West Gate Tunnel (Truck Bans and Traffic Management) Bill 2019 Second Reading

7 Mar 2019

Share this

Posted under

Parliament

 I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the West Gate Tunnel bill—well, it is now the West Gate Tunnel (Truck Bans and Traffic Management) Bill 2019; it has had a bit of an update in terms of its title. It has a number of functions. Primarily, it creates the tolling regime for the West Gate Tunnel and provides for the criminal enforcement of those tolls. It provides for the tabling of the West Gate Tunnel agreement, essentially what the government signed up for with Transurban. It also introduces some really important tolling reforms to the wider tolling system across Melbourne, which has been seriously problematic for some time now and has resulted in people, often disadvantaged people, being lumped with thousands of dollars of fines that they simply cannot pay. It also introduces a new offence and applies penalties for trucks driving in a no-trucks zone.

I want to make a comment about cramming some of these elements into this bill. I think it is often done, as in this instance—and it is done quite often by this government, and I presume previous governments have done it as well—quite cynically when there is a contentious bill, and this bill is no doubt contentious, particularly in regard to the tolling of the West Gate Tunnel and the project in general. There are then some other measures put in that I think are quite reasonable and are non-contentious in terms of truck bans and reforms to the tolling system. The trend to greater omnibus bills is problematic, particularly in this chamber when we are repeatedly denied, as we have been with this bill, the opportunity to go into consideration in detail. It is a trend that really does restrict and reduce the ability of this chamber to properly scrutinise bills. I would urge the government not to do such things in the future. It happened in the last Parliament with the fire services and other matters bill, with the other matter being presumptive rights legislation.

That was a particularly poor effort, and of course it came unstuck unfortunately. Just going on what the opposition have led with, the member for Ripon raised, I think rightly, concerns about whether this is a Treasury bill or a transport bill. I think Victorians would be right to question who is actually in charge of this project because from our perspective it has not been done to create a great transport network for Melbourne. It is primarily being done as a bit of a cash cow for Transurban. I can see why there are concerns about transparency in terms of what is in this deal and how it is being paid for, so we are supportive of the Liberal Party’s reasoned amendment which will make sure that there will be an unredacted version of the West Gate Tunnel agreement seen by members before voting on this bill. I will start with the history of this project, the West Gate Tunnel. It is named the West Gate Tunnel, but most of it is actually an elevated freeway, so it is a bit of a misnomer to call it the West Gate Tunnel.

If you look at how this project has actually been conceived, you will actually see that it has not been conceived primarily as a transport project designed to solve transport issues but rather as a money-spinner for Transurban paid for with that sweetheart deal to extend the tolls on CityLink. ictorians are now going to be paying billions for this road—far more than it was ever worth. Of course this proposal had its genesis in the 2008 Eddington report, which looked at east–west connections through Melbourne, and that report had a number of proposals. Melbourne Metro was first conceived in that as a tunnel from Kensington to Caulfield. It had the full east–west link, starting at the Eastern Freeway and travelling through the inner suburbs. It actually had a couple of alignments there: one to the Western Freeway and the other to the West Gate Freeway. It also had the truck action plan, which was off-ramps from the West Gate Tunnel directly to the port. That is the policy that the Labor government took to the 2014 election.

The West Gate distributor, as they called it, was, according to them, going to cost half a billion dollars and create 430 new jobs, with on and off ramps from the freeway and direct access to the port. This, according to Labor, was going to take 5000 trucks a day from the West Gate Bridge. This is a part of Project 10 000, which many members actually referenced in the recent debate in this chamber earlier this week. Reading from that document—you can still find that document; you have got to do a bit of digging as it is not widely available now—this is how this project was pitched. Under ‘The West Gate distributor’ it says: Victorian Labor will take 5000 trucks a day off the West Gate Bridge by building the West Gate Distributor within the first term of a Victorian Labor Government. It goes on to say, under ‘A project that will make a real difference’: While Denis Napthine and the Liberals continue to mislead the people of the west and the commuters of Geelong and Ballarat with their East–West tunnel plans, Victorian Labor will start work on a major road project that will get trucks off the West Gate Bridge, improving safety for drivers and reducing congestion.

I thought this heading was interesting: ‘A commitment supported by the facts’. ‘Supported by the facts’—they really wanted to make that point. Under that title the document says: The increasing number of large trucks using the West Gate Freeway each day to access the Port—particularly Swanson Dock—is a major problem for road users, and one that will only become worse unless action is taken. Information from the PoM also shows that the majority of trucks accessing the port start their journey in the west of Melbourne … So the facts, according to Labor in 2014, were that trucks start in the west and end up in the port, and that was the major reason for having this project. It concluded by saying, and I note this is at the end of the document: Given that construction of the West Gate distributor will involve strategic use of Footscray Road, it will also establish a vital new CBD gateway for road commuters … So here, the very functions of the West Gate Tunnel—what it was supposed to do—were going to be done by this original project for just a fraction of the cost. It may come as a bit of a surprise to members, but this was actually a road project that the Greens supported. The community supported it.

Colleen Hartland and Huong Truong when they were Greens members for Western Metropolitan Region were strong supporters of the first proposed truck action plan. They campaigned strongly on getting those trucks off local roads. In 2014 Labor also took to that election its opposition to the east–west link. It took them a while to get there. They started out in opposition criticising the then Liberal government for not moving quickly on it. Then they were against it but would not tear up the contracts, and finally they came around to a position of: ‘Yes, no matter if the contracts will be signed, we’ll stop it’. We heard all the criticism: dud tunnel, did not stack up, dodgy traffic planning and modelling, rushed to contract. When we all heard this, we thought, ‘Great. Labor have finally got it. They realise the error of these mega toll roads. It is the wrong way to go’. Instead, on coming to government they have scrapped this smaller project and have gone all-in on toll roads, not just this project but the mega toll road, which is what they have called it—a mega toll road—the north-east link, which is about $17 billion. And that is not it. The alignment of the West Gate Tunnel is essentially the western half of the east–west link. A member interjected.

Mr HIBBINS: It is the same project they swore to oppose. In fact during the election the Liberal Party, the opposition, dispensed with the western section of the east–west link and just connected it straight to the West Gate Tunnel, or at least the elevated road part of the tunnel. The Leader of the Opposition said, ‘I like the concept of the southern corridor, given that you can flow from the West Gate Tunnel straight into another piece of infrastructure. It does appear to be a value-add to the proposed east–west link by having the West Gate Tunnel under construction’. Now, I am cynical about this. We know that the east–west link still exists in strategic documents within this agreement, within the Department of Transport, and as sure as night follows day when the political winds favour it I have no doubt that Labor will seek to complete the east–west link. These toll roads do not stack up. They cost a fortune, they create more traffic and they trash our city. Let us look at this project that has grown beyond its initial off-ramps from the West Gate Freeway. It is now a tunnel that goes under Yarraville. It still has an off ramp onto Hyde Street; it is a very small part of the project.

The tunnel pops out at the Maribyrnong River—trashing what should be an urban renewal area; it was going to be an urban renewal area by the waterfront—to an elevated roadway above Footscray Road. It is now going to be a double-decker road. It is already about an eight-lane road. We need another six lanes on top of it. We have got a nest of on and off ramps in the E-gate urban renewal area—there is another urban renewal area trashed. Finally, we have widened roads through the CBD. And the benefits? Well, the Minister for Transport Infrastructure has come in here and touted all sorts of benefits from reducing traffic to reducing travel times, but these have been shown by the experts not to be worth the paper they are written on. Two experts, John Allard and William McDougall, hired by the government to review traffic modelling for the project did not support the government’s modelling. The government has refused to release Allard’s report, citing commercial in confidence. Well, we have heard that before. We heard it with the east–west link. Mr McDougall in a Senate hearing said the justification for the road was ‘based on flawed traffic modelling and cost-benefit analysis’, and that traffic numbers produced by consultants were ‘significantly higher’ than travel surveys showed. So Labor in opposition criticised the dodgy traffic modelling of the east–west link but are now adopting it in government.

An open letter to Victorian state MPs from internationally renowned academic leaders in transport planning, engineering and safety asked the state government to reconsider construction of the West Gate Tunnel due to key concerns including an inability of the West Gate Tunnel project to meet its objectives, project overreach and overstatement of benefits, and the inadequacy of planning processes and planning strategies. They called on the government to build the original project, the West Gate distributor, and they also asked Parliament to support urgent action for the preparation of an integrated Victorian Transport Plan, as required by the Transport Integration Act 2010. I think this was a really good point, because when this project has come up it has come up in the absence of a holistic, integrated transport plan for this state, one that is in the public interest for the public good. It is actually a requirement of this act—passed, I might add, in 2010 by the former Labor government—that Victorian have a transport plan, yet we do not have this transport plan. That is why we are susceptible to these giant toll roads coming up and being proposed by Transurban. So I am also going to move a reasoned amendment, and in doing so it is going to actually add to the reasoned amendment moved by the member for Ripon.

I move: That after the word ‘agreement’ there be inserted the words ‘and the government develops and publishes the Transport Plan as required by s 63 of the Transport Integration Act 2010’. In the report of the academics they cited problematic traffic modelling, misrepresented project benefits, technical problems, skewed forecasts and optimism bias, which is most likely to occur when a project is being developed under political and organisational pressure, which is quite possibly the case for the West Gate Tunnel. If we are to take the modelling on face value, we know two things: both the West Gate Bridge and the West Gate Tunnel are going to be full by 2031, so we are building a road that is going to be redundant in just a few years; and thousands of cars are going to be poured into the inner city. Let us look at the streets that will have thousands more cars on them due to this project. In the CBD they are Spencer Street, King Street, Flinders Street, La Trobe Street and the Harbour Esplanade. Then in the inner north they are Victoria Street, Queensberry Street, Arden Street, Flemington Road and Royal Parade. Their own stats show that around half of the traffic that will use the West Gate Tunnel will enter the inner city, another third will go to the northern suburbs and 5 to 15 per cent will be for the port. They are the government’s own figures.

This is a road that is designed to pump more cars into the inner city and profit Transurban—which goes to the next point: paying for this road. What a deal! Lifting tolls on CityLink will raise around $20 billion to $30 billion if you combine the tolls of the West Gate Tunnel. This is unbelievable. What a deal! No wonder Transurban and the ALP have such a cosy, cosy relationship. No wonder they financially backed their re‑election. This is a bad deal. This is a bad deal for Victorians that will take money out of the pockets of Victorians and put it into the super profits of Transurban for decades, paying well above what the road costs. The government is creating a monster. It started under Kennett, and now it has gone into essentially what is the first privatised government department. This was a market‑led proposal, so we have a private company planning, funding, building, owning, operating and now profiteering off road projects in Victoria. Instead of getting an appropriation from the Parliament they are given a sweetheart deal with tolls from their existing infrastructure. Even the bloke who set this up in the first place, Jeff Kennett, thinks it is time to wind it up.

In an article that was published, he basically said that tollway bosses have mastered the art of outmanoeuvring governments: Money, instead of going to government, is going to the private sector; that is a total waste … He said governments should take advantage of low interest rates—this is Jeff Kennett—build infrastructure and collect the tolls themselves and then put that back into more infrastructure. That sounds sensible. It sounds reasonable. This is the bloke that set it up in the first place citing the very differences between, I think, Victoria’s economic situation then and Victoria’s economic situation now. We should be moving to, as soon as possible, winding up Transurban’s controls over our toll roads and bringing them back into public hands. That would mean you could introduce a fairer tolling system without having to go through the rigmarole of these contractual arrangements, and then any profits could then be reinvested back into transport projects. These toll roads do not stack up. They have not stacked up around Australia. They do not stack up here. There are alternatives to this project. As I said, we can have that statewide plan. I note with reason that the government does have a Western Rail Plan, and to their credit I think it is a good plan. I think it is a good plan, but it makes— Mr Pearson interjected.

Mr HIBBINS: I ask the member to withdraw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Member for Essendon, you have been asked to withdraw, and I do not appreciate that kind of language in the house.

Mr Pearson: I withdraw.

Mr HIBBINS: But it asks the question: if you are investing all this into public transport in the west, why would you build this mega toll road first? It would surely make sense to invest in public transport first rather than investing in this mega toll road. It does not make sense. There are other projects that are not captured in this Western Rail Plan. Look at Melbourne Metro 2. The reality is that if we are going down this route—we need a second river crossing, and I do note that the West Gate Tunnel is actually crossing the Maribyrnong River, not necessarily the Yarra River—the second river crossing should be rail, Melbourne Metro 2. On the Werribee line we have a complete lack of peak‑hour services, and in the off‑peak, 20 minutes. It could actually be 10 minutes now. They could actually be doing that now, but they are not. But Melbourne Metro 2—what a massive project that could be, building on what the government is already doing with Melbourne Metro 1. Do not stop there; keep going. This could be moving 33 000 commuters a day. This is the city‑shaping project Victoria and Melbourne need—not the West Gate Tunnel and not the north-east link. I do want to make some quick points before my time expires in support of the toll enforcement aspects of the bill, which is a really important reform.

No other company—not telephone companies, not energy companies—get to have their revenue model backed up by such strict criminal enforcement, and it has been incredibly problematic. Courts are clogged with cases of people—often disadvantaged people, people whose life circumstances have changed, meaning they are unable to pay their bills from Transurban—who have racked up tens of thousands of dollars of fines. So we do recognise it is really important to get toll reform across CityLink and across EastLink as well by only allowing for one offence over a period of seven days. It is a good change, but we still have concerns over criminal enforcement of toll roads and the effect that that has. This bill also introduces a new offence for truck bans. I am supportive of that, but the issue is that we need cameras installed to capture the trucks that are breaching these bans. Unless you have the cameras in place you are not actually going to catch these people, regardless of the offence. (Time expired)

More news

Sign up to receive occasional email updates from Sam on major news.​

Name(Required)
Address(Required)