The Transport Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 makes a number of amendments to transport-related legislation in regard to a wide range of matters, including arrangements around acquiring land around private level crossings, long-term leasing arrangements for VicTrack, which I believe is to assist with the inland rail project, some changes to the Road Safety Act 1986 about blood alcohol content for drivers of vehicles over 4.5 tonnes, and some changes around the sale and registration of non-standard numberplates, and I do note in there extending the date for the abolition of the roads corporation VicRoads out for another year. The rearrangement of the transport bureaucracy seems to be ongoing. It is something that I certainly support. We do need one unified transport department and to fold VicRoads and PTV in together, but I do note it has taken some time for that to occur.
Now, what I do want to speak about, like many members who have spoken before me did, is transport more generally and the challenges in particular that we are being faced with through COVID-19 and the effect that has had on our transport network. A number of government members have spoken about their Big Build. Of course they are very entitled to get on the front foot and talk up the benefits to their communities, and obviously it is a welcome change from the four years of talking about transport projects rather than doing them that we had under the previous coalition government. I will note, just having a look at certainly some of the documentation and transport planning documents that we have managed to have made available to the public and secured through freedom of information, there were decisions to be made around the table during the previous coalition government about whether to proceed with Metro Tunnel and about whether to proceed with ordering high-capacity trains and they were put off. At the end of the day they made that decision to delay or not to proceed with those projects when really they were needed. I think the bureaucracy were expecting them to occur, and they pushed it off for another four to five years. These projects should be closer to finished. If they had started under the previous government, they would be very much closer to actually being completed, because we do have a backlog of transport infrastructure, particularly public transport infrastructure, in Victoria. And to make those decisions to delay those projects—well, it has delayed things for a very long time.
But one of the issues that we have had with the way that the government has gone about it is that it has been very much about a projects-led approach. There is a lack of a Victorian transport plan—an overarching transport plan which would actually guide the investment in transport infrastructure. Look, this is not just the Greens saying this. Multiple transport experts say that we need an overarching transport plan for Victoria. The Transport Integration Act 2010 itself says that we should have a Victorian transport plan. That was an act brought in by the previous Labor government, but the government have refused to publish that plan as prescribed in the act. They say it is because they have got multiple different documents with varying degrees of detail and they believe that covers it. I do not believe it does.
The issue around that and why we actually need this is: what is the ultimate goal of the investment in transport infrastructure? Is it to change mode share? Is it actually the stated goal of this government to get more people onto public transport and sustainable transport than using cars? You would not know. I remember during the state election we had the big mobile billboards running through the Prahran electorate—I am sure they were all around the city—saying ‘Suburban Rail Loop: 100 000 cars off our roads’. Great. The North East Link is putting 100 000 cars on our roads. You are spruiking the benefits on one hand and on the other hand you have actually got a project that is putting 100 000 cars back on the road.
And then the other issue is that, when you look at emissions, transport emissions are rising. They are one of the fastest growing forms of emissions in Victoria and indeed across Australia. So, is it our goal—is it the stated goal of the government—to reduce transport emissions? This is the sort of plan that would actually then guide the investment in transport infrastructure to ensure that, as population grows, in a decade or 20 years time we will not be just simply faced with the same challenges that we have now of rising emissions and traffic congestion. So I would call on the government to implement what they said they would do in 2010 under the previous Labor government and take that approach and actually table a unified transport plan for Victoria to guide the investment in transport infrastructure.
The key challenge now that we are facing during COVID is changing habits. We have got less people, obviously, moving around because of the restrictions. That is due to now return to some sense of normalcy, but we have got less people on public transport. There is a real risk of increased congestion if people are concerned about travelling or not willing to travel on public transport, being packed in closely with people during peak hour. I think what we will see is that will return in time, but we do have an immediate challenge there of making sure that we are not faced with a city full of congestion and people in their cars as everyone returns to work.
Obviously there are going to be more people working from home and probably more flexible working arrangements. I am sure everyone thought working from home was not such a bad idea to begin with. Some people are probably maybe not of that view having done it for so many months, but I have got no doubt that increased flexibility in working from home will now become a part of working life—and that is a good thing. That is definitely a good thing. Population growth has slowed in the immediate term; what impact that will have in the long term we will see. But I am sure that will be a factor as well.
We do have a big opportunity as well. This is a window of opportunity where people are changing their transport habits. We have seen around the world more and more people take up sustainable transport—cycling and walking. This is something that we definitely want to keep, and certainly cities and governments around the world have gone big on investing in fast-tracking or in pop-up bike infrastructure. We are going through a bike boom probably not seen since the 1970s—since the oil crisis—and of course that bike boom was squandered because governments did not seize the moment. It is imperative now that the Victorian government seize the moment by investing in bike infrastructure and pedestrian infrastructure to ensure that we can cater for the increased numbers of people who are riding and who want to ride and then ensure all the benefits that come along with that: reduced congestion both on public transport and our roads, reduced carbon emissions—very important—and improved people’s health.
In my questioning with the Minister for Transport Infrastructure during the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings I expressed my frustration that things were not moving along here in Victoria as we were seeing in just about every other jurisdiction in developed nations, but I am glad to see that we have now seen some investment in pop-up bike lanes—$13 million—and we will see A Metre Matters laws coming into effect next year as well. That is a really welcome start, and certainly I would like to see the government continue on with that. I would like to see fast-tracking of planned bike infrastructure like the St Kilda Road bike lanes, taking advantage of the moment where more and more people are riding their bikes and bike sales are booming and making sure that once cars return to the road and once things get to normalcy people can still feel confident about riding their bike again to work and around our city.
One of the interesting things that I have noticed as well since there have been less cars on the road is on the odd occasion where I did pop into the office and then make my way home just about every single time there were kids, families and adults using our local streets as public spaces—playing; they had the chalk out, you know, drawing pictures on the road; getting around on skateboards, scooters and what have you, little ones and big kids alike—and I think
that is something we really want to continue in our neighbourhoods.
We have noticed during this pandemic just how important open space, public space, green space is, and if our local streets can be utilised as public spaces, it really brings communities together. The benefit there is connectedness to community, and there are also mental health benefits and health benefits. I think there is a big opportunity now for governments to seize this moment.
With public transport, I would really caution against any move to think that just because we have had a big break or because patronage is down or because population growth is down that somehow the foot needs to be taken off in terms of public transport infrastructure. This absolutely is not the case. There is no scenario in Melbourne’s future where we do not need a world-class public transport network—a metro rail system that is on a par with what you would experience if you went to Hong Kong, if you went to London or if you went to Paris. That is where we should be aiming our creaky suburban network. It really does need to transform into that modern world-class metro that we can all be proud of. The government acknowledged the projects that are underway—the Metro Tunnel, the level crossing removals, the high-capacity signalling and new trains—which are fantastic. The next step now is to roll this across the entire network, thus making sure that the benefits are realised across our entire network. Similarly with our tram network, a modern tram network means making sure that every stop is accessible and increasing the manufacturing of the high-capacity trams; now is the time to really step that up.
With transport projects, particularly those billed as stimulus projects, they do take time to get going and obviously that was the issue that the previous Labor government faced before they were voted out at the 2010 election—it just took too long to get those projects off the ground once they decided to go ahead. A way to get people back on to our public transport network and a way to get more people employed is an increase in the operational funding of our public transport network. Infrastructure funding needs to happen, but right now we need to increase operational funding. And what could that go to? Well, that could go to employing more customer service staff across the entire network. The plan is to have PSOs at every train station, but how about having customer service staff at every train station, first train to last—someone who is actually going to sell you a ticket, assist you on your journey or tell you where to go and which train you need to catch? Where there is capacity, and that is during off-peak and on weekends, we should be getting more trains on the network. There are parts of the network across Melbourne where the wait times are 15 or 20 minutes. The wait time is 20 minutes for a train in my electorate at Prahran and Windsor stations on the weekend for Chapel Street.
I think this is a really easy win for the government. The investment is not that much. We have had it costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. It would get more train drivers employed and it would get more maintenance staff employed, so it would have an immediate jobs benefit. The impact of those two measures of more trains during the off-peak, during the daytime and on weekends and customer service staff will be a much more people-friendly network. The network caters more for people going from home into the city and back every single day but not for those people whose day involves dropping the kids off at school or child care, looking after mum or dad, some caring duties, maybe some paid or some part-time work or doing some shopping. For someone who is actually going to need to make multiple trips on the public transport network throughout the day, waits of 15 to 20 minutes are an absolute non-starter.
And let us face it, it is women generally who have those travel patterns. So making it a much more people-friendly, much more female-friendly public transport network would go a very long way to actually lifting that patronage back up. If we are expecting peak-hour patronage to be down and there is not much room for extra trains on our peak-hour network, that would go a very long way to bringing more people back to our public transport network. Obviously the benefits there are less carbon emissions and getting cars off our roads.
The member for Mordialloc is not happy that we take pot shots at the toll road situation. The reality is that there is now a strong push to rethink those toll roads, to rethink the North East Link, and whether those projects are actually necessary even from the government’s own figures. I mean, the issue that we have got around those projects is the overstatement of the benefits, the dodgy traffic modelling, the extra cars on the road and the environmental destruction. The environment effects statement process is not there to stop a project that is bad; it is there to basically facilitate a project whether it is good for the environment or bad for the environment.
We saw that with the North East Link process. Despite the massive environmental impact, despite the suggestions that the panel made to improve the environmental impact of that project, the minister could just ignore them. Even if it is in the planning minister’s response to it, the minister can just ignore them. It is incredibly frustrating, and if we had a transport plan that actually set out what the actual goal of the state was in terms of transport, where are we trying to go, I do not think the West Gate Tunnel or the North East Link would make it through. I do not think they stack up from an environmental perspective, I do not think they stack up from a transport perspective in terms of where we actually want to go in transport, and they certainly do not stack up from a financial perspective. Certainly the Auditor-General has taken great issue with the West Gate Tunnel. With the North East Link, the government is taking the full financial brunt of that. The private sector, who are generally pretty hungry for these sorts of things, do not want to touch the tolling arrangements.
I am sure this will fall on deaf ears amongst the government, but I want to echo the calls of so many people. And it is community members, member for Mordialloc, not just the Greens in Mordialloc; it is community members out there who are saying, ‘Rethink these projects, rethink the environmental destruction that we are going to have on our communities, rethink the billions of dollars and the financial risk that the government is going to take for these projects’.
And of course finally the member for Mordialloc touched on the Suburban Rail Loop. In regard to the Suburban Rail Loop, that needs to go hand in hand with upgrading our train network—getting better frequency, getting more services, being able to have trains every 2 to 3 minutes, because if you are going to connect every single train line in Melbourne and you have still got waits of 20 minutes or 15 minutes on every other line, or if you are not going to be able to get on a service because it is overcrowded, it is not going to realise its full potential. You need to do both hand in hand, have that world-class metro on our existing lines, upgrade every existing line so you can have high-frequency services across the network. That is the way you are going to actually realise the full benefits of the Suburban Rail Loop. Both projects go hand in hand, so I would urge the government to take that approach and not ignore the existing network.