Australian trend in vehicle kms travelled per person (source: Infrastructure Australia Progress and Action Report - June 2012)

There’s a very interesting passage at page 31 of the Coalition’s election manifesto, Our plan: real solutions for all Australians – the direction, values and policy priorities of the next Coalition government.

It sets out how an Abbott government would empower Infrastructure Australia to ensure taxpayer funding is applied cost-effectively to construct infrastructure rather than being “just wasted money”.

This is what the statement commits the Coalition to do:

We will strengthen the role of Infrastructure Australia, improve its governance and make it more transparent and accountable, as well as a more effective adviser.

We will require all Commonwealth-funded projects worth more than $100 million to undergo a cost-benefit analysis by Infrastructure Australia to ensure the best use of available taxpayer monies.

We will require Infrastructure Australia to publish justifications for all its project recommendations.

We will prioritize projects based on a proper cost-benefit analysis.

Within 12 months of election we will announce infrastructure priorities and construction timetables in consultation with the States.

That all sounds very proper and sensible, especially the insistence on cost-benefit analysis as a basis for prioritising projects. The commitment to publish the rationale for recommendations is very worthy too.

As the Coalition’s manifesto says, a commitment to an objective, evidence-based process of evaluation is indeed likely to “deliver better value from infrastructure spending”.

It’d be a great policy – and warrant kudos to Tony Abbott and his team – if it hadn’t already been trashed.

But it’s entirely at odds with the promise made by the Coalition in June last year (see media release) that an Abbott Government would commit $4 billion to accelerate construction of three specific freeway projects:

East-West Link (Victoria) – $1.5 billion

M4 East (NSW) – $1.5 billion

Gateway Motorway upgrade: Nudgee to the Bruce Highway (Queensland) – $1 billion.

No sign of the promised transparency and accountability here, much less the commitment to cost-benefit analysis.

Moreover, not one of these projects is in either Infrastructure Australia’s ‘Ready to Proceed’ category or its next-best ‘Threshold’ category (for projects that are reasonably close to ready). Rather, they’re in the preliminary ‘Early Stage’ or ‘Real Potential’ categories.

Melbourne’s East-West Link at least has the benefit of prior analytical work done by Sir Rod Eddington in 2008 on improving east-west transport connections across Melbourne. However as I noted on Sunday, that work indicated the benefit-cost ratio for this road is almost certainly negative.

It’s possible that further investigations and intensive design work might produce positive cost-benefit ratios for one or two of these projects, but of course at this stage that’s unknown.

The fact is the Coalition has committed to a process to evaluate projects that it’s already disregarded.

The surprising thing is it published the election manifesto in January this year, six months after the $4 billion commitment was first made. That’s either incredibly foolish or incredibly arrogant.

And no, I’m not being partisan, as some (elsewhere) have suggested. I’ve been just as critical of Labor and Julia Gillard when warranted e.g. here and here.