 2014

Mr President, I begin by noting that this is not my first speech-you have got to wait until this afternoon for that!

I rise to speak in support of the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014, subject to some very important amendments. This legislation in itself is a series of amendments to the existing Commonwealth transport funding legislation. The further amendments which the Greens are proposing will include adding the criteria of transport integration and sustainability into the overall assessment of what projects get funded; legislating for funding to be provided for heavy vehicle safety and productivity measures; and, importantly, where funding for a project exceeds $50 million, requiring scrutiny by Infrastructure Australia and having transparency about the results of that scrutiny.

I am pleased to see that the legislation is neutral about the form of transport infrastructure being funded so that, as well as funding for roads, it makes provision for funding for rail, and for intermodal projects infrastructure, where freight gets transferred from road to rail and vice versa. This is refreshing, given the Prime Minister's irrational objection to federal funding of urban rail projects.

The Greens are also neutral about the form of transport infrastructure that should be funded. We are guided by overriding objectives of providing safe, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and convenient transport that is accessible to all. What this means is that we support road projects that help provide safe, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and convenient transport that is accessible to all. We also support passenger and freight rail and other public transport projects which meet these criteria.

This legislation wraps up funding programs that I know well from my time in local government: the Roads to Recovery program, which has been talked about so much over the last week; black spot programs; and the nation-building program. These programs have funded essential local road-building and maintenance programs-absolutely critical infrastructure.

I note, however, that this legislation has been considered at the same time as local government is reeling from savage budget cuts to local government road funding. Here we are setting up a framework for land transport funding in the context of the government's $1 billion cut to Commonwealth Financial Assistance Grants. Regional councillors across the country have expressed their loud opposition to these cuts that will result in a decline in service delivery as well as road maintenance throughout the local government sector. The Municipal Association of Victoria president Bill McArthur has said that:

Commonwealth financial assistance grants are a core revenue stream for local government. The grants provide up to 27 per cent of rural councils' total funding so rural communities will suffer a massive impact.

The Greens are appalled at these budget cuts. They hit just the kinds of transport infrastructure that need to be supported.

We should be funding upgrades of unsafe local roads across rural and regional areas; upgrading roads in outer suburbs that are carrying 10 times as much traffic as they were designed for; and upgrading alternative roads or creating bypasses so that heavy vehicles do not have to go straight down the main street of regional cities or rumble down residential streets. We should be funding the repair and proper maintenance of bridges. I remember well when I was a Maribyrnong councillor and mayor talking to my rural colleagues about bridges. In Maribyrnong I think we had five; rural shires had 40 or more and a much smaller rate base to fund them from.

I road my bike through regional Victoria on my way to Canberra and we travelled along a range of country roads from the most delightful narrow country lanes and regional city streets to a 12-kilometre stint along the Hume. By the end of the trip, I had three distinct road funding programs that I thought were a priority. The one that was particularly relevant to today's debate was sealed shoulders on any country road that carried any significant amount of traffic, particularly truck traffic. This will enable not just safe cycling conditions but easier passing, particularly of slow-moving trucks by other vehicles.

My last job before standing for election was as a strategic transport planner in the outer Melbourne municipality of Hume. People know me well as an advocate for the public transport that we need, particularly in our outer suburbs, but I was a great roads advocate in Hume too. My focus for the 18 months in that job was the development of the Hume Integrated Land Use and Transport Strategy. The key aims of this strategy were to advocate for the duplication of roads that used to be country roads: Somerton, Sunbury, Mickleham and Craigieburn roads, which are now carrying huge amounts of traffic both passenger and freight traffic.

Local government cannot afford to duplicate these roads and, with the limited amount of state government funding that is being allocated, VicRoads told us they had a backlog of arterial road duplication projects so that it was likely to be decades before all these roads were duplicated.

On my home turf, the Greens and I are long-term supporters of the Westgate truck bypass, which would get trucks off residential streets in Yarraville and Footscray. This is a very cost-effective land transport infrastructure investment plus effective freight-rail transport to and from the port connected with the intermodal transport hubs in the outer suburbs would allow up to half of the containerised freight going to and from the Port of Melbourne to go by rail, freeing up lots of room on the overloaded Westgate Freeway. If we invested in decent public transport across the outer suburbs, rail and bus, then we really would be on our way to solving traffic congestion.

This type of road and public transport investment scores very highly on the criteria of helping to provide safe, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and convenient transport that is accessible to all. This is where the money needs to be spent, not on massively expensive, polluting freeways and motorways in Melbourne and Sydney, which are not cost-effective, will not solve congestion problems. Spending billions of dollars on these city tollways takes money away from where it needs to be spent: on local roads, country roads, public transport and freight-rail projects.

The critical thing, which is so blindingly obvious, is that infrastructure costs money. It is an investment so, just as obviously, it is critically important to make sure the money is spent in the most effective way. To make sure this happens, it is essential that there is good process, transparent process and evidence based decision-making. The tighter the money is, the more important it is. If we are serious about efficiency in government, then we have to make sure that we are not splashing money around on massively expensive transport projects that do diddly squat towards creating safe, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and convenient transport that is accessible to all.

Having strong, evidence based decision making that involves assessing infrastructure projects against these criteria is critical. That is why the Greens have been supporters of Infrastructure Australia, which was set up to do just that-to pull evidence together to enable objective assessment of transport projects rather than transport infrastructure priorities being determined by their location with relation to marginal electorates or by other perceived short-term political benefits. That is why, in this bill, we want to ensure that the funding of any project is considered in the light of Infrastructure Australia's infrastructure priority lists and infrastructure plans, and that any projects over $50 million are scrutinised by Infrastructure Australia. This $50 million benchmark was recommendation 2.3 of the Productivity Commission report into public infrastructure, which was undertaken this year. They stated:

All governments should commit to subjecting all public infrastructure investment proposals above $50 million to rigorous cost-benefit analyses that are publicly released ...

This legislation provides a perfect opportunity to put this recommendation into legislation. We also think that, regardless of the size of the project, if Infrastructure Australia have anything relevant to say about a project their views should be taken into account. For the vast majority of small projects, such as roadside rest stops and black spot projects, Infrastructure Australia would not have anything to say, so taking their views into account would be an easy thing to do. But it may be that the black spot being considered is on a road that is a feeder road to a proposed Infrastructure Australia priority project, and knowing this will be very relevant in deciding whether or not that black spot gets funded.

Rigorous and transparent assessment of transport projects is fundamental good governance and standard practice throughout the world. It is what the community expects of us. This sort of assessment would stop the situation of slashing vital support to regional councils while at the same time committing $3½ billion to the WestConnex private tollway in Sydney and $3 billion for the East West Link in Melbourne. These are massively polluting tollway projects that will not improve congestion but will boost the profits of private developers. In both cases the business cases have not been released despite requests through the Senate and from the community. There has been no transparency, no full cost-benefit analysis, despite Tony Abbott promising before the election that all projects worth more than $100 million would receive this scrutiny.

In contrast to the $6½ billion promised for these massively expensive, massively polluting tollway projects, the government has committed less than a third of that to the Roads to Recovery program in the 2014 budget. When it comes to infrastructure and road spending, this government is all rhetoric. It is the road projects, freight projects and public transport projects covered by this legislation that should be getting priority and funding, instead of billions being provided to the private sector for the WestConnex and East West Link tollways.


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