Dirty Deal Done Dirt Cheap: East West Dumped, Western Distributor Given Green Light

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Victorian premier Daniel Andrews did a good thing, and then a very, very bad thing. Greens Senator Janet Rice explains.

Daniel Andrews is taking us for a ride. Not one of those nice rides to the country with plenty of sunshine and a picnic at the end. But one where he locks the doors, doesn’t tell you where you’re going and drives into the night with the meter running.

And it doesn’t look like ending well for any of us. Especially after this week.

This started when the Premier – quite rightly in my opinion – tore up the contracts to East West Link. Yes, there was a cost for doing so. But the contracts should never have been signed by the former Liberal government in the first place.

East West Link was an $18 billion monstrosity that would have ripped through the heart of Melbourne. The project was going to return as little as 45 cents for every $1 spent, would have done very little to ease our clogged roads and we would have been paying it off for generations to come.

But then Daniel Andrews did something that has become a disappointing pattern of his time as Premier – he succumbed to pressure from big interest groups.

In this case, it was the toll road giant Transurban, who put an offer to the Premier he couldn’t refuse – an unsolicited proposal for the Western Distributor tollway.

It must have seemed too good to be true for the freshly-elected Premier. He would get a signature project to spruik to drivers as the answer to Melbourne’s transport woes, and wouldn’t have to pay a cent. Transurban would pay for two-thirds of the construction costs, and the rest would come from the federal government’s commitment to East West Link.

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Like most things that seem too good to be true, it usually is.

As we found out at Senate Estimates the week, the federal government is simply not considering handing over any money for the project.

Still, the Victorian government is cashed up after privatising the Port of Melbourne and says it can cough up anyway. But it’s Victorians that will be paying the price.

In exchange for their contribution, Transurban have been allowed to extend their tolls on CityLink users for another 12 years, generating up to $30 billion more in extra toll revenue – money that comes straight out of your and my pockets.

That leads to what is perhaps the worst thing – the serious concerns over whether the project will do anything at all to ease congestion or improve traffic flow.

In Senate Estimates this week, the Department of Infrastructure told us have worries about whether the project is “really is a long-term solution to the issues”.

Let’s put aside for a moment that our transport infrastructure is suffering from decades of imbalance in funding, to the point where it is simply not feasible for many people to get out of their cars. We’ll put aside that building more roads to ease congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity. And we’ll put aside that the best way to fix congestion is to give people the choice of fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport.

The problem here is that we’re being kept in the dark about how much value for money we’d get for the cost.

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The state government says there has been a positive cost benefit analysis, but we’ve only seen a heavily redacted version of it. My colleague in the Victorian parliament Colleen Hartland is trying to get the full story, which we know is critical to public and peer evaluation of the value of the Western Distributor and its ability to meet our transport needs.

We also know that there have been independent peer reviews of the transport and economic modelling, but the government refuses to release them to the public. You can only wonder what they have to hide.

This week, I have written to the Premier to release these independent assessments of the Western Distributor so Victorians can judge for themselves whether the project adds up.

I urge the Premier to unlock the door, release these documents and let us know what kind of journey he’s got us all into.

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Janet Rice

Senator Janet Rice is the Australian Greens spokesperson for transport and infrastructure.

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