#EWLink: What is it? What is it For? Why it won’t die easily? – Sophie Sturup on mega projects

I and others have been known to call the East-West Link tunnel a zombie project — you can fight it off (as was done in the 70s) but it will never truly die.

Last year at the launch for the Trains Not Tollroads campaign, Dr Sophie Sturup gave a great speech on mega projects. She made some really good points about how these multi-billion dollar mega projects get up, and about EWLink specifically.

She’s given variations on the speech elsewhere… these are summary notes from a similar speech given to the Carlton Residents Association meeting on 14 March this year. Reproduced with permission. Hopefully they’re as compelling in written form as they are spoken.

Victorian government advertising their "second river crossing"

What is East – West?

East – West project is a mega project and a road project. That is why my research on the mentalities of mega projects has some relevance to it.

From my research, a mega projects have a couple of salient features:

1. Power is in mega projects is based on sovereignty – which is to say that these projects rest on the fact that someone with the authority to do so has declared that they will be done. Thus the legitimacy of the project is directly linked to the people who said it would happen. To question the legitimacy of the project is to question the right of the ‘sovereign’ to decide things, and this is generally confused with the legitimacy of the sovereign at all. The other thing about this is that everyone operating in the project is able to do so because of the sovereign decision. Thus they cannot question the project’s legitimacy either without removing their ability to operate in the project at all.

2. Process in the project is dominated by project thinking. Project thinking is about deciding what needs to be done, and then creating boundaries around that so that it cannot be interfered with. That is, making the project manageable. This is one of the reasons why consultation looks pretty weird in these projects. By the time the community gets talked to about the project, the project has already been decided upon (see 1) and the fact that it is happening cannot be questioned. The project thinking means that the only questions of relevance are those which will ‘improve’ the project either by reducing its costs or reducing the impact on the community. And the reduction of impact on the community can only be accommodated if it reduces costs or the time taken in the project (which also costs money).

3. Mega projects do not come about as a result of identification of a problem, and then the application of a solution. The process of creating a mega project includes the problem and solution being jointly conceived. This happens as the stories or rationales for the project, and what can be conceived as being done jointly emerge – this lets you get at the next item on this agenda which is why has this project happened?

EWLink interchange to Citylink at Royal Park

What is the project for?

The rationale for mega projects needs to make sense if the project is going to be a success. In this sense East-west is a failure waiting to happen. It won’t be a failure because it isn’t built on time and on budget. The Linking Melbourne Authority has the competence to ensure that that happens. Unfortunately that isn’t what constitutes success in mega projects.

One of the key findings of Omega Project 2, a research project looking at 32 mega transport projects across 10 countries (run by the Omega Centre, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and funded by Volvo Education and Research Foundation (VREF) was that mega projects are context specific and where they don’t have an open and exploratory relationship with the context they work out as a failure.

My own research which focused the Australian cases of Melbourne’s City Link, the Perth to Mandurah Railway and Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel, found in Australia we define success as occurring when projects meet their stated outcomes (in transport projects that means traffic numbers) and the companies which build them are successful in financial terms (which of course is related to the traffic numbers being correct).

The reason that East – West will be a failure is therefore that the stated goals are:

a) Fluffy

b) Not agreed on

c) Based on inducing traffic, so there won’t look like any kind of benefit. For example the modelling shows that the traffic in Alexandra Parade will reduce a tiny bit briefly, but be back at the same level by 2020 2030. This will not look like 30% reduction in traffic on the Eastern Freeway, unless of course the traffic numbers projected to be induced doesn’t’ happen in which case there won’t be enough traffic to meet that modelled expectation. Similarly the changes on Bell St or reduced traffic on M1 will not be noticeable by the people who are near enough to the tunnel to make a difference.

The fluffiness of the dialogue on the purpose of the project is thus such that if they succeed in getting the numbers they predict the Eastern Freeway will be horrible and the numbers on Alexandra Parade the same so the predictions will be wrong because there will not be a 30% reduction in traffic. Or alternatively they won’t get the numbers of induced traffic in which case the tunnel will be seen as a failure because it isn’t able to pay for itself (and therefore wasn’t really needed).

This leads to the conclusion that whatever the stated objectives in the media (primarily ‘reduce congestion’) that probably isn’t what it is really for. So what is indicated in the objectives which isn’t quite so fluffy?

The objectives which appear to have teeth are:

a) Induce traffic onto the eastern freeway – in the form of trucks. This makes sense. After turning the section of Freeway between the City Link tunnels and the Bolte Bridge into freeway spaghetti, it is not surprising that B-double truck drivers are less than happy with that route. City Link changed the location of key freight logistics hubs and helped the development of a major one out at Lyndhurst/Dandenong. East-Link was built to facilitate this development (among other things). However the trucks (which represent several cars in terms of counting traffic) have failed to use the road to come to the Eastern Freeway. Why? Because there is nowhere for them to go when they get there. Thus one logic for this road which makes sense is to create a new link for trucks trying to access the port from Lyndhurst. This will have the effect of reducing the cost to the state of East-Link (because of increased toll revenue), and thus obliquely help pay for the East-West. It will also keep the truck moguls happy, and reduce the truck traffic on the M1 (which is of course Liberal heartland). It is possible to observe this as a source of equity, it will share the truck traffic, and hence the enormous danger to health and life they present, around the city more. Bringing large numbers of B-doubles and their pollution into those eastern suburbs which are almost truck free.

b) As speculation, another source of possible logic for East-West is to grant access to the Liberal swinging voters in the east to some of the jobs that are coming from the west in particular the Airport. Obviously this isn’t one of the things discussed widely in the media. This would explain why ‘improving access to the airport for those in the eastern suburbs’ might make a type of sense. Certainly spending $8 billion on a tunnel so “George” can go to the airport twice a year more comfortably doesn’t.

c) A third logic which makes sense is that this project is getting funded by the Federal government and there is no money on the table for anything else. It is against all logic in public service not to take up money when it is offered even when it only represents 18% of the cost of $8 billion.

d) Finally the logic of keeping car driving alive and well in the city is also relevant here. Tony Abbott has clearly expressed the view in various publications including Borderline what in his view we will have failed as a society if freely available car transport isn’t provided.

The other reasons why the road is occurring are largely borrowed from the Eddington report which was based on dealing with an accessibility and equity problem that was real – the issues of the disadvantaged West and the actually congested Westgate Bridge. The rationale in Eddington doesn’t make much sense for the East-West stage 1 because it comes from a study which had the centre of it’s study area in Laverton, and only at the very edge reached the end of the Eastern Freeway. An example of such nonsense statements is the one which came out in the second news letter from LMA (before the second half of East West was announced) which stated that the project was required because by 2031 almost 440,000 cars would be crossing the Maribyrnong by road (none of course would be in the East-West stage 1 as that project does not cross the Maribyrnong).

Why this project won’t die easily

One of the main reasons is that both sides of politics have a vested interest in maintaining the legitimacy of their right to make sovereign decisions. The major parties like to make decisions on these things and then deliver them it removes all that messy business of democracy. If the Labor Party was to revoke the contracts it would not only be expensive by they would essentially be admitting that these things should only happen after consultation (which is likely to make it very difficult to get anything done).

Secondly the Labor party has linked their policy to jobs. Because of the time it takes to get large projects up and running, they will not meet their targets without East-West. Therefore they will not revoke contracts unless forced.

Why do I care?

I believe that we probably do have an infrastructure crisis in this country. Apart from new projects much of our infrastructure is aging and needs to be replaced. Also I believe we need to massively retrofit our cities for sustainability and even to just accommodate more people. We probably need mega projects to do that.

The problem with this project is that every failed mega project inflates the cost of the next one. You can already see that with the massive cost increases between Cross City Tunnel, the Brisbane tunnels and this project.

The other problem that this project exposes is the degree to which government has come to the conclusion that the community cannot be consulted with. I don’t believe this is just ideology, it has also come from bitter experience. If the community is going to insist on being consulted, then it is up to us to figure out how to do that in ways which are productive.

More reading/viewing:

International public transport infographic

I was passed this infographic on public transport from some mob from Ireland called HoogleIt. They seem to be sending it around to various bloggers to get it posted around the place as a promotional tool.

Fair enough. It has some interesting factoids on it.

Public transport infographic

Anything about Melbourne in here? Indirectly. The photo illustrating “liveable cities” is Melbourne, snapped from the Arts Centre on St Kilda Road.

There are a few typos here and there, but some good information.

Some notes from me:

  • In Europe, overall travel seems to be down in 2009-10, including bus and coach, but railway travel is up, and metro is steady. Perhaps this is an effect of the Global Financial Crisis?
  • The GFC might also account for the blip in 2010, but it does appear that in the USA, rail travel is up. It’d be nice to know what “all other” means here — presumably it includes light rail (trams), and ferries, but what about subway systems?
  • The Asia bit isn’t really about Asia; it includes some western cities. It is interesting though to see that very dense cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong are way ahead of cities in Europe that we think of as having pretty good (and well used) public transport such as Berlin. LA’s figure unfortunately leaves out buses, which are a major part of their system.
  • It appears Oslo has the most expensive fares of the cities surveyed, though their ticket includes transfers for an hour (unlike, say, Sydney where the train fare doesn’t let you board a connecting bus). And there was me thinking London might take the Most Expensive gong. Of course, regular users often get discounts, via smartcards or periodical tickets — but these are hard to compare, as all cities have different systems. Oslo’s 30 day ticket, for instance, costs about the same as 21 single tickets, or 10 days of travel if you make two trips per day. That’s about half the comparative cost for a 30 day ticket in Melbourne.
  • The fares data is from Business Insider which in turn sources it from a report from Swiss bank UBS. Hopefully UBS fixed their methodology — in the 2009 of the same study, they incorrectly claimed Sydney was second-highest in the world — seemingly equating the then A$3.80 fare with US$3.82 due to a currency mix-up, despite the Aussie dollar being nowhere near parity at the time. I guess it just shows you should always check the source data when presented with a surprising “fact”.

It makes me ponder what Melbourne-specific transport facts might be good to present in similar graphical form to make them clearer.

High-density around railway stations: a good idea, if done well (but that’s a big If)

I think it’d be true to say that Melbourne hasn’t done high-density development in the suburbs very well.

For example, this monolith in Camberwell, a bit too far away from the railway station, out of scale with (some of) the buildings around it, and I’m sure not well liked by many of the locals.

Camberwell Junction, July 2013

But that doesn’t mean high-density around railway stations is a bad idea.

The topic came up yesterday in an Age report that Metro’s plan to upgrade the Dandenong includes such development around stations such as Murrumbeena.

Residents of Melbourne’s politically sensitive south-east face the possibility of high-rise development at their rail stations including Murrumbeena, under a confidential deal between the Napthine government and a consortium led by the city’s private rail operator.

The deal for the proposed multibillion-dollar upgrade of the Pakenham-Cranbourne rail corridor – contained in documents leaked to The Sunday Age – includes a specific clause about development around sites identified for level crossing removals.

In some ways this shouldn’t be any great surprise — Metro’s parent company in Hong Kong makes a lot of money from development around stations, and there’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about development around stations helping to pay for grade separation. The tiny (in comparison) development of a cafe at Caulfield was a flop, but a grade separation, new station and re-development of the whole precinct would actually work… if done well.

Population growth is happening. Planned, targeted in-fill development is better than never-ending sprawl, and better than a free-for-all that destroys local streets and leads to more car dependence because you get lots more people living where public transport isn’t convenient.

I’ve lived in Murrumbeena twice — for a couple of years last decade, as well as in the 80s when I was a teenager. In that time the shopping centre has always moribund. To an extent, the railway line split it east-west, and the busy road split it north-south, and it could never compete with Chadstone and Carnegie, both nearby. Getting a lot more residents in the immediately vicinity of the station could re-vitalise it, and make much better use of the land currently used for parking.

I’m not sure about how high they should go. Chris Hale proposes 15 stories in The Age article; having seen the blocks go up around Footscray, and the Camberwell example above, I don’t think in most suburbs (outside the inner city, at least) you’d want to go above 8-10 for now, staggered downwards as you get further from the centre/station.

There are provisos to all of this, of course:

  • as Chris Hale says, good design, including green space — Melbourne seems to be lacking good examples, but experts cite cities such as Vancouver as having got this right
  • mixed use development so people can do much of their daily shopping without going elsewhere
  • in a some areas, particularly inner-city, you’d want to be sensitive to the heritage strip shopping streetscape
  • upgrades to rail services to 10 minutes, 7-days, so it really is an option
  • ditto, upgrade to local bus services to other major nearby destinations (in the case of Murrumbeena, the obvious one is bus 822 to Chadstone and Southland)
  • bike paths/lanes on nearby corridors/roads
  • limit of one car park per residence, with the option of none
  • in fact, set up a car share pod or two to further reduce car ownership
  • given much of the most obvious land for development is currently station carparks, I’d imagine it might be politically courageous to end up with a net reduction in car spaces, though improvements in bus services could counter this. A reduction in spaces is perhaps avoided via development such as in Elsternwick, where existing parking was converted to multi-storey.
  • and of course in the case of the Dandenong line, the grade separation should include provision for future track amplification and platform extensions

The fact that this one is being planned in secret is obviously a concern. And is Metro’s “value capture” going to actually save the government (and taxpayers) any money? It’s not clear.

But that doesn’t mean that the concept high-density around transport hubs is a bad idea, provided the community get some say, and if it’s done well.

Based on past Melbourne experiences, that’s a big if.

What do you think?

Sovereign risk not an excuse for pursuing bad policy: Labor should pledge to scrap #EWLink contracts

I swear I wrote most of this blog post before reading last Friday’s Age article. It actually confirmed my suspicions:

Should Labor win the November state election, there is no legal impediment stopping it from tearing up the contract for the East West Link if it is sincere in its opposition to the road project, experts in contract law and public policy say.

– Age 18/4/2014: Labor could tear up East West Link contract if it wins election

ShredderLabor are in the interesting position of officially opposing the East West Link (section 1, at least), but saying that if the contracts are signed before the election, they’ll build it anyway, citing “sovereign risk”:

If Dr Napthine snubs the state Labor’s plea and signs a contract before November (2014), Mr Andrews said he would not rip up the contract despite it being the “wrong project”.

– Herald Sun 31/7/2013: Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews will lead Labor opposition to East West Link

and:

The Victorian Greens are threatening not to direct preferences to Labor in marginal seats at this year’s state election unless the ALP pledges to rip up contracts on the east-west link if it wins government.

Labor leader Daniel Andrews has consistently said that while he does not support the east-west link, he would not rip up contracts once they were signed because of sovereign risk.

– The Age 23/2/2014: Greens may run open tickets in Victorian state election if Labor holds to east-west link vow

It happens all the time

Now, I’m no lawyer, but even before Dr Seddon spoke out, it seemed pretty clear that the argument of sovereign risk doesn’t really up.

A quick look around the place finds numerous examples of both threats to tear up contracts, and governments actually doing it.

  • The government’s contract with Telstra to build a national broadband network (NBN) could be thrown out if the Liberal Party wins the next election, the opposition says. Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said although he had not read the contract between Telstra and the federal government, it would be cheaper to rip it up than to follow through with the NBN. — 20/7/2011
  • The NSW government is threatening to rip up its contract with the operators of Sydney’s M5 East tunnel after a second shutdown in three months caused massive delays for motorists. — 22/9/2008
  • The federal government has cancelled the contract for Optus and Elders to build a WiMAX broadband network. … Futuris and Optus, in an equal partnership called OPEL, were awarded $958 million by the Howard government to construct a broadband network for rural and regional Australia. — 2/4/2008
  • THE $6.6 billion purchase of 24 Super Hornets as a stop-gap fighter jet could be jettisoned by the Rudd Government as it reviews all aspects of the program to give Australia an edge in air-combat capability in the region. … Even if contracts have been signed, as is the case with the Super Hornets, the Government is prepared to break them if the case is compelling. This marks a shift from previous Labor thinking. — 31/12/2007
  • The controversial Tcard contract will be dumped after years of delays and a $64 million bill. NSW Transport Minister John Watkins… said a notice of intention to terminate had been issued on Monday to ERG Limited, the Perth company that had been contracted in 2003 to introduce the Tcard system. 9/11/2007
  • The State Government announced yesterday it was prepared to tear up its contract with National Express to run V/Line passenger services after the company said the contract was not financially viable. — 24/8/2002

It seems to be abundantly clear that governments of any persuasions can rip up contracts if they like, as long as they are prepared to stomach the legal and political consequences.

The latter might include accusations of sacrificing jobs, and undermining business/investor confidence.

Sovereign risk, as Bernard Keane at Crikey writes, has morphed into a general meaning of governments doing anything that a business doesn’t like, no matter how much it might be in the national interest.

Another good example (though not directly related to a specific contract) is the Rudd government last year ending FBT car rorts costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year by effectively allowing people to claim personal use of cars as a business tax deduction. The Coalition reversed that decision, perhaps helped along by what I hear was a massive lobbying push from the novated car lease industry.

If East West Link is so good, take it to an election

East West Link is likely to be the most expensive infrastructure ever built in the state — and it’s not just about the construction cost, it’s also the cost of decades of availability payments from taxpayers to the private owners, to ensure they make a profit.

In the case of the East West Link, the Coalition government has ignored years of opinion polls showing people want public transport ahead of motorways. And they’ve refused calls to release the business plan, and to seek a mandate for the project at November’s election, despite it being a hugely expensive, largely unwanted project.

As Andrew Herrington wrote in Crikey: Inner urban resident groups opposing the freeway are incensed that… Labor will quietly let the freeway be built. They urge Labor to pledge to “tear up the contracts” arguing that the ink will be barely dry and the normal arguments about sovereign risk and payment of damages hold little weight if the validity of the contract is questioned in advance.

If Labor really believe it’s a dud project, they should properly differentiate themselves from the Coalition. They should make it clear right now that if they win, they will tear up the contracts, scrap the project (no substantial work is likely to have started anyway), and put the money into alternative projects, such as new rail lines and more Smartbus services.

Flagging it before the election, and before contracts are signed, means investors can only blame themselves if they get burnt, knowing that the risk existed all along.

As it is, it seems both major parties are denying the Victorian people any kind of say about a project which is not only unpopular, but will also generate heaps of traffic in the inner north, and swallow up billions of tax payers’ dollars.

Sign the peition: No mandate: Give Victorians a chance to vote on the East-West toll road

How long did it take to get into central Melbourne from your suburb… circa 1925

This is very cool. Similar to tools Jarrett Walker often talks about that show how far you can get in X minutes on public transport, here’s a map prepared around 1925 or so (I’m guessing) by the Melbourne Town Planning Commission showing how long it takes to get into central Melbourne from various suburbs by tram and train (and walking).

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925: Legend

Here’s the area around St Kilda and Caulfield:

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925: Caulfield area

As you can see, the areas around railway stations have the quickest access into the city. Trams don’t reach as far in the same number of minutes.

As you get farther away from tram lines/railway stations, the city becomes less accessible.

Here’s the thing: in many ways the timings on this map haven’t changed much, because in terms of fixed-rail infrastructure, there’s not that much extra in 2014.

On the trains, the Glen Waverley line (a late addition, sketched onto this map) and the City Loop are the obvious new lines, the latter providing better access to more parts of the CBD, but not making much difference in terms of travel time, which remain roughly the same as they were. Bentleigh to the City still takes about half-an-hour.

That travel time hasn’t deteriorated is important: as the city’s road traffic has increased markedly over those 90ish years, the train system has isolated those who use it (and the city at large) from growing traffic congestion.

Meanwhile some areas such as Kew have lost their trains, though areas further out such as Pakenham and Cranbourne, which once had only infrequent country trains, are now part of the metropolitan network.

Trams aren’t shown very clearly on this map, but extensions since the 1920s include the 75 out to Vermont South. But some areas such as Footscray have lost some of their trams, as has Elwood/Brighton, and Black Rock/Beaumaris. Travel times for the trams that remain also seem similar to today, though in peak hours they’re likely to be longer on routes sharing space with cars.

If you have a look at the whole map, many of the obvious gaps in the network are still there… only these days they’re filled with houses, not empty as they were when this map was prepared. As I’ve noted before, if a suburb got its public transport back in the 1930s when PT was still being expanded, it probably still has it now.

Some areas have Smartbuses, which help fill those gaps and get to the station with frequent (at least on weekdays) fast (well, faster than walking) services. But many suburbs miss out on frequent PT.

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925.

Not that accessibility to the CBD is necessarily what everyone needs nowadays — work places, education and other opportunities are now more widely dispersed throughout the metropolitan area.

But allowing people to get to those places, particularly without a car (eg being able to move independent of traffic congestion, and whether or not they are able to drive) is an ongoing challenge.

See the map nice and big, on Flickr (opens in a new window)

Source: State Library of Victoria — map 4. Other maps there include variations on this theme. I haven’t looked at everything yet — no doubt there are some other gems. Map 2 is similar to map 4, but is in black and white, but shows tram lines more clearly.