Key constrains on existing Melbourne rail network (source: Public Transport Victoria)

I was disheartened to read in Sunday’s paper that the Victorian Greens want to win the balance of power in the Victorian upper house so they can insist a rail line to Doncaster be built instead of the State Government’s planned East West Link freeway.

According to the report (Bandt says Greens can stop east-west link with balance of power), Federal Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, said:

If you think ahead to the next (State) election, construction won’t have started on the tunnel. With the Greens in the balance of power, we’d be in a position to insist that construction not start, and instead, that Doncaster rail be built.

I don’t know what internal machinations result in a Federal Member taking the lead on what is primarily a State issue, but The Greens are wrong on this one. Worse, the party’s at odds with its stated principles.

My problem isn’t with The Green’s opposition to the $6-8 billion East-West Link. Given the Victorian Government continues to refuse to justify the road it’s hardly surprising it’s opposed by both Labor and The Greens (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here and here).

Nor is my issue with improving public transport. There’s an urgent need to invest in good public transport projects like improved signalling to boost capacity on existing lines; provision of a grid of cross-suburban services to connect up existing rail and tram lines (see How can public transport work better in cities?); and the proposed $9 billion Melbourne Metro.

The problem is a new rail line to Doncaster would be a very poor use of public funds compared to other options, as I’ve explained before (e.g. see here and here). It would be very costly and its environmental benefits would be slight. The study completed recently by the Government showed a Doncaster rail line would cost $8-12 billion and barely change the share of trips taken by car. (1)

It would of course be welcomed by the residents of Melbourne’s middle class eastern suburbs because it would provide them with a somewhat faster trip to the CBD than is provided by the existing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) service. It would also significantly increase the value of many properties.

Although it would be a poor investment, The Greens see political advantage in portraying Doncaster rail and the East-West Link as substitutes. They both service the eastern suburbs so it makes the party’s position easier to sell. But it’s simply not true – the rail line would service CBD trips whereas the function of the freeway is primarily to provide an east-west route 5 km north of the CBD.

Projects like improved signalling or the Melbourne Metro are much more important for the efficient and equitable functioning of the metropolitan area than a rail line to Doncaster. The Metro (or something like it) is required to address looming constraints on the ability of the city centre to continue to grow. It’s also needed before significant expansion of the metropolitan rail network can most efficiently proceed.

What’s really disappointing is The Greens support for Doncaster rail undermines its claim to “stand up for what really matters”. It’s inconsistent with the proud boast that The Greens:

provide a real alternative to the tired, cynical politics of Labor and the Liberal party. Unlike the two old parties, the Greens have a proud history of standing up for what is right, not just what is easy or what polls well.

This isn’t the first time The Greens in Victoria have shown themselves to be as cynical and opportunistic as the major parties.

For example, only last month Adam Bandt made the extraordinary claim that the party’s High Speed Rail scheme would create 200,000 jobs. Even the (then) Transport Minister Anthony Albanese only had the front to claim Labor’s similar HSR scheme would create just 10,000 jobs.

Another example occurred during the 2010 Victorian election. The Greens proposed they could build 10 new rail lines and 10 new tram lines for a ludicrously small $13 billion. It would be financed in part by diverting billions of dollars from road projects the then Labor Government was supposedly committed to building. Shamefully, as The Greens well knew, the funds simply didn’t exist.

I know that many people who’re interested in urban issues support The Greens and in many cases with good reason. But this is about more than party allegiances. The Greens shouldn’t get a free pass on accountability any more than the major parties should.

The Greens should be opposed to giving priority to a project like Doncaster rail when there are other options with a higher social, environmental and economic pay-off. To use its own language, the party should be standing up for what’s right and not just for what polls well.

Doncaster rail is not consistent with progressive values. The federal election showed Adam Bandt is obviously doing something that appeals to his constituents but he should be wary of trashing his and the party’s brand.

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  1. Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence that governments around the world routinely under-estimate the cost of public transport projects, some believe the estimate for Doncaster is grossly excessive. But even if it were $2-4 billion, it would still be a very large sum and would  be better spent on other projects.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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