Keep them off the rails: politics and transport don’t mix

Playing politics with transport will only lead to a train wreck. Flickr/awmalloy

Keep them off the rails: politics and transport don’t mix

The 2013-2014 Federal budget includes billions of dollars allocated to transport, including a new Melbourne rail tunnel. At the same time the Victorian State government has plans for a different tunnel linking the city’s highways.

Competing transport priorities across State and Federal budgets and across the political divide may sell newspapers – but what does it mean for projects on the ground?

When it comes to the separation of transport and state, the United States lead the way. So, what can we learn from them?

Quite some time ago, moves were made in the United States to separate political actors and individual transport project decisions. This took place within the US’s more cautionary democratic system of “checks and balances”.

American politicians retain the right to support a small number of projects at their discretion, but these are subjected to rigorous processes and oversight.

The bulk of funding goes into a so-called “contested” market for projects – in which State government and local professional teams submit well-planned infrastructure proposals. The best plans and proposals with the best economic fundamentals get the cake.

Taking marginal seats off the map

In Australia, allocations of infrastructure funding are often assumed to be based around marginal seat plays. Our cynicism regarding the odious impact of “marginal seats” motivation is well-founded.

But let’s pause for a moment and think: because most interpretations of Australian public sector accountability and conduct would suggest that mobilising taxpayer dollars to achieve a personal or party-political outcome is pushing the legal boundaries (to put it mildly).

In a practical sense, the “marginal seats” driver of infrastructure spending also overlooks the overwhelming majority of us that live in non-marginal seats. We have needs too.

So after a generation of politically-driven handouts for regional roads to nowhere, those of us riding an overcrowded tram, bus, or train to work would like to send the political class a hearty “thanks for nothing, guys”.

In the US they recognised these problems long ago and removed the temptation and potential for politically-motivated allocation of taxpayer funds. They largely removed politicians from proposing projects and choosing between projects - and transport infrastructure outcomes are better for it.

Infrastructure Australia and the de-politicisation of transport

Infrastructure Australia, the Federal government’s advisory board on infrastructure and investment, represents a step in this direction, but its style, structure and effectiveness will need substantial renovation in years to come.

Infrastructure Australia seems to be too much of a one man show (rather than a “board”), and seems to have one eye on keeping merchant banks happy. It is captive to a stultifying interplay between bureaucrats and bland consultants. And it has fallen into the “behind-closed-doors” approach to planning and funding.

The board tells us that Melbourne Metro is “ready to proceed” - but does not back that assertion with extensive public-domain documentation and analysis. “Trust us” - they are saying - “…this stuff is too complicated for you the taxpayer to follow”.

Those of us with expertise in transport back the Melbourne Metro idea solidly, but feel the current concept is anything but ready to proceed. Fixing the alignment to deliver fundamentally important inter-line connections and transfer opportunities at Arden and South Yarra respectively would be a start.

If we want to trust Infrastructure Australia with more money and responsibility, it needs to become open and accountable, and needs a harder-edge on innovation, policy, and 21st century transport thinking.

A better future for Australian transport would involve elected officials overseeing and renewing the institutional framework itself, and creating positive policy change - rather than meddling with individual projects.

They would be involved in deciding an annual amount of funding for infrastructure. They would step in and rectify problems as they arose, and would be accountable for the quality and effectiveness of the institutions they govern.

That’s more than enough work for a state or federal Minister interested in delivering better transport.

Let’s admit politicians and bureaucrats aren’t perfect

While this direction may at first seem different and radical, it is simply the age-old requirement to deliver institutional arrangements that account for inherent weaknesses in politics and bureaucracy.

We should no longer hope in vain that politics itself will throw-up an effective and intelligent State or Federal minister of transport, or that the bureaucracy will begin promoting the best and brightest.

The future of Australian infrastructure governance follows the dictum to “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” in terms of political and bureaucratic personnel and frameworks.

It involves a move away from personalities, and a new focus on better institutions and processes.

This may sound dull – but a renewed approach to transport institutions and funding lays the groundwork for a grander future in Australian cities. Those metros, bus networks, invigorated tram systems and freight connections are within our reach. We can also improve our freeways with a smarter funding mix.

Australia is a wealthy, advanced nation. We can well afford better infrastructure. But our institutional settings resemble those of a developing country, rather than best practice.

The result is a lot of money wasted on rubbish transport projects - while the rest of us huddle daily onto overcrowded trains, trams and buses to earn a living.