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C-minus card means we must try harder

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

INFRASTRUCTURE underpins the society of a developed nation. It provides the basis for a productive economy, improved liveability for its citizens and, if planned optimally, can reduce the ecological footprint of the planet. Such infrastructure provides a range of essential services such as the water we drink, the waste we flush, the power we use, the means of moving people and goods on road and rail, and the ability to talk and transmit information through the telecommunications system. As a nation we have a choice: we either invest in and reap the benefits of good infrastructure, or suffer the consequences of infrastructure that is not fit for purpose or provides a poorer level of service.

Every five years, Engineers Australia releases a report card on the condition of state and national infrastructure. In this context, infrastructure is taken to comprise transport, water, energy and telecommunication. The most recent Victorian Infrastructure report card, released last year, rates Victoria's infrastructure as C-minus, meaning it is barely adequate. The report card found old and ageing infrastructure systems that were struggling to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population that has seen the urban fringe boundaries spreading unsustainably. As Age economics editor Tim Colebatch reported this month, Melbourne's population increased by 600,000 people over the past decade, the equivalent of about six Bendigos or four Geelongs.

The infrastructure ''trouble spots'' in particular were in the rail, water and electricity sectors. Rail was rated as ''poor'' (D), reflecting an old, tired and fragile system in urgent need of modernisation and expansion. The rail system, for both passengers and freight, was not delivering the level of service expected of a modern, 21st-century city, with congestion, delays and fundamental problems with planning the system. In particular, the rail system has 15 radial legs with a small body, the City Loop, which was developed 40 years ago. The radial arrangement makes cross-suburb travelling difficult and reliant on a bus system compatible with the train timetable to avoid excessive delays. It also results in all the radial rail lines arriving into a congested central loop, reducing the frequency of service.

Electricity was the third sector of concern, with a C-minus rating, which reflected the emerging concerns about power generation. Victoria has about 9600 megawatts of power-generation capacity, 80 per cent of which is supplied by brown coal power stations that are between 25 and 45 years old. In peak periods in summer, the state requires more than 10,500 megawatts. Consequently, Victoria is in deficit, and increasingly reliant on the older brown coal power stations and supply from interstate via the national grid to provide uninterrupted supply. This is compounded by the previous state government's talk of closing the Hazelwood power station, which generates 1600 megawatts, without a realistic solution for additional base-load power. A power deficit, with a continually increasing population, means that power will become very expensive if buying surplus electricity from interstate, or in the extreme, brownouts in the suburbs could occur if the supply cannot be met. At present, Victoria does not have a publicised plan for power-generation developments.

What Victoria desperately needs is an independent authority able to provide long-term, integrated strategic planning advice to government on the procurement of infrastructure. ''Infrastructure Victoria'' would be an advisory body set up along the lines of the successful Infrastructure Australia. It would consist of experts from the public and private sectors and provide clear, focused and objective advice on the state's infrastructure priorities. ''Infrastructure Victoria'' would help bring bipartisan support for infrastructure planning and provide the much-needed, long-term continuity that cannot be delivered in the normal three to four-year political cycle. It would take the politics out of policy decisions.

Nothing better illustrates the need for this body than a brief look at transport planning over the past 11 years. We have had five transport plans, culminating in the $38 billion transport plan launched in 2008. With the change of government in November, several infrastructure projects are being reviewed, including the $5 billion regional rail project, $9 billion east-west road tunnel linking the Western Ring Road and Eastern Freeway, and the visionary $5 billion metropolitan rail tunnel. The recommendations from the recent Hoddle Street congestion improvement project are being shelved, while the Doncaster rail link project - suggested in 1890, planned in the late 1960s and abandoned in the 1970s - is rightly being raised as a viable option.

So many plans and so many reviews reek of an inefficient planning process that is clearly highly political and results in continual delays to the Victorian community. We either plan and invest in infrastructure or suffer the consequences. We are now suffering the consequences - with urban sprawl, congestion, overcrowding and a poor level of service that is affecting the economy, the wellbeing of society and the environment. We can do much better.

Professor John Wilson, of Engineers Australia, is Victorian Infrastructure Report Card spokesperson, and deputy dean, faculty of engineering and industrial sciences, at Swinburne University of Technology.

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