Tolling the West Gate Bridge could fund the Melbourne Metro tunnel but Matthew Leonard isn’t so sure the pollies will be brave enough to bring it up before the 2014 Victorian election…

 

The West Gate Bridge is a major bridge connecting two halves of Melbourne.

Constructed between 1968 and 1978, it was tolled from its opening until 1985 when, supposedly, drivers were using other routes to avoid the toll. The removal of the toll was a state election promise, the rhetoric being that the West Gate Bridge had been “paid for”.

I don’t know if I buy into the logic that we remain bound by that 1985 election promise.

The Melbourne Metro rail tunnel is a thoroughly vetted plan to build a 9km dual-track underground railway from Kensington to South Yarra to link to the existing Melbourne Central and Flinders Street stations and add stations at North Melbourne, Parkville and the Domain tram interchange. It would not only service these currently unconnected parts of inner Melbourne, but also increase the capacity at the centre of Melbourne’s train network to allow new train lines to Tullamarine, Doncaster/Warrandyte and Rowville (we also need an increase from two to three tracks in between Jolimont and Victoria Park stations, but that’s another project).

The Melbourne Metro rail tunnel is estimated to cost $9 billion and is at the top of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list. Labor have promised to build the full tunnel if they win the 2014 Victorian election, whereas the incumbent Liberals have promised to build a half-sized version of the tunnel that covers the southern section with a slightly different route. The Liberals argue that this would be cheaper and allow the line to Tullamarine to be built sooner.

Labor have made the better promise.

The Melbourne Metro rail tunnel project can be paid for by charging cars $7 to cross the West Gate Bridge. Unlike Eastlink, which can be driven around, the West Gate Bridge is a point that is very difficult for motorists to avoid. It may have made sense to remove the toll in 1985, but people now have a lower level of tolerance for traffic. To live near a train station is now a sign of affluence; people eschew buying into suburbs that can only be accessed by car.

Another thing that differs from 1985 is that the government struggles to collect revenue tolling a bridge seems a far more honest way to collect than through cunningly hidden “safety cameras”. Speeds limits have decreased and traffic has increased since 1985, so I don’t think many motorists would find it more convenient to drive around the West Gate Bridge than to pay $7 to drive over it. Furthermore, it’s now harder to drive around this Bridge than it was in 1985 because one of the main alternative routes is via the Bolte Bridge towards Tullamarine, which is part of the Citylink toll road. If people tried to drive around the West Gate Bridge by taking Footscray Rd, they would find it arduous by comparison (many sets of traffic lights), and this road could be fitted with “safety cameras” that will raise revenue and discourage it as an alternative thoroughfare.

The legacy reasons for why the West Gate Bridge is not tolled disregard the value of a prime asset that is currently being given away for free. The West Gate Bridge has a river crossing length of only 336m, but the total length of the bridge is 2580m; more than twice as long as the Sydney Harbour Bridge (completed 1932, 1150m long), which charges a toll of $2.50-4. depending on the time of day. The West Gate Bridge is more comparable with New York City’s George Washington Bridge, for which the price of each crossing in a regular sedan is currently between US$9-11. The locals grumble and try to avoid it, and many choose to take a train across the Hudson, which reduces the traffic in Manhattan. The West Gate Bridge currently carries up to 200 000 vehicles per day. Charging $7 per crossing would bring in $1 billion every three years and hence take 27 years to pay for the rail tunnel.

A government that introduces a new toll may fear being thrown from office at the next opportunity, but I think that if the boring equipment is already in the ground and construction underway before the following election, it would be clearly visible where the money is being spent, which would resonate well with the public.

Before the 2014 Victorian election, perhaps we need to ask Melbournians “Would you be in favour of a toll on the West Gate Bridge if it was used to pay for building the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel?”

Don’t expect either side of politics to answer that one until after the election.

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