Jim Miller: Victoria still faces some big challenges over the coming decades
Anyone working in infrastructure planning laughs and cringes at the very mention of Utopia – the hilarious TV show set at the fictional government agency, the Nation Building Authority. It’s possible, like me, they’ve been asked to draw comparisons between the program and their own organisation at more than one barbecue.
As chair of the state’s independent infrastructure advisory body, I delight in telling them the good news: infrastructure planning in Victoria is vastly different to the haphazard, bumbling train wreck presented in the show. Planning the state’s infrastructure needs may get fewer laughs in reality – but it delivers much better results for Victorians.
Since 2015, we at Infrastructure Victoria have been doing our homework. We’ve done new research and conducted sophisticated land use and transport modelling, analysed future scenarios, and talked to different business and community groups. Our job is to independently assess and help guide the infrastructure policy and investment decisions of the Victorian government in the short, medium and long term. We advise, the government decides.
The Victorian government completed or made progress on over 90 per cent of the 137 recommendations in our first 30-year Victorian infrastructure strategy, developed back in 2016. On Thursday we presented an updated version of the strategy to the Victorian parliament. It charts the next stage of Victoria’s infrastructure journey, responding to changes in our society, including the long-lasting impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, such as where Victorians live and how they travel.
Victoria’s new infrastructure strategy makes recommendations about future decisions – and how to maximise the benefits of existing government commitments. A good infrastructure strategy is more than a wish list of projects. More than half our recommendations are for policy changes and reforms to reduce the pressure on the infrastructure we already have, without a sod being turned.
We have identified the construction projects that are absolutely required, representing around $100bn in capital spend over 30 years. Every dollar spent on these projects will deliver multiple benefits to Victorians.
For example, we recommend the Victorian government begin planning to reconfigure the City Loop for more frequent and reliable services, extend suburban train lines in Melbourne’s growing outer north and west, and prepare for the Outer Metropolitan Ring Road. Victoria will need these projects regardless of changing travel and work patterns caused by the pandemic. They will better connect Victorians to jobs, services, and each other.
We also found that Melbourne Metro 2 – a new rail tunnel connecting Clifton Hill and Newport though the CBD and Fishermans Bend – offers significant economic benefits. It also provides an option for faster, direct Geelong services into the city. But it will need alternative route alignments and staging to be considered cost effective.
On the other hand, we found a cross-city motorway will do little to ease congestion in the short term and may not be needed for another 20 to 30 years, when it might be useful in providing better freight connections.
These and other construction projects have the biggest benefits when combined with other solutions. For example, Victoria can immediately upgrade outdated road technology systems for better traffic light control to speed up traffic flow. Victoria can also introduce a range of pricing changes to support safer, fairer and faster travel, such as cheaper fares for buses and off-peak travel.
While governments must, quite rightly, turn the bulk of their attention to managing the pandemic right now, Victoria still faces some big challenges over the coming decades. These include worsening congestion, a growing and ageing population, technological transformation, and a warming climate.
When we shift to recovery from the pandemic, the 2021-2051 statewide infrastructure strategy presents the Victorian government with a practical roadmap for action: 94 recommendations across all types of infrastructure including energy, water, environment, health, digital connectivity, community services, justice, emergency services and transport, including active transport.
It includes the top regional infrastructure priorities from the Mallee to Gippsland to help reduce disadvantage, build on economic strengths and address environmental risks including improving digital connectivity, long-term road and rail maintenance funding, and upgrading power infrastructure for agriculture and regional industries.
In Utopia, there is always a new build solution to solve problems. From fast trains to monorails, technological superhighways and hydro schemes. It’s all fanfare and ribbon cutting with little regard to the long-term benefit. Thankfully, in reality, there is a better way. It relies on evidence, analysis, consultation and an integrated approach.
Evidence tells us that despite the challenges of the pandemic, Melbourne and Victoria will continue to grow; and that the infrastructure Victoria already has will accommodate most of this future growth. The government has at its fingertips Infrastructure Victoria’s sensible, pragmatic, affordable and evidence-based roadmap to support a thriving and sustainable society.
Implementing these recommendations will deliver the infrastructure Victorians need – and keep the comedy to Utopia.
Jim Miller is chair of Infrastructure Victoria