Commuter rail loop hampered by lack of open planning process
The SRL did not follow this systematic evaluation process. This is a political decision announced just weeks before the 2018 elections in the state of Victoria. In the nearly four years since, alternative suburban job creation solutions have not been systematically and publicly considered, and no alternative solution has been deliberated upon. All planning was predetermined by the outcome of the 2018 elections.
There is a significant question as to whether the proposed neighborhoods will attract enough rail customers to justify the cost of the project, particularly if the population continues to move outwards. The COVID experience of commuting has shown that households will move to outdoor and regional locations to access cheaper self-catering accommodation for owner-occupiers. The creation of more jobs in mid-suburban neighborhoods will likely result in a compensatory movement to the periphery or regional centers by workers who no longer need to commute to the CBD.
Given these dynamics, SRL is unlikely to be viable as a development proposal if it is not accompanied by a tightening of urban growth boundaries to redirect new housing to neighborhoods. But this runs counter to the current expansion of growth areas and would challenge the Victorian development model of cheap suburban land.
It also forces homeowners to make a decisive move to apartment living. Conversely, the CBD’s weakening grip on high-wage jobs runs counter to prevailing COVID recovery policy and urban renewal plans like Fishermans Bend, Arden-Macaulay and Parkville. This planning confusion is the result of the closed SRL planning process.
In the absence of open public debate, other means of realizing suburban employment zones have not been deliberated. Academic John Stone and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne calculated that the $50 billion could fund 250 kilometers of new light rail lines and 400 kilometers of new bus rapid transit lines.
These could be spread much wider across Melbourne than just the 15 SRL stations, benefiting a wider population than those living in SRL neighborhoods. Trams and buses could support intensification along new tram corridors and provide needed high-frequency connections to underserved outer growth areas. But the government did not analyze these alternatives, because the SRL decision was predetermined.
Nor does the design of the SRL appear to have involved consideration of potentially cheaper alternative options, such as surface or elevated rails. The initial strategic assessment for SRL assumes tunneling by default “to minimize impacts”. Given Melbourne’s overhead rail expertise developed through the Skytrain project, this issue should have been carefully and publicly considered.
To be clear, the SRL is political, bold, imaginative and perhaps even viable. But it was nonetheless designed outside of Victorian transport and city planning legislative processes, and received premature Democratic assent in the 2018 election.
Given the politicized nature of the SRL, the weak planning and the contrast in political color of the Commonwealth and Victoria governments, it is not surprising that politics influenced the Commonwealth’s decision not to fund the SRL.
A much more open and deliberative public planning process around this major infrastructure could have reduced the politicization of the project, improved its design and reduced its cost. The many project design, construction and cost overrun problems occurring in other Big Build projects suggest valuable, but also costly, lessons for Victoria to learn about using infrastructure megaprojects as management tools. Politics.