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A Bridge into the Future: The Past tells Us that Now is the Time to Act in Creating a Better East-West Link for Melbourne

AIH399 MAKING HISTORY
DEAKIN UNIVERSITY

by
Courtney Rowe

 

Executive Summary

  • The recent computer glitch that led to the closure of the Domain and Burnley tunnels, creating traffic chaos approaching and within the Melbourne and inner suburban areas, highlights the total reliance on the East-West road network feeding from the West Gate Bridge.
  • From the initial considerations of the development of an East-West Link across the Yarra River to the opening of the constructed West Gate Bridge, 21 years elapsed before traffic relief was provided.
  • Following the opening of the Bridge in 1978, the prediction was that 40,000 vehicles would use it each day. In 2012, some 160,000 vehicles are travelling across the Bridge daily.
  • Population projections indicate that a consideration of a second East-West Link cannot repeat the timing of more than two decades taken for the construction of the West Gate Bridge. In addition to this link, consultants are suggesting that additional improvements need to be made to public transport systems.
  • Failure to act on this subject will lead to safety issues for commuters using the West Gate Bridge. This is despite the addition of lanes and strengthening of the Bridge conducted between 2009 and 2011. Today, the Bridge is functioning ‘below current desirable internationally accepted standards’.
  • In August 2012, the Baillieu Government put on hold plans to address traffic pressures on the West Gate Bridge. This short-sighted decision was taken on the basis of an apparent lack of funds.
  • This essay provides some short- and long-term recommendations in relation to Melbourne traffic congestion and funding issues. It argues that the Victorian Government cannot afford to take another two decades to provide a solution to this issue, as it did the construction of the West Gate Bridge. Population growth and transportation predictions indicate the urgency for a second East-West Link.

No one would argue that the shutdown of the Domain and Burnley tunnels on 3 October 2012 was the wrong decision, as the primary issue was the safety of commuters using the tunnels. Yet, the chaos that was the result of a computer failure again highlights Melbourne’s urgent need for another East-West Link. The two tunnels are used by 120,000 vehicles each weekday and they form key components of Melbourne’s busiest road and main freight route. The closure forced the diversion of traffic from the Westgate and Monash Freeways onto the surrounding road network, causing massive traffic delays and also negatively impacting on public transport commuters. The situation led to increased traffic through central Melbourne, creating an inner-city gridlock and lengthy delays. Some commuters complained that a normal half-hour trip took well in excess of three hours. The East-West road network is heavily dependent upon the West Gate and Monash Freeways leading to use of the West Gate Bridge.

From the 1950s, as Melbourne developed, it became increasingly obvious that there was a need for another link between the western and eastern suburbs, other than the limited ferry service across the Yarra River from Williamstown to Port Melbourne and back. In 1958, discussions began between the Victorian Government, the Western Industries Association (formed by industries located in Williamstown, Spotswood, Altona, Footscray and surrounding areas), and a number of interested local councils. During this period, the Lower Yarra Crossing Company Limited was incorporated and the Country Roads Board was established to investigate and negotiate with the state government for the construction of a bridge. Due to a lack of funds, however, there was little discussion. In 1964, the Government decided that a bridge would be the best infrastructure to link the western suburbs to the rest of Melbourne. It was decided in 1965 that the funding for the construction of the bridge would be managed by the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority Limited (LYCAL), which also had the power to acquire land and impose tolls to repay debentures that the LYCAL was authorised to commit. Ultimately, the bridge would be the property of the Crown and paid for by citizens who accessed it.

After some delays and a devastating collapse of a section of the bridge that killed 35 workers, the West Gate Bridge officially opened in 1978. It cost $145 million, despite the original estimation of construction being only $32 million in 1965. The Bridge allowed the freeway to extend directly into the CBD’s southwestern corner, including what is now known as the Docklands Precinct. The official 1978 survey predicted that 40,000 vehicles per day would use the Bridge in the years 1978-79, and estimated that, by 1995, the number of vehicles would rise to 100,000 daily. Recent studies revealed that, in 2012, on average 160,000 vehicles (including some 24,000 trucks) use the West Gate Bridge daily to travel across the Yarra River enabling grossly reduced travel times compared to using surrounding suburban road systems. From the initial recognition of the need for an East-West Link (1957) until the West Gate Bridge’s opening, 21 years elapsed. The current Victorian Government cannot afford to allow the decision-making, planning, and construction of another East-West Link to take as long as two decades or Melbourne traffic and transport systems will be in total gridlock.

With the Victorian population growing rapidly, the latest population projections and future settlement plans given by Brian Negus, General Manager of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) Public Policy, in Victoria’s Transport Plan further reports the increasingly strong need for Spring Street to solve the road and transport problems that inevitably will worsen if nothing is done.  The Transport Plan projects that, in 2021 — less than a decade from now — Victoria will be home to over six million people. Moreover, it is predicted that Melbourne’s population alone will reach five million within the next twenty years. In 2006, the ‘Investing in Transport East-West Link Needs Assessment’ study into Victoria’s transport system was undertaken by infrastructure consultant Sir Rod Eddington tasked to propose a solution to improve transport links between the western and eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The Report was released in 2008, recommending new road and rail tunnels, improved cycle and bus routes to release heavy congestion on the roads, and a further extension to the rail electrification network. A most significant finding of Eddington’s Report predicts that Melbourne’s increasing economic and population growth would see a 30 percent increase in demand for travel by private motor vehicles and public transport. Furthermore, it also predicated a 50 percent growth in freight being transported around Melbourne by 2020, particularly to and from airports and shipping wharfs and docks. The proposed 20 recommendations amounted to $18 billion in costs, and these suggestions were supported by the RACV in August 2008 in response to the Eddington Report.

An RACV 2008 Report not only supports Eddington’s overall recommendations, but also strongly asserts that they form just part of the extensive development and improvement needed to assure the success of Melbourne’s transport system in the future.  The Report contends that 80 percent of public transport services are on roads, and therefore an integral part of improvements need to go towards road transport.  The RACV report cited many projects, identifying and recommending specific road and tunnel projects, as well as promoting urgent action for a City to Airport rail line, and the elimination of busy level crossings. The RACV concluded that their recommendations along with Eddington’s should be a matter of priority, the federal government should contribute to the funding and, in the circumstance where the budget is unable to deliver all of the projects, the private sector should assist in a partnership with the public. The RACV believed that, along with Eddington’s recommendations, their proposals needed to be urgently put into process. After the release of these reports, the Brumby Government implemented some of the recommendations; the majority of them, however, remained unfunded and not acted upon.

If Spring Street and Canberra continue to ignore the various studies suggesting the future projection of population growth and increased use of road vehicles, including freight transportation, and fail to promptly introduce the funding and construction of another East-West road link, safety on the West Gate Bridge will be further compromised. In order to cater for the level of traffic, works commenced on the West Gate Bridge in 2009 both to introduce an additional lane in each direction and to significantly strengthen the bridge. Throughout the time of the widening and strengthening constructions, commuters experienced massive delays. These works came at considerable cost to the Victorian Government and severely disrupted traffic for the two-year period. In February 2012, less than one year after the completion of the strengthening enhancements, cracks in the structure were identified to the public. The West Gate Bridge is predicted to crack and corrode under traffic loads that have surged ‘beyond all expectations’. A confidential report contends that although the Bridge is safe in the short term, the East-West Link has been operating with safety margins and prospects of failure. It is also stated that the Bridge is functioning ‘below current desirable internationally accepted standards’. There has been a growth in average vehicle weight and traffic volume since the Bridge was opened to traffic in 1978, particularly in recent years, and will continue to intensify crack issues that always have been a feature of the Bridge. Vic Roads also has recently named the West Gate Bridge as one of Melbourne’s biggest traffic trouble spots, adding that its structural integrity is worrying. The recent report also suggests that, within the next five years, an additional 18,000 vehicles (including 1223 trucks) will use the Bridge daily, which would further stretch its safety capabilities if nothing was to be done.

The 2008 Investing in Transport Report demonstrates Melbourne’s reliance on the West Gate Bridge and the short and long-term risks should it become unavailable to commuters. A short-term consequence, such as a minor traffic incident like a break down, which is quite common, can result in an inner west halt, which would expand to the entire transport network. In the long term, if the Bridge were to become unavailable then the result for the traffic and transport network would be catastrophic for the state economy.  The closure of the Bridge would redirect traffic flow through western suburbs, and other roads to central Melbourne, such as Geelong Road, Footscray Road, Whitehall Street, and streets within the CBD would be inundated with traffic. The Report further suggests that, in order to improve transport connections to and from the western suburbs, Melbourne needs to reduce its reliance on the West Gate Bridge. Increasing travel to central Melbourne, coinciding with population and commercial growth in the West, indicates that if the government were to fail in addressing this issue it will completely compromise traffic and seriously interfere with the movement of transport in an east/west direction. The state parliament Member for Kororoit and the Member for Keilor are correct in their statement that ‘The need for improved transport solutions from the western region of Melbourne is beyond dispute’. There needs to be more action in improving the transport network in the discussed areas. In early August 2012, the Baillieu Government announced that plans to address traffic pressures on the West Gate Bridge were put on hold and that it had shut down the advisory group investigating and deliberating on the issues of the East-West Link. This decision was taken on the basis that the government apparently could not foresee how the necessary finance could be found to enable construction of a secondary East-West Link.

This is an astonishing standpoint given the above facts and information. There clearly needs to be actions taken now to facilitate the construction of another East-West Link.  Melbourne and Victoria cannot afford to waste time before commencing a project of this importance and size. Some short-term solutions to the funding concerns of the state government and the improvement to Melbourne’s transport network might include the introduction of a dedicated lane for cars with two or more occupants. For this lane the abolition of existing Citylink tolls would be an encouragement for commuters to pool the use of their cars. Fines would be applied through a camera system to vehicles driven in the dedicated lane occupied by just the driver. This has an additional cost-saving benefit in the consumption of petrol and the associated impact on the environment. This system has been successfully introduced on many freeways within the United States. The government could support the implementation of dedicated passenger ferry services to the City of Melbourne from a variety of bayside suburbs, which would further lead to a reduction of cars on the Melbourne road systems.

Longer term strategies should include a government-funded improvement of the public transport system. This would involve extended bus, rail, and tram services to outer suburban areas including improved timetabling particularly with trains. For instance, whereas trains in Sydney run on a five-minute interval arrangement, in Melbourne trains are spaced at 20 or more minutes, resulting in overcrowding in carriages. Furthermore, the development of a multi-tunnel road system under the city of Melbourne could link northern, western and eastern suburbs with each other and the CBD. The funding of this proposal could be the introduction of a toll system, although this would not be a popular government decision. If, however, Spring Street were to clearly communicate the costs and benefits of a limited years toll system then the general public would be likely to understand and commit to this proposal. Similarly, a well communicated and limited time increase to salary and company tax also would greatly contribute to the funding of the project. The individual tax may be as low as 1 percent additional to current taxes, and only apply to individuals earning more than, say, $90,000 per annum. Company tax would apply only to organizations that employ 20 or more people. This would protect small businesses and small business owners. Again, if this was carefully and accurately communicated and was to apply only for a stated period of years, both individuals and companies alike would probably accept the additional burden.

It took 21 years to plan and construct the West Gate Bridge. With this fact in mind, and the projection rates on population growth and transportation use within the Melbourne transport network, the Victorian Government desperately needs to start planning for a second East-West Link to alleviate future pressure from vehicle and freight transportation across Melbourne and its suburbs. Failure to do so will result in totally catastrophic traffic mayhem for Melbournians, Victorians, and visiting motorists. This would certainly eliminate Melbourne from future considerations of being the ‘World’s Most Livable City’.

 

Selected further reading:

Citylink tunnel: A giant headache for Melbourne, available at: http://theage.drive.com.au/roads-and-traffic/citylink-tunnel-a-giant-headache-for-melbourne-20121003-26zto.html

 

The Bridge: Its Beginnings, available at: http://www.westgatebridge.org/node/108

 

‘The end of a decade of delay and tragedy’, in The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933-1982), Wednesday 28 June 1978, p.9

 

Vic Roads, West Gate Bridge, available at: http://www.vicroads.vic.gov.au/Home/RoadProjects/FreewayAndHighwayProjects/Monash-CityLink-WestGateUpgrade/West+Gate+Bridge+strengthening.htm

 

Brian Negus, Victoria’s Transport Plan – RACV View, available at: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:ogiQAMSGgFAJ:www.roads.org.au/document/send/249+victoria’s+transport+plan+-+racv&hl=en&gl=au&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESgG9qIJIfpZ1SVKEsCMExM1cDd8hT6ZrLh5QUHmkPiK6KlJOn3W22ouWsQ8ES8RnO8Cc6_Y2GqtxVnjJt0_7fr59vzTUPsEokWuke3IPQgeeSBXYZTF-quOmCcTRt2WEB69DDkg&sig=AHIEtbSxFcvvq36KRvDt-NA3y8GY7Vh0vg

 

Overview of Eddington Transport Report, Victoria, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddington_Transport_Report,_Victoria

 

RACV, “Response to Investing in Transport East-West Link Needs Assessment Report – March 2008”, August 2008, available at: https://www.racv.com.au/wps/wcm/connect/b0ba70804da9bb9ba35cfb54a1b45993/EastWestResponse_210708_RACV.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=b0ba70804da9bb9ba35cfb54a1b45993

 

N Toscano & L Little, ‘West Gate Bridge crack rise as traffic loads weigh heavily’, The Age, 7 February 2012, available at: http://theage.drive.com.au/west-gate-bridge-crack-risk-as-traffic-loads-weigh-heavily-20120207-1r45n.html

 

Investing in Transport Report, ‘east-west road travel’, available at: http://www.transport.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/34251/Investing_in_Transport_East_West-Chapter05.pdf

 

G McArthur, ‘Government plans to take traffic burden off West Gate Bridge have been put on hold’, 3 August 2012, available at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/government-plans-to-take-traffic-burden-off-west-gate-bridge-have-been-put-on-hold/story-e6frf7kx-1226441757922

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.

 

Citation: Courtney Rowe, A Bridge into the Future: The Past tells Us that Now is the Time to Act in Creating a Better East-West Link for Melbourne. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/a-bridge-into-the-future

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