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Harnessing Federalism
Russell Degnan

A lot has been said on the plastic bag issue in the past few weeks, most of it - though not all - critical of the failure of Federal and State governments to come up with a levy, or a ban, or something that was so obviously (apparently) needed.

I don't have anything substantive to add to that; for those interested, David Jeffery put up two excellent posts on the issue. What I'm interested in here, is drawing on a strand that came out my friend Rob's critique of the 2020 Summit. To quote:

"The 'national' aspect of this strikes me as a complete irrelevance, and symptomatic of a more general assumption that the solution to any serious problem - whether it inherently crosses state borders or not - is to get the federal government to act on it."

The plastic bag issue is a classic case of this, because while plastic bags cross state (and national) borders, the issues Jeffery notes are no more national issues than state ones:

* they're a large component of litter;

* they're a reasonably important component of waste / landfill;

* they get into waterways where they harm marine life;

* they're made from a non-renewable resource.

None of these are national issues, they are either local or they are global, not in between. But, to the environmental lobby - who have a long history of successful pushes at national level - and to people whose main goal for the states is abolishment, failures of environmental policy are failures of national leadership.

This is a mistake, for two reasons. Firstly, because while their have been a number of significant environmental movement successes at national level, they mostly occur before the affected bodies have shifted their focus to counter them at a national, or international level. As someone noted regarding the 2020 sustainability session, the coal lobby came prepared.

Shifting the debate to the national level only shifts the debate. You can only outflank industry so many times; this is true for plastic bags, and it is true for public transport (increasingly being begged for at a federal level). If you can't win a cost-benefit debate at state level, there is no particular reason to believe you'll win it at national level.

Mostly, people seem to chase the money. But just because the Federal government has the money doesn't make them the best people to distribute it. The long term outcome of increased Federal control is increased Federal pork-barreling and Washington-style lobbying. It is practically impossible to hold the Federal government to account on local spending issues (it is extremely difficult even at state level). Lobbyists benefiting from Federal largesse might not care, but things are as likely to turn out badly as good.

Secondly, there is the oft-cited benefit of having states: competitive federalism. Plastic bags, again, offer a clear case of the benefits of multiple state policies. As Jeffery says, the issue is complex, and there is not necessarily one best way to gain benefit the environment; levies might work best, but so might an outright ban, subsidies for alternatives, bio-degradable bags, or even some other issue. Nothing beats an experiment for determining a policy outcome, and other states are normally reasonably quick to follow successful outcomes.

From a national point of view, if the Federal government wants to enact change, and they should, where they can, the best way will almost never be a direct policy. Like a market, often the best policy is targets and incentives, but in this case, not targeting the individual, but the state governments.

At the moment, the Commonwealth Grants Commission works on a strictly neutral policy basis. Their only aim is to give each state the ability to produce services at the same level as each other state, taking into account their different demographic, geographic and fiscal conditions. This can sometimes (or not) work in the environmentalists favour, such as when, two years ago, an increase in (expensive) renewal energy production in NSW and Queensland. meant they increased their percentage of the tax pie, at the expense of (cheaper) polluting energy production.

But most of the time, as the Victorian and NSW Treasuries never fail to point out in their budget papers, it penalises efficiency, because being more efficient reduces the average cost of that service, and therefore, some of the savings to other states.

The Federal government's spending authority would be better utilised, not with handouts, but with the whip hand. If the goal is to reduce landfill, then per capita (per industry) landfill requirements should be assessed for each state. If they manage to use less landfill than expected, then they should receive an environmental efficiency bonus through the grant, that both redresses the existing efficiency de-bonus, and provides incentives for further efficiencies (and further R&D into efficiencies).

Practically any social, environmental or economic outcome can be incentivised in this way, provided the incentives can be brought back to specific state government policy (there is no point penalising Tasmania or Northern Territory for low unemployment, though we make a fair fist of subsidising it now). If lobbyists want more public transport usage, adding an improvement factor for air emissions and health is a much better policy than subsidising new train lines that the State Government, probably rightly, never chose to build through a marginal electorate.

Instead of proscribing a solution, it allows one to be found, be it through improved transport, or congestion charging, or travel demand programs, or better urban design. Similarly, a state-wide ban on plastic bags might be the outcome of improvement factors for litter, landfill, water quality and non-renewable resource usage. Or as no doubt some of the states argued, there may be a better solution to those problems.

Environment 23rd April, 2008 18:45:42   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CLXIV, April 2008
Russell Degnan

The Windsor Hotel in a gothic pose. Taken July 2006

Melbourne 21st April, 2008 19:45:16   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CLXIII, April 2008
Russell Degnan

Block Place: a retreat from the cold. Taken July 2007

Melbourne 15th April, 2008 00:57:06   [#] [0 comments] 

Grounding Transport Planning In Reality: Assessing East-West Need
Russell Degnan

For those not following its travails, the last few years have been interesting ones in the Victorian transport planning sector. Four years ago, the business as usual Metropolitan Transport Plan was so widely criticised by the non-roads lobby the government tried again with Meeting Our Transport Challenges. A stated improvement in outcomes not backed by either significant funding (just $10b over 10 years) or any significant vision.

Deep within this document was a promise to re-assess East-West travel needs - or actually to re-re-assess, since there had already been several unsatisfactory assessments done. Like any city with a body of water between its various parts, Melbourne is divided by the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers. There are a limited number of crossings of each, with all western rail forced around through Footscray, and most traffic over the West Gate Bridge. Freight transport in and around the Port of Melbourne since operations moved south of the city two decades ago has becomingly increasingly problematic, compounded by the dispersion of industrial sites to points in the eastern and western suburbs almost entirely dependent on truck transport.

Unsatisfied with the output of their own strategists, the Bracks government farmed the East-West Link Needs Assessment (henceforth referred to as the EWLNA) out to Rod Eddington, whose report arrived on Premier Brumby's desk sometime recently, and the DoI web servers yesterday morning - though for reasons that don't inspire on in the ability of the DoI to do anything, it took me until after business hours to get a copy, if ever a document (all 200Mb of it) lent itself to torrenting this was it.

Since conception, this report has become increasingly important, partly because of an extensive consultation process in which Eddington actually seemed to take the public seriously, partly because it was independent of the normal clogged and antagonistic channels of public debate, and partly because rapid increases in train passenger numbers and a prolonged campaign by both daily newspapers has made transport the major issue of the past two years. Despite being scoped as a simple east-west assessment, what it lacks in overall scope, it makes up for in comprehensiveness and forthrightness in criticising long held positions and prominent myths.

There is much to take out of this, so I'll focus on two things here, the way Eddington has approached the problem, and entered the debate, and the specific recommendations.

Slashing through the debate

I said about the MOTC that its greatest weakness was that it didn't really plan, being no more than a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, and didn't justify its positions. This report goes to great lengths to justify its position, and in doing so, manages to criticise almost every transport expert (and non-expert) in Melbourne. Though few of of them seemed to have paid it any heed before shooting off their criticisms in the paper this morning.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EWLNA is not the projects, but the way it addresses a number of the standard transport debates in Melbourne, providing both data and an opinion on issues, and subtly criticising a number of people. Those people may disagree, but unlike previous plans, they can't say that it shirked the issues. In no particular order:

The Department of Infrastructure is hide-bound and dysfunctional. Well, it doesn't actually say it, but it certainly implies it, from the opening page when it states that:

"Making the right decisions about the future of Melbourne’s transport network is about much more than predicting and providing for greater travel movements over the coming decades."

To the recommendations that the Port of Melbourne should be responsible for the intermodal freight network,to the creation of a single statutory body to deliver the recommended projects. Given the DoI has already has a Major Projects Group to handle this kind of thing, this is either a major oversight, or a severe criticism.

The rail versus road argument is pointless and silly. Presumably Eddington got annoyed reading 130 submissions that do make this distinction, because he went out of his way to criticise the people who do:

"I want to make clear that I do not support – and I have not adopted – a ‘road versus rail’ approach to transport planning. I do not consider this to be a helpful or realistic distinction."

"The EWLNA also rejects the ‘absolute’ position expressed in some submissions that ‘Melbourne cannot build its way out of congestion’. The fact is that Melbourne must stay ahead of gridlock."

Melbourne public transport needs a more radical planning approach. The EWLNA was, as noted by it, limited to East-West links, and not broader strategy, but there are several hints that all is not well, from suggestions for congestion charging and different financing arrangements for rail, to implications that Melbourne needs a 'new generation' of rail in a 'metro' style. Paul Mees and the PTUA have been insisting that things can be improved by building on the existing network, and that the network carried more passengers in the 1920s. The EWLNA rejects this for two reasons:

"In particular, the running of express trains limits the number of services that can be provided on each line. While these express services could be reduced or removed, it would be to the disadvantage of outer suburban commuters – and, ultimately, at the expense of public transport patronage."

"[A]s the train network runs closer to capacity – and more trains are added to an already crowded timetable – there is less room to recover from incidents and delays, and the overall reliability of the network deteriorates."

The hub and spoke system is the major cause of these problems, as several trains running at different speeds need to be squeezed into narrow windows from multiple destinations. Hence the major reason for proposing a new tunnel that avoids the city loop and can therefore run (more or less) express from Footscray to Caulfield. But more on that later.

The Doncaster rail line is a waste of money. This has been one of those lamented "planned lines" since 1970, and the reserve for it still exists in the middle of the Eastern freeway. But it hasn't been built, and probably never will. Some 8500 people commute to the CBD each day from Doncaster (about 10 trains worth) but 37 per cent do so by public transport already, either on the Hurstbridge or Ringwood lines, or by bus. The EWLNA then argues that

"The potential catchment for rail services is low, with analysis by the EWLNA showing that a heavy or light rail service to Doncaster would attract a relatively small number of extra people to public transport, with most people using the services simply switching from existing bus services or the adjacent Hurstbridge and Ringwood rail lines. In other words, the rail line would not remove a significant number of cars from the roads; it would simply lower patronage on existing public transport services."

They argue that, in itself, some shift might not be a bad thing (and I'd argue neither would pulling people off those other two lines), but the railway, and even light-rail (which should surely be considered as a long-term alternative to buses) do not represent value for money, given that most of those drivers already live within 2km of a railway line and choose to use the car.

Also, importantly, most cars on the Eastern Freeway are coming from much further east (Springvale Road and beyond), and therefore, public transport in the Doncaster region would not reduce congestion on the Eastern Freeway. This should be an obvious truth when one considers that any reduction in congestion from p/t will also induce extra road demand.

20/2020 public transport mode share and 30/2010 freight rail share are dead. Everyone knew this when the government proposed them, and certainly after they didn't do anything to achieve it. But it is also a kick against the aspirational planning approach that makes wholly unrealistic projections of transport growth in a way that undermines the credibility of their planning projections in other areas. The EWLNA prediction: 13.4% morning peak p/t share (up from 11.3%), 75% commuter car share (down from 78%) and 90% total mode share (hardly changed at all).

In other words:

"rail services are clearly effective at getting large numbers of people to and from workplaces in the central city, but are much less effective at meeting other travel needs."

One has to wonder about the Port of Melbourne projections however, when the predict a quadrupling of containers (2 to 8 million by 2031), and only a doubling of truck movements (9000 to 18000) without any increase in rail. Bigger trucks are obviously an option, but this implies the doubling of current truck capacity, and four times the import/exports we have now despite a 20% population increase. Eye-balling it, that doesn't seem right to me.

That aside, the acknowledgement that 77% of international freight containers have their destination within metropolitan Melbourne means that moving that kind of freight to rail is extremely difficult.

Regional population share will decline between 2031 and 2051. This is an odd prediction, no doubt gleaned from demographers not paying attention, or doing something odd (most likely counting subsumed cities as part of Melbourne which will make other predictions a bit odd). This isn't so important, but predicting a 0.8m/1.1m Melbourne/Victorian population increase for the next 23 years then a 0.5/0.4 increase for the next 20 again, seems wrong.

Melbourne will not achieve a significantly denser form in the near future. Again, a slap for planners whose claims were never quantified, and whose targets were never met. Not that the EWLNA doesn't support Melbourne 2030's broader goals - and indeed, it still advocates increasing density over the long term. It just doesn't put much faith in our ability to make a difference to transport usage through land-use planning in the next two decades. Given how weak the evidence is for this being possible, this is probably a good idea:

"This trend suggests that – even as the city’s population grows – many Melburnians will continue to prefer a low density, high-mobility suburban lifestyle. This has significant implications for the future development of the city’s transport network"

A significant proportion of the eastern freeway traffic would use a tunnel. This was a common trope, claiming only 5.1% of traffic went to the Tullamarine when that was the figure that went that way directly using the single lane route through Royal Park. Once again, the report was highly critical of this line of argument:

"Contrary to a commonly held view that nearly all Eastern Freeway traffic is headed for the inner city, the EWLNA has found that around 40 per cent of daily traffic from the freeway travels beyond the central city area."

As they diagrammed, 14% of traffic filtered its way north and then along Park St, Brunswick Rd, Bell St. or Sydney Rd., 10% filtered its way through Victoria St., Gatehouse St. or Royal Park to go west, and 8% pushed down Punt Rd. or Hoddle Swan St. to get to the port area. That is a significant amount of traffic and trucks.

Also of note:

"A new east-west road link offers significant amenity benefits for the inner north, by providing an alternative for through traffic – particularly if accompanied by imaginative urban planning, improvements in public transport and more walking and cycling options. As well as removing through traffic from local streets, measures such as lane reductions, priority public transport lanes and the resetting of traffic signals could all be used to ensure that spare surface road space created by the tunnel would not be used by additionally generated or re-routed traffic."

Addressing vehicle emissions is the only real way to reduce greenhouse gases. This conclusion comes mostly, by rejecting (again) the more aspirational hopes of land-use and transport planners. Firstly, that while there is scope for changes to short trips (to walking and cycling), for fewer trips, and for ride-sharing, these measures won't make a significant contribution. On the benefits of public transport:

"While public transport in Melbourne performs significantly better overall than cars when it comes to GHG emissions, this performance is due mainly to the large number of people that are moved by public transport during peak periods, rather than to the inherent efficiency of Melbourne’s trains and trams. In fact, during off-peak periods, the GHG intensity of public transport increases to the point where it is higher than car travel"

One might argue that this is because the transport we have is often useless, as trams (unlike buses) are a marginal improvement over cars. But the EWLNA makes a compelling case that it will take an exceedingly long time, and really significant change (including a massive increase in the cost of driving), to effectively reduce greenhouse gases through increased density and public transport usage.

"As motor vehicle traffic volumes will always greatly exceed public transport trip volumes, any measures to reduce GHG emissions from motor vehicles will be the most effective."

Congestion or cordon charging is in our future. The government knows this, they just don't want to admit it, and certainly are too timid to go to election on it. Importantly, the EWLNA states that it needs to be both well targeted and use the funds to create additional travel choices, before making a warning:

"Without some form of road user charging, there will come a point in Melbourne’s future where congestion levels can only be reduced by the unpalatable combination of lower levels of population and economic growth. These are not outcomes most Melburnians would consider desirable"

In short: this is a report built on rational grounds. If planning is the art of what's possible, then the EWLNA is firmly in the middle ground of what can be achieved, and what they can do within those constraints. They will, no doubt be heavily criticised for this approach, but they are fundamentally right on most of these issues. Where they are wrong, it is not for lack of analysis. Possibly, Melbourne will undergo massive changes for environmental reasons, and much more might be achievable in a metropolitan sense. But within the scope of this study, and within the scope of plausible scenarios, this is the most worthwhile study into Melbourne transport in a long time.

Proposing change

Having covered where the report stands, we'd best now turn to what it proposes. There are, of course, dozens of things that could be done, and any of these projects is subject to specifics - particularly those related to urban design, walking and cycling. But the big ticket items, the $18 billion that dwarves the proposals of MOTC and on which the government needs to decide how to act, can be judged, and should be. My thoughts should be considered as somewhat preliminary, and naturally, I'd probably do something different (more on that another time), and my views might change. But here they are, for what they are worth.

Western Suburbs to Eastern Freeway Tunnel. Roads being the most controversial part, we'll start there. The first stage, a bypass of the West Gate Bridge is probably relatively uncontroversial, allied as it will be to reductions in inner-west truck travel. The northern route through Sunshine appears to be the worst of the two options, as it doesn't allow Hastings Port traffic to get to Altona.

The shock to most people was the absence of exits to the city on the eastern part of the tunnel, not least because most bankers were hoping they could make a packet on the whole deal. This is a good outcome, though one I am still unsure about in some ways.

While having no tunnels won't encourage traffic to use it to access the CBD, having no exits also means it is much harder to limit traffic on Alexandra Parade (though that is proposed, in the form of bus lanes), and means long queues will still form on the Eastern in the morning (though that is unavoidable). Not having queues in the tunnel is important and worthwhile. Having said that, considerable traffic (some 11% of freeway traffic) is coming to the inner north, and will therefore remain in those streets. A single exit at Nicholson Street would have greatly reduced that traffic - the optimum solution is actually to charge a congestion tax at the exit to ensure movement, with the current price stated prior to tunnel entry. Whether the tunnel can support a PPP without exits is also an issue, but, since the backers claimed it could, it is a perfectly legitimate tactic to allow them to prove it.

Also interesting is the plan not to include southerly connection to CityLink. A lack of demand here is undoubtedly true, but there is still considerable demand to bypass the city and go south. Using CityLink is an ugly (and expensive) way to do that, but some traffic still would to avoid Hoddle Street/Punt Road. Sometime in the future, a Hoddle Street/Punt Road tunnel is also appears inevitable.

The Footscray-Domain-Caulfield rail tunnel. Now we get to the interesting bit. Already it is claimed the railway is unnecessary, but I am not so sure it wont help. For three reasons, firstly there is considerable employment near the Domain and Melbourne University, and neither have a railway station within shouting distance. Given the number of people who drive to South Melbourne, or Carlton because of a lack of close connections it may be quite useful (though admittedly more of them come from the eastern suburbs than the south-east).

Secondly, it will be a faster connection, allowing express trains from further out, cleaning up the timetable considerably, and improving travel times for (an admittedly fewer than supposed) group of people using their cars from the outer reaches.

Thirdly, the "metro" plan is long overdue. Melbourne's railways are slow and archaic, and the report rightly wants to switch from a suburban railway system to one that acts as a fast connector between major hubs. Unfortunately, it didn't have the scope to really flesh out this plan, but if Melbourne is serious about mass transit options, the existing system is woefully inadequate. Putting it one the table is a good start for some real innovation (and expense).

The proposed funding of this railway is also an important change. The plan explicitly calls for changing the way rail transit is financed, offering a series of options (local fees, improvement taxes, etc.) that each move away from the current dependence on government handouts and inadequate ticketing (not to mention ticketing systems).

The Tarneit Line. This option news to people who don't look beyond the metropolitan area, or who think the purpose of all trains is to carry local people. Essentially it is designed to get the annoying express country rail connections from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong out of the suburban system as their demands create serious timetable headaches (particularly at 15 minute frequencies like the Geelong line). It goes through fields, which is good in a way, because that is cheap, but bad because eventually that creates demand for sprawl through that area. Essentially though, it comes down to this: building new tracks through Sunshine is cheaper than building them through Newport. Enough said.

Better buses to Doncaster, better priorities for public transport. Better summarised as bus lanes along Hoddle Street and Alexandra Parade, since the buses already largely exist, they are just slow, uncomfortable, and disliked. The claim here is that buses can as good as trams and therefore this is the best bet for the (reasonably significant) number of people tripping in and out of the area each day. Ultimately, like every other train, tram and bus route in Melbourne, it needs some rethinking about what it is we really want from our transport system. Putting forward the closure of car lanes for buses and trams is good for p/t - even if the evidence suggests that configuration isn't any more efficient as a mover of people (depends, depends...).

All the rest... Cycling is nice, as would be some new lanes along East-West roads, but like most cycling plans it is tacked on, rather than a strategy (though in this case, rightly, as the strategy is concerned with cross-town movements and freight). Other initiatives will also benefit the city, but are mostly local in nature, insufficiently thought out, and dependent on the nature of the implementation. No doubt this is also true for the main projects, where changes to the local street system is at least as important as the building of the tunnel, and the existence of a train line.

Overall, this has lots of good things in it, mostly because it cuts across the ongoing debates, rather than because the projects themselves have any merit. Transport planning in Melbourne has been in a terrible funk for some time now, and a document that is able to expand the scope of what is possible, and state the hard truths is infinitely more valuable than a hodge-podge of stale ideas and project proposals of questionable value. Whether it changes those debates is a good question. The usual suspects have said the usual things, but a government with spirit and direction could do good things with this. We shall see.

Planning 3rd April, 2008 12:40:19   [#] [4 comments] 


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