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Investment of Commonwealth and state funds in public passenger transport

CHAIR —Welcome. I note you have now supplied a submission, so we will table that. Do you wish to make an opening statement before the committee members ask questions?

Mr McCullough —I do. First of all, on behalf of the mayor and councillors of the City of Ballarat, I welcome the committee to the Riviera of western Victoria.

Senator McGAURAN —Good sale!

Mr McCullough —I can assure you it is always this sunny in Ballarat!

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr McCullough —Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to the inquiry. Our submission is not technically detailed but is rather a collection of context statements and some reflections on future directions for public transport and on what we see as some of the key issues for public transport going forward. Ballarat is, like other regional centres, going to take on a new significance in the coming 20 or 30 years as Melbourne starts to hit the boundaries of urban sprawl and Ballarat plays its part in accommodating the additional population. The most recent population projections for Ballarat are of an increase from the current 88,500 population to by 2036 somewhere between 127,000 and 144,000, depending on how vigorously the population moves from Melbourne to regional centres. This presents some real issues in urban planning for Ballarat and, along with that, some real issues in taking forward public transport options. In our submission, we have set out some of those issues.

One key factor that governs the need for public transport in Ballarat is the strong role that Ballarat plays as a regional hub. There are the issues of local transport but, in particular, the links between Ballarat and Melbourne are important not only for the people of Ballarat but for people in surrounding towns and other regional centres who might use Ballarat as a hub. The reality in Ballarat is that road based public transport is by far our biggest contributor, so any investment in road improvements is of benefit to private transport but the maintenance of a good arterial road system is important to the success of a public transport system. Ballarat is growing, and I have included some figures in the submission to show that we are expecting an additional 45,000 residents in Ballarat west over the next 20 to 25 years. That is a fairly extensive expansion in any terms and comparable with some of the growth areas of Melbourne.

By far the most important public transport mode will be bus. To accommodate that increase in the bus network, we will need to target a number of arterial roads for improvement or in fact identify new arterial roads during that time. I have listed in the submission a number of the key roads. We are doing some planning at the moment for a western arterial road that will have the primary purpose of enabling development—both residential and industrial—in the Ballarat west area but also acting as a western bypass for the city of Ballarat. That will also form the backbone of a public transport service for that area. We will over the next few months put together the final design and alignment plans for that link road, and we will make submissions for state and federal funding within the next six to 12 months to try to bring forward some stages of that project as a catalyst for development in that area.

I have included in the submission some commentary about rail services and the importance of the Ballarat to Melbourne rail service. I would like to highlight some numbers that I have included in there. The travel time from Ballarat Central station to Southern Cross is currently 64 minutes by train. With the planned improvements to the line between Sunshine and Melbourne that will reduce by at least another five or six minutes. Even at 64 minutes it compares very favourably with growth areas in Melbourne. Frankston, for example, is 57 minutes by train. Pakenham is 76 minutes. Sydenham and Epping are about 45 minutes. Belgrave is 69 minutes.

Senator STERLE —That is to Melbourne?

Mr McCullough —Yes. They are peak hour travel times from those locations to Flinders Street. When put in the context of those travel times, Ballarat looks very attractive as a commuter option. Hence the importance of maintaining that fast link.

The recently announced Regional Rail Link project to upgrade the line to provide an exclusive line for country trains through the metropolitan network will dramatically improve the reliability of trains. Talking to regular commuters from Ballarat to Melbourne we have found that their main frustration is not the travel time. They think it is very good when it works well. Their frustration is that sometimes the trip can be delayed by 20 or 30 minutes or even longer if there are delays on the suburban network and they get tangled up in those delays.

There is also a need in the longer term to look at whether there are other opportunities for either line duplication or passing loops between Ballarat and Bacchus Marsh or in further. The other frustration felt by Ballarat commuters is sitting out in the middle of paddocks on the one and only passing loop that exists near Ballan and waiting for the train to come through from the other direction. So there is a need to look at options for improving reliability.

Additional carriages are another issue that is raised by regular commuters. Already there are a number of peak hour trips where people cannot get a seat if they get on in Ballarat, which is quite surprising and reflects the dramatic increase in patronage that has been experienced in recent years. Again, the state government has recently announced an intention to purchase additional carriages, which, hopefully, will relieve that.

Wendouree station has recently opened and, by all accounts, appears to be providing a valuable service. There is a lower than expected take-up of that service at the moment. That reflects some concerns that have been raised by new patrons that not all services to Ballarat go to Wendouree. You can imagine the frustration that someone getting on at Wendouree in the morning feels if they get stranded at Ballarat and are not able to get out to Wendouree station at night. They have to find alternative ways to go and pick up their car. We need to look at promoting more services to terminate at Wendouree station.

CHAIR —Mr McCullough, in the interests of time, if your comments are actually in your opening statement I am sure my colleagues will go through them. Is there something else in addition to those comments that you would like to add? I know my colleagues have a number of questions they want to ask you. Perhaps you would like to keep that in mind as you finish up your statement.

Mr McCullough —I am almost finished. Thank you. I was just conscious of the fact that you have not had a chance to look through this.

CHAIR —I appreciate that. Thank you very much

Mr McCullough —I note that you have received submissions from some of the bus operators and the Department of Transport. We enjoy a very good relationship with the Department of Transport and we are very complimentary about the services they provide. Probably the main point that I would like to make in relation to bus services is the need to remove some of the bottlenecks in on some of our key bus routes. The one that I have highlighted in the submission is Geelong Road. Geelong Road is a major bus route between Ballarat CBD and the University of Ballarat and experiences significant delays due to some traffic bottlenecks along that road. We are preparing a submission that we will be making to state and federal government in the near future to bring the upgrade of Geelong Road forward as a major project. Thank you, Madam Chair. That concludes our comments.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr McCullough.

Senator STERLE —There are two issues here. Obviously the City of Ballarat wants to do whatever it can to attract more people to Ballarat for the future because with population comes a lot of good stuff in terms of infrastructure and recognition within government services. But do you believe the ratepayers of Ballarat have a good public transport system in the city? We have been told that Ballarat has a very reliable bus service—they have been around for 80 years, so they have obviously been doing something right.

Mr McCullough —In general terms we would agree with that. We think the Department of Transport and the local bus operators do provide a very efficient and reliable service. I guess the word of caution in our submission is that we are going to be growing rapidly and we will need to keep up with that rate of growth. The strong preference is to provide services from day one when we open new subdivisions, particularly new residential developments, to overcome feelings of isolation or separation from services.

Senator STERLE —That has been a theme of the questions all the way through this inquiry: how well do the local officials work with the bus companies? For all intents and purposes, Victoria does it very well. That is what we have been told, and we do not doubt that. The previous witnesses told us that, too. But there is always room for improvement. Unfortunately inquiries of this nature get tied up in passionate views—and, of course, climate change is one thing that has been coming through quite clearly. How well have you integrated all modes of transport here in Ballarat?

Mr McCullough —I caught the end of the previous evidence about the need for the development of a transport hub in Ballarat. I think it is fair to say that there needs to be some improvement around the transport interchange at the Ballarat station. Our preferred location for the major bus hub in Ballarat is at the station, although there is a need to recognise that there will always be major pick-up and drop-off points at other key locations. We have some work to do to plan those properly and make sure that the facilities that are provided at those locations are safe and clean. A particular issue for Ballarat is protection from the weather. Despite my comments earlier it does occasionally rain in Ballarat and it can get very cold and very hot.

Senator STERLE —Actually my colleague Senator O’Brien was going to correct the Hansard, because you misled the Senate with that opening statement about the Riviera!

Mr McCullough —So there is a need for weather protection at those locations as well, and the careful location of bus stops. The frustrating thing for council as well as the bus operators is that no shopkeeper wants a bus stop outside their premises, so we do run into some difficulties with the best locations for bus stops.

Senator McGAURAN —What is the status of the promised new central bus terminal?

Mr McCullough —There have been a number of plans prepared for the development of various bus terminal options at the railway station. Those proposals have not been realised. I think that is mainly because of the high cost of developing some of those options. The other consideration has been the unclear future of the Ballarat freight hub, which is on the northern side of the railway line, and whether that provided a better option for a modal interchange. We are in the process of working through those issues at the moment. There is a study to determine where best to relocate the freight hub. Given that it no longer has a strong connection to rail and is essentially a road based freight operation, the city believes that that land could be utilised for better things. So we would be looking at how the freight hub site and the area to the south of the railway station could be integrated into something that works a lot better than it does at the moment.

Senator McGAURAN —It has been a state election commitment for the last two elections, but from what you are saying it is in fact the council that is holding it up?

Mr McCullough —There is some council planning that is going on at the moment that will help us work through that. There were some Transit City funds that were allocated to improvements at the station, going back three or four years. There was a decision made at the time that the development of the Wendouree station was a better use of that funding, and that money was diverted into the construction costs of the Wendouree station. That has a number of benefits that I do not think are disputed, the main one being that, if we can take a lot of the parking demand out of central Ballarat and divert that to Wendouree, that is a good thing. Now what we need to do is go back and look at the functioning of that Ballarat central railway station and see whether its function has changed with the introduction of Wendouree station and how it integrates into other developments in the CBD.

Senator McGAURAN —So again I take it from what you have said that the funds have still been allocated in the state budget; there is a line item there?

Mr McCullough —My understanding is that the funds that were allocated as part of the Transit City program were reallocated to the Wendouree station. So my understanding is that there is not a current line item in the state budget.

Senator McGAURAN —But you are proceeding with your plans as if there is?

Mr McCullough —We are proceeding with a structure plan for the whole CBD area which will incorporate a review of that station area and we are also proceeding with a plan for the relocation of the freight hub, and our intention would be to go to the state government with both of those plans to put a case for significant infrastructure investment in developing a new hub around the rail station. Exactly what form that will take we are not clear on at this stage.

Senator McGAURAN —So I take it from what you have said that the hub is not the bus terminal, or may not be?

Mr McCullough —It would most likely include a bus terminal.

Senator McGAURAN —Why would you then need to go to the state government? If they have committed it twice and, to your understanding, it is still a commitment, why would you need to re-present a funding proposal to them?

Mr McCullough —I will just clarify: my understanding is that it is not still on the table.

Senator McGAURAN —Ah. Okay. Thank you; that is all.

Senator BACK —In terms of the revenue base for the city, what proportion would come from your own rates and charges et cetera and what proportion would come as a result of federal government grants; and are there also state government grants? Can you just give us some idea of where the city’s revenue comes from. You can take it on notice if you wish.

Mr McCullough —I will have to take that question on notice. In approximate terms, about 50 per cent of council’s revenue, I would anticipate, comes from rates, and the balance from fees and charges, and state and Commonwealth grants.

Senator BACK —And would Commonwealth grants be significant?

Mr McCullough —Again I would be guessing but, excluding Home and Community Care money, which comes via the state—so I am not in a position to comment on what proportion of that is Commonwealth money—my estimate would be that Commonwealth grants would be quite a lot less than five per cent of our income.

Senator BACK —Okay. My reason for asking is that obviously we are a Senate inquiry and we have heard a lot during the term of this inquiry and today about the role of local entities and state entities. I am trying to come to terms with where, if at all, you think the Commonwealth should or could be having a role in addressing some of the issues that you have outlined. Provision of roads presumably is a state responsibility. We have been told that 85 per cent of Victoria’s roads are under the control of local government. Therefore I assume that maintenance et cetera would be local government, yourselves in this case. Where is the role for the Commonwealth at all in this process?

Mr McCullough —Answering that question I think requires somewhat of a political stance in terms of who is responsible for funding infrastructure. My view is that there is a role for the Commonwealth government in funding key infrastructure that enables economic growth. In particular Ballarat, for example, in the next five to 10 years will be moving on the development of Ballarat West. In addition to providing 18,000 new dwellings for approximately 45,000 new residents, Ballarat West will also open up large areas of land for industrial development. To enable that development an arterial road network will need to be completed. The early components of that will fall to local government, and that is a very strong burden on local government. We would be hoping that further down the track we can convince VicRoads to pick up those roads as declared main roads or arterial roads—

Senator BACK —Which would then place it under their responsibility.

Mr McCullough —Yes. But in order to initiate that economic development there is a real hurdle there for local governments to be able to do that leading infrastructure. So we would be hopeful that the Commonwealth government, perhaps through the housing affordability fund, for example, would look at assisting us with some of that early infrastructure so that we can get some of those economic developments happening earlier.

Senator BACK —As everybody says, the challenge is to get people out of their motor cars and into public transport, and obviously we have addressed the question of making the public transport itself more attractive. Where would the Commonwealth best spend its dollars, if it had them and if it felt inclined to expend them, in terms of assisting the process of actually making public transport more attractive, accessible et cetera?

Mr McCullough —I think again it is a question of, if I can put it in these terms, where is the best bang for buck. I would be encouraging the senators to look at which areas are most in need of stimulus in terms of economic development and then look at what infrastructure they need. It will be different for different areas. In Ballarat’s case, any investment in the arterial road network will also provide the backbone for a public transport network. In other areas it might be looking at ways in which current or future rail options might be able to be brought onto the table. But certainly in our case that investment in arterial road network, which may not be within the capabilities of the state to fund and certainly is not within the capability of local government to fund, in my view would be a good investment.

Senator BACK —On another unrelated topic, with an ageing population and less people working to support those who are not, we presumably are looking at a higher input by volunteers. We are already seeing, for example, volunteers driving different members of the community, particularly older members, to appointments. What attitude, if any, does your council have to this? I am well aware what is happening in cities around Australia, but with a large regional council like Ballarat I am interested in what programs, if any, you have in place, do you see them expanding and how do you fund them?

Mr McCullough —Unless Mr Cowie is able to answer that question—

Mr Cowie —I have nothing specific.

Mr McCullough —We may have to take that question on notice. I am aware that we provide a service for taking people to medical appointments, but I would need to get some specifics to provide to the inquiry on that one.

Senator BACK —I am interested to know whether the council sees this as its role and, if so, how it is stimulating it. If it does not, in a community such as this one how are elderly people accessing these sorts of services if they cannot afford or cannot avail themselves of public transport? Presumably, they are beyond the stage of having their own private vehicles. I am very interested to know what your status is.

CHAIR —Perhaps they can take it on notice and come back with some detail.

Mr McCullough —I can perhaps give a partial answer to that, if I may. Ballarat City Council sees that we have a role in coordinating volunteers. I cannot comment on the extent to which those programs exist at the moment. I can certainly provide that information on notice. We would have a responsibility as a coordinator and facilitator of volunteer services. Local government is certainly best positioned to be in touch with the local community and how to access those resources. We would be comfortable that that would be a role for the council.

Senator O’BRIEN —Just on that topic, we have some evidence before us today about the state government funded transport connections program. What role does Ballarat City Council have in that program?

Mr McCullough —Can you elaborate on which program you are talking about?

Senator O’BRIEN —It is the transport connections program, a local community transport services program run by the Victorian Department of Transport.

Mr McCullough —I am personally not familiar with that one.

Senator O’BRIEN —It may well have a role in providing services such as the ones that Senator Back was talking about for members of the community who need to travel to medical appointments or it may be to pick up other isolated communities. Could you take that on notice.

Mr McCullough —I am happy to do that.

Senator O’BRIEN —Perhaps you can come back and give us any detail that you can on the council’s involvement. In terms of the delivery of transport services, would it be fair to say that essentially the council is not involved in the delivery of services?

Mr McCullough —Again, I will have to take that question on notice. We do provide some access to community buses, but it is very limited. I will need to get some detail on the extent of that program.

Senator O’BRIEN —And you will be able to tell us what sort of spend is involved?

Mr McCullough —Yes.

Senator O’BRIEN —And any support that you get from other arms of government for those particular programs?

Mr McCullough —We are happy to provide that.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of city planning, are there any provisions in the city’s plan to make sure that newly developed areas have a streetscape that can accommodate a modern bus network?

Mr McCullough —The planning that we do for all of our subdivisions has a requirement for bus services to be incorporated in that. Integral to the planning of new residential precincts we do and will continue to consider bus routes through those precincts. If that creates any specific need to make some roads wider, to provide additional turning facilities for certain roads or to accommodate bus stops, then we will include those in the initial subdivision designs. The developers will be required to contribute to the provision of that infrastructure.

We are in the process of bringing a developer contribution scheme into our planning scheme, which will include direct financial contribution by developers to providing public transport infrastructure. That would include, for example, concrete bases for future bus shelters. It would also include the provision of bus lanes on some roads or at least on the approaches to major intersections. We are incorporating that into our development plans, particularly for Ballarat west, which will be a much more dramatic growth time for us than Ballarat has experienced in the past.

Senator O’BRIEN —What would you envisage that would add to the cost of land per suburban block, assuming it is passed on by the developer?

Mr McCullough —Bearing in mind that there are 18,000 lots, the cost is amortised across a fairly broad base, but I think Mr Cowie might have a number that we have worked out as part of the process.

Mr Cowie —We are only in the very preliminary stages of it, but we are perhaps looking at around $900 per lot.

Senator O’BRIEN —That is not a big proportion of the value of a block of land here, I presume.

Mr Cowie —No, I do not think so. There is one new subdivision in the Ballarat west area or Alfredton area at the moment. It is probably not your common, run-of-the-mill subdivision, I suppose, but I think they are looking at perhaps $250,000 to $400,000 per allotment, so there it is a very small proportion. In the other general subdivisions it probably takes on greater significance but still not a large proportion of the cost of the block.

Senator O’BRIEN —You are saying that you need to get these services into those areas as they develop. What is happening with the area that is being developed now? Are services being provided from the start or is there a lag?

Mr Cowie —They will be there from the start. The one I just mentioned is already serviced by an arterial road, and we have been incorporating discussions with the Department of Transport right from the start to make sure it is fully serviced by bus stops and so on.

Senator O’BRIEN —And there is presumably a bus service to go with the stops.

Mr Cowie —Yes.

Senator STERLE —Gentlemen, were you around when the amalgamation of all the councils took place?

Mr McCullough —I was in another council at that time.

Senator STERLE —Have those amalgamations into these super-councils or bigger councils seen a marked improvement in the service of public transport that you are aware of?

Mr Cowie —There is no doubt that public transport has been improved in that period; whether it is an outcome of the restructuring of the councils would be a little hard to say. All I can say is that, as Mr McCullough has mentioned, we liaise very closely with the Department of Transport here and, from the Department of Transport’s perspective, it is probably much easier to deal with one council rather than seven, which I think probably happened here in Ballarat—or parts of seven anyway. From that perspective, it would make it far simpler to coordinate the whole process, yes.

Senator STERLE —Okay. I was just following on from Senator Back’s earlier questioning of the Municipal Association of Victoria. Unfortunately, our witnesses were not around when that happened, but it is of interest because in our home state there are some conversations going on—I just wanted to flag that. So, without putting words in your mouth, there have been some improvements but you could not put it all down to the abolition of smaller councils.

Mr Cowie —I could not say that categorically, no.

Mr McCullough —If I could add a comment to that, one of the things that I have observed during my time in local government that does directly relate to your question is that the management of council road infrastructure has dramatically improved in that time, partly due to the smaller number of councils managing bigger areas, which has given councils greater economies of scale, I think, to manage their assets. Whilst in that period there is an infrastructure gap, I think we are now getting on top of our asset management and we are able to manage key pieces of infrastructure better. What that has meant in terms of public transport, particularly bus transport, is that we have been able to concentrate our improvements on routes that are carrying buses and that are access routes to schools and other facilities. So, in that sense, I think the public transport network has benefited from amalgamations.

Senator STERLE —Good. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for appearing today. That concludes today’s hearing. I thank all the witnesses that have appeared and Hansard.

Committee adjourned at 2.35 pm