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Thursday, 15 October 2015
Page: 7852

Senator RICE (Victoria) (17:02): I rise to speak on the 20 per cent fall in public sector infrastructure spending under this coalition government and the Turnbull government's need to catch up on two lost years of support for public transport projects. What a frustrating two years it has been for commuters in this country. It does not matter whether you are in our cities, our suburbs or our regions—if you have tried to catch public transport, the chances are that you have been let down by unreliable, slow and packed services. We need to make up for lost time by focusing on the transport projects that are able to efficiently shift large numbers of people. Let us get one thing straight: this does not mean more roads, which seems to be the fallback solution for the vast majority of transport challenges under this government. Relying on cars in big cities has two big problems. They take up lots of space and this space, both roads and parking spaces, costs a lot to provide. The roads that are able to shift the most people are freeways and motorways. They are also the most expensive options, particularly if they involve tunnels. For retrofitting across our cities this is what they generally need to do to avoid having to compulsorily acquire and pay for people's houses or to avoid destroying precious natural spaces that are vital to keeping our cities liveable.

When you look at comparisons, the costs of a three-lane freeway and a new two-track rail line with stations are quite similar. It is about $1 billion per kilometre for underground tunnelling and between $50 million and $150 million per kilometre for above ground freeways and rail tracks. But the number of people they can carry is vastly different. The maximum number of cars that a three-lane freeway can carry in an hour, if it is operating super efficiently, is about 5½ thousand. Given that cars in Australia carry, on average, only 1.1 people per vehicle, that means that the maximum number of people that a super efficient freeway can carry is about 6,000 people per hour. Compare that to an efficient train line, which can carry over 1,000 people in a train running every two minutes. That is 30,000 people per hour—five times as many as a three-lane freeway, for around the same cost. That train line takes up less space and the people travelling by train do not require as many parking spaces in highly valuable real estate in the centre of cities, where it cost upwards of $20,000 to build a single parking space.

This is at the heart of why public transport projects have higher benefit-cost ratios than comparable motorway projects. They are a more efficient way of carrying people. It is not just high-capacity trains where these efficiencies exist. Allocating a road lane to fast, frequent and reliable bus services is a much more efficient and effective way of shifting people on a busy road than adding an extra lane for cars. Where you have too many people to be efficiently carried by bus but not enough to justify heavy rail, that is where light rail really comes into its own, particularly because of how light rail can integrate into and enhance city life. Then we have the most efficient transport of all, which costs the least to provide per kilometre and where each person takes up the least space, and that is pathways for walking and cycling—footpaths, bike lanes on roads, shared paths and separate bike paths. You get at least 1,000 kilometres of bike path for the same cost as a single kilometre of tollway tunnel.

If we prioritise public transport, walking and cycling, we can create a fairer Australia. Not every job seeker or pensioner can afford to run a car. A lack of viable options means that it is difficult to get to a job interview or to be able to regularly visit friends and family. Many families do not have the luxury of a second car. If you live in the outer suburbs, one parent can be left stranded at home all day with no buses or trains to connect them. Creating viable options for people without cars makes the life of these Australians easier and more fulfilling.

Transport planners know this stuff. They look at transport patterns objectively and know the benefits of investing in public transport. They know that transport is a system of systems; to make these systems work well together in our growing cities, the most effective thing to do is to shift people out of their cars wherever possible and onto public transport, walking and cycling; and, by doing this, you will free up space on our roads for the traffic that needs to be there: freight vehicles, emergency vehicles, cars needed by people because of a disability and cars for journeys that are difficult to do efficiently on public transport, whether it is a family visiting Aunty Jenny with the kids or a tradie travelling across town for a job. Roads do have their uses. They are essential. It is just that, if we can shift enough journeys onto public transport, walking and cycling, we will find we already have plenty of roads. Other than in new suburbs and towns, we genuinely do not need any more.

Transport planners know that, if you provide public transport which is fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe, people will use it. They know that, if you provide safe cycling facilities, people will use them; the biggest thing that puts people off cycling is not feeling safe; and the majority of journeys undertaken in Australia are of under five kilometres—very easily ridden by bike, even in the outer suburbs and in regional areas.

Health experts know the benefits of encouraging people to walk and ride—the huge benefits and contributions that these make to tackling the obesity and diabetes epidemics we are in the midst of, to reducing heart disease and to people's mental health. Those of us concerned about pollution in our cities and the carbon pollution which causes climate change know the benefits of getting people out of their fossil fuel powered cars and onto bikes and public transport powered by renewable energy. These are the benefits that this government is currently refusing to acknowledge, but something's got to give.

Under this government, we have heard a lot of talk about infrastructure. First we had the self-declared 'infrastructure Prime Minister', Tony Abbott, but we quickly learnt that 'infrastructure' meant nothing but tollways that were massively polluting, pushing the imbalance further in the direction of roads and doing very little to improve the lives of commuters. Even though Mr Abbott was partial to a bit of lycra, again and again the government rejected calls to fund anything that would encourage people to get on their bikes. This blinkered approach has cost us dearly.

Now we have selfie-loving Prime Minister Turnbull, who uses every opportunity he can to try and prove that he is one of the people by taking pictures on trains, trams and buses. But then we see announcements like we saw from the Minister for the Environment earlier this week. Although it included the Melbourne Metro Rail Project, their pie-in-the-sky wish list fell back on the old 'roads, roads and more roads' agenda, including a renewed commitment to building the East West toll road, a project that would return just 45c for every dollar spent. The former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, described last year's Victorian state election as a referendum on the East West Link, and the result was resounding. Victorians rejected the project and the ideology it stood for, sending a message to us in this place that we need the kind of congestion-busting infrastructure that you can only get by giving people viable alternatives to driving.

The government's insistence on the East West toll road deliberately ignores the will of Victorians, and it is shameful that the current Prime Minister has continued Tony Abbott's desires. In a recent poll by Essential Research, 64 per cent of Victorians agreed that it was more important to expand public transport than to build new roads and freeways. In today's Age, Josh Gordon writes:

… the apparent attempt by Hunt to once again politicise the debate about infrastructure in a way that seems reminiscent of the Abbott era.

Gordon points out:

It is a backward step from Turnbull's encouraging promise to consider projects on their merit.

We have to move away from this current path.

Under the Abbott-Turnbull government, despite all their talk, public investment in infrastructure has fallen. At the same time, private investment has fallen sharply as the mining boom tapers off. We must do all we can to lift this spending, and it must be targeted to the projects that are value for money and do not simply end up increasing congestion. This means getting away from the idea that you can simply build more roads in order to ease congestion. That just encourages more people to drive. It is like putting a bucket under a dripping tap: it is not going to fix the leak and eventually the bucket will be filled to the brim. What we have to do is fix the leak. Building more fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport options will get more cars off the roads, freeing them up for those who need them the most. If we provide safe and accessible facilities for people to ride their bikes, more people will cycle, but first we have to make a serious investment in this vital infrastructure.

Despite the rhetoric from the government, the reality is that Australia has low debt levels and has the capacity to borrow. Economist Saul Eslake recently told a Senate committee that Australia could borrow $50 billion without affecting our triple-A credit rating. I say: let's get to it. The private sector has funds available, too, but the government either is not ready to attract them or cannot package it up and de-risk.

If we get this right, we can shape our transport systems to meet the demands of the 21st century. The old-style thinking we have come to expect from this government is completely unsustainable. The rest of the world is realising the limitations of economies based on the finite resources of coal, gas and oil. A confident Australia would look beyond the old way of thinking, it would move away from bandaid fixes like road projects that end up becoming rats' nests and it would look at doing things that work for people rather than for the big corporations that are so often pushing their own interests. This means game-changing projects like the Melbourne Metro Rail Project, but it also means a willingness to focus on the smaller projects that might not get a big space in the papers but are value for money and greatly enhance the efficiency of our communities. These projects include bus lanes and services, signalling upgrades, off-road bike paths and duplicating arterial roads in growth suburbs, where roads that were once country lanes are now carrying thousands of cars every day.

But let us not be under any illusion that simply voting the coalition out will change anything. Labor talk big on public transport, but in practice we are not currently seeing a commitment to prioritising public transport. Under the Victorian Labor government, road solutions keep rising to the surface—the widening of the Tullamarine Freeway instead of airport rail; the Western Distributor instead of the port rail shuttle. In Sydney, the Liberal government are ploughing ahead with the WestConnex motorway. But, despite the secrecy and despite all the problems identified by Infrastructure Australia, Labor plan to go ahead with their own version of the WestConnex project. Yes, Labor support spending billions on WestConnex, when the huge gap—the area most crying out for funding and the No. 1 priority—is in public transport. Every dollar that is spent on a new motorway is a dollar not being spent on the public transport that will really make a difference to congestion.

Under both major parties, the roads always seem to come first and the public transport gets delivered decades after it is needed—if ever. Roads are easy to build and cut ribbons for. Public transport requires long-range foresight. It requires commitment and priority. This is the vision that the Greens are committed to. We have already suffered two years of this anti public transport agenda. We can put this behind us, but we must not hesitate to make up for lost time. Let us not forget the people we represent in this place. Commuters around the country are waiting—they are waiting for their bus in the morning, they are waiting for their loved ones to come home, and they are waiting for our transport system to be fixed once and for all. I call upon this government and I call upon all parties to work with the community for change so that we can finally achieve what we have all been waiting for.