The Coalition’s decision to abolish federal funding for urban rail projects will have an enormous impact on Australian cities if an Abbott government is installed in Canberra on September 14.

Last week Abbott said the Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads, but “we have no history of funding urban rail and I think it is important that we stick to our knitting. And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads”.

This policy would effectively demolish plans for a swag of urban rail proposals around the country that are premised on the federal government providing the lion’s share of capital funding.

The top two major projects on Infrastructure Australia’s “ready to proceed” urban priority list are Brisbane Cross River Rail and Melbourne Metro Stage One. The next stage of Brisbane’s Eastern Busway is also on the priority list — Infrastructure Australia says it will be marked ready to go once “a small number of outstanding issues” are addressed.

Other projects on the list but not as advanced include Sydney’s north-west rail link, capacity improvements to the Sydney commuter network, Melbourne’s Dandenong rail line, Gold Coast light rail and electrification of the Melton rail line.

Abbott’s claim the Commonwealth has no history of funding urban rail projects doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As Daniel Bowen points out, the Commonwealth is helping fund Queensland’s Moreton Bay rail link, Victoria’s regional rail link, the Perth City rail Link and Adelaide’s rail electrification project. Moreover, he says if you go back a few years:

“Melbourne’s Cranbourne line was upgraded and electrified in the ’90s with money from the Commonwealth’s Building Better Cities scheme. Commonwealth funding was also used for the ‘4D’ double-deck development train.”

Abbott’s pronouncement is at least consistent with the reluctance conservative governments have historically shown toward treating urban affairs as a distinct policy area. The conservative view is it doesn’t have national implications. The trouble in this case is Abbott has already promised to fund transport infrastructure projects in some Australian major cities — it’s just that all his undertakings relate to roads.

He’s promised to contribute $1.5 billion to the proposed east-west link in Melbourne and another $1.5 billion to Sydney’s WestConnex motorway on condition it links to the CBD. The Coalition’s election manifesto — Our plan: real solutions for all Australians — also says a Liberal government would contribute $1 billion toward Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway upgrade and provide (as yet unspecified) funding for Perth’s airport gateway road project.

What’s not in the document is any parallel commitment to improve urban public transport. Indeed, urban public transport isn’t mentioned at all, even in passing. That’s despite the fact demand for public transport has grown strongly in most of Australia’s capital cities over the last 10 years — patronage on Melbourne’s rail network increased 70% over the last ten years and by 40% over the last five.

The underlying drivers of this growth aren’t mere temporary blips. Abbott is ignoring structural changes in demographics, in the composition of the economy and in the relative price of travel by different modes. Failure to fund key public transport projects is an efficiency issue as much as anything else. It will limit the economic capacity of Australia’s major cities.

There are other problems inherent in Abbott’s evident inclination to involve himself in urban policy but only via freeways. Consider, for example, the proposed $9 billion Melbourne metro rail tunnel. It’s a key issue because the Prime Minister promised last week to contribute Commonwealth funding to build it (the amount is unspecified, but would need to be in the order of 75% plus). But if it isn’t funded by a Coalition government, the Victorian government says other expansions of the metropolitan rail network couldn’t proceed — like popular proposals for new rail lines to the airport, Doncaster and Rowville.