Victoria’s broken transport planning ‘system’

WE’RE all watching how our governments respond to COVID-19. We’re heartened by politicians’ new-found reliance on expert research and opinions as they struggle with enormous, unexpected challenges. We don’t know what the lasting effects will be, but we hope that things will change for the better, not only in emergencies but in all other areas of concern.

The virus has shone a harsh, tragic light on many of our shortcomings. It’s incumbent on us to reflect on this and campaign for change in our areas of expertise. This is my attempt to contribute in mine.

My primary interest for the last couple of decades has been in transport planning in Victoria, Australia.

Let me be very clear about this – the system of rational and objective planning for transport is completely broken in Victoria.

It’s a systemic problem. Politics has trumped planning when it comes to investment decisions. Nowadays, projects are picked – or dreamt up – solely by politicians and their advisors, especially during election campaigns. They’re then post-rationalised through flawed appraisal and approval processes.

There’s no guarantee that the investments are the right ones, nor that they’ll provide worthwhile economic, social and environmental improvements. Political gain is the primary benefit.

It’s nothing short of pork-barreling in the extreme, with billions of our dollars.

There’s no strategic planning, no binding targets or objectives (apart from motherhood ones) and the principles of the Transport Integration Act 2010 are ignored, twisted or openly flouted.

Infrastructure Victoria prides itself on its independence but so far, its outputs have been either warmed-over reordering of the same old lists of projects, or research pieces on new technologies and trends. They have little or no demonstrable influence on decision-making in transport.

Victoria’s Department of Transport, like much of the public service in this state, has been steadily neutralised and dumbed-down to become a mere facilitator of political decisions. The vital concept of ‘frank and fearless advice’ has been destroyed.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office has thrown some light on all this in its reviews, but they are, by definition, after the event. Despite some strong criticisms in their reports, very little has changed. I’d argue that things are actually getting worse, despite VAGO’s presence.

The last independent, comprehensive and detailed transport study in Victoria was the East West Link Needs Assessment study, led by Sir Rod Eddington and published thirteen years ago. It was a rare example of a study into a problem (east-west travel in Melbourne) which came up with some actions clearly aimed at solving it. It wasn’t perfect, but it took a lot of effort to get it there, I can tell you! Some of its actions were even implemented.

As I’ve said, nowadays we’ve got a politically-generated list of priorities. The appraisal process for these is a box-ticking, post-rationalisation exercise. We have flawed, biased business cases and environmental appraisals; they make a mockery of established guidance and principles.

East West Link protest in 2013

Community consultation through these processes is highly variable and prevents any meaningful debate on the basic needs – it’s nowadays limited to comments and submissions during EES hearings, many of which are ignored or discounted. The adversarial nature of the hearings relies on verbal gymnastics by lawyers, trying to prove their clients’ points to well-meaning but often under-qualified panel members.

Many genuine issues, concerns and objections don’t survive this process. Those that make it into the panels’ recommendations then risk being ignored, belittled or criticised by the Planning Minister when rubber-stamping the projects, often with little or no real changes.

Recently we’ve seen big objectors (local Councils, in the cases of East-West and North-East links) resort to court proceedings to try and get their concerns addressed. I’m not aware of any real successes there. It’s a questionable use of ratepayers’ money, and it shouldn’t even be necessary.

Once these poorly-conceived and under-planned projects get started (Victoria’s ‘Big Build’), we’re seeing unexpected problems, cost blowouts and time overruns. These further erode the economic and financial viability of the initiatives.

Yes, we have a big backlog of work due to underfunding and neglect in previous years, but that doesn’t justify the unseemly haste and shoddy planning we’re seeing these days.

In future posts, I’ll record my own experiences in these processes to substantiate these observations. I’ll cover many major projects, including:

  • East West Link
  • Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel
  • West Gate Tunnel
  • North East Link
  • Airport Rail
  • Suburban Rail Link

As I write about these and other experiences in the coming months, I’ll update this post as well. Links will appear here to new posts, where I’ll expand on my comments in this one.

Hopefully, it’ll all hang together!

In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts and comments. Am I right in my observations, or is it all just sour grapes? How can we bring our politicians to account? What are your personal experiences of this? Is the Victorian situation echoed in other states, and other countries? Where are people ‘doing it right’, and what does that look like?

Published by William

I’m an independent transport planner based in Victoria, Australia.

9 thoughts on “Victoria’s broken transport planning ‘system’

  1. As somebody whose substantial unfunded work was “ignored or discounted”, thank you. Can you get Stuart Morris on board as I’m sure he must have similar thoughts? The problem has become a political economy which is no longer fit for purpose far more than proponents who can only afford to see the good in what they are asked to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tony,
      Somehow, we need to develop a reform agenda for planning.
      I’m wondering if the Major Projects legislation is being used correctly. If it is, there’s possibly conflict with the Transport Integration Act…
      I don’t know if setting up a Project Authority, whose first job is to do the business case and EES (with clear bias) is legal or not. It logically ought to be set up after the planning is done (by DoT?) and the project is properly defined.
      As long as politicians want to announce projects before any planning, we have a fundamental problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While transport planning should always be our primary concern, I think a number of issues you’ve raised are coming through in the governments response to the coronavirus crisis as well.

    While the premier is giving long daily press conferences the openness and detail a layer down isn’t there at all. The data being released is very basic, especially when you compare to whats available overseas. Now the department might claim they don’t want to devote resources to releasing data in the middle of the pandemic, which is fine. But it shows their default way of working prior to this has been to be closed off, and withhold information wherever possible. Basically an attitude of any public info could be used against them so release as little as possible.

    We saw a similar thing with PTV and their struggles to provide open timetable data in a format that big tech can use.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with Antony, and William and the comments of others. As previously documented by Max Lay, Victoria has a long and dismal history of failing to implement strategic plans. As noted by Marcus, over the last 20 years, strategic transport planning has been replaced by political selection of major projects based on – who knows what?.

      A political culture that rejects decision making based on expert analysis has imposed high economic cost on the community, witnessed now in the case of Covid 19, with extensive suffering and loss of many lives. The Victorian governments quarantine failures appear to a symptom of broken governance, reflecting a government driven by political judgements, guided by the opinions of the Premier. Contrary evidence or professional expert advice appears to be routinely dismissed out of hand. (As was revealed in Four Corners last night (17/08/20), expert advice on infection control at quarantine from the AMA was apparently not even considered).

      But back to transport, the Transport Integration Act has good intentions but has not been followed.

      William, I hope your blog is the start of change.


  3. William

    Very well said. The state of politics and investment decisions in this country have become laughable and is so corrupt.

    I know you are focussing on transport but the Vic Governments $1.3 billion Solar Homes program was dreamt up by the Premiers Office without any reference, input or analysis from DELWP or Sustainability Victoria and announced for immediate implementation just days later as an election loomed. It has been a disaster and has barely increased the uptake of solar and has probably sent many solar companies broke due to the allocation system. There are many better projects that could be funded.

    As bad or worse than Sports Rorts!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to agree, William. Detecting any coherent transport policy for the last 20 years has been a fruitless endeavor. What few initiatives that might form part of such a policy framework have been carefully structured to stop anyone verifying the models, assumptions, costing, or data by various devices. The”consultation” has collapsed to “stakeholder engagement” i.e consultation is the very last objective of the process. Its hard to find any people to have a material discussion with any more, so one must ask if there are any left in “mot” any more

    Liked by 1 person

  5. William
    I also agree, sadly. The problem applies equally to major projects, sub-regional capital programs and asset management, in my experience.
    The glaring failure of transport planning has been building for 20 years and leaves us in a very poor shape to respond to/exploit some major disruptions and changes. How can the world’s ‘most liveable city’ get to the point that a toll-road operator has more influence over network management than the operating agency?
    Despite the law, we have no strategic transport framework for Victoria because successive Governments don’t want one. Haven’t wanted one for at least a decade. Its too politically awkward and constraining – as if the only reason for transport services and infrastructure is to attract views at the announcement, like some bizarre Instagram Planning account – not to save lives, connect communities or build opportunities for citizens to work and learn.
    So our planners continue to watch ‘plan by map’ over an MP’s office table, build spreadsheet project pipelines without strategic consideration and take desperate calls from local council officers seeking any information on any idea to help an MP in the last weeks of an election.
    Some councils are starting to realise they are positioned to fill this planning gap in the market and I am doing what I can to assist them.


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