Monday, August 28, 2023

Five years since 'Operation Halo' (aka SRL) became public

On this day five years ago at 7:01am something big was announced

The Suburban Rail Loop 

Here's a flashback to stories from the first day it was public




Nine News interview


Herald Sun

The Suburban Rail Loop was hatched in secrecy, away from the established transport bureaucracy, Treasury hardheads, and, as the minister hastened to add, land speculators. Neither was even the vaguest concept of an orbital railway in Plan Melbourne 2017 - 2050, released just the previous year,

Some within the bureaucracy would have been hostile to the SRL for rational (eg concerns over opportunity cost) and tribal (it wasn't our idea) reasons. This government arguably had reasons to be wary of advice on transport matters from it given that not all that given in the past (eg rail franchising, patronage estimates and myki tendering) had necessarily served their predecessors in the Bracks and Brumby governments well. This may have made the government receptive to transport concepts from those outside traditional circles but trusted by the party. 

SRL was a simple idea that the people loved. It tapped into concerns over the management of growth  in an expanding city. There was a good planning story about jobs nearer homes and an environmental narrative about sustainability. It also decisively appeared to address a genuine issue of slow and inefficient public transport for trips other than towards and away from the CBD. The commentariat class lament about our having only buses to the airport would also finally be addressed. Especially when Airport Rail was rebadged 'SRL Airport' before apparently being deferred.

So SRL ticked a lot of boxes. Thus with only basic work done and not all funding arranged it was presented as an already decided 'fait accompli', bypassing the transport and planning establishment who ordinarily would have expected to have some say. The likes of Infrastructure Victoria would continue to write reports or yearn for an overarching 'transport plan' but the government had its own major project-based agenda, with evidence that it was getting stuff done there for all to see.

It wasn't until later that we got to know how the SRL idea came about. More on the top-secret 'Operation Halo' and how it became the SRL appears in Thrown in a loop: How Daniel Andrews’ biggest project was cooked up behind closed doors published by The Age two years ago. 

Meanwhile the SRL project has marched on. More details on the project came out through its business case. It has been divided into sections with the Cheltenham (Southland) - Box Hill section starting first. More has come out regarding station locations and there are concerns over connectivity with other modes.

State government backing remains unwavering despite budget pressures. The government that proposed it was returned in 2022. The Suburban Rail Loop has its own ministerial portfolio with the minister now the deputy premier. The (now Labor) federal government committed $2.2 billion to the project. That's more symbolic than anything else as much more is needed to build. And while the state government made some tough decisions in the 2023 state budget with PT service again starved and projects like Geelong fast rail and airport rail subject to national review, the SRL has remains protected.

I won't discuss the pros and cons of the SRL here. But there's three things that could apply to other transport initiatives and government support for them.

1. The sky's the limit - if there's the political will then far more than was previously thought possible can be agreed to. Thus public transport advocates shouldn't necessarily fear that they are asking for too much.  

2. A project can often be conceived of as having wider benefits to give legitimacy to its size or win political support that it might not otherwise have. Then once support is achieved it may get rebadged along the way. Two examples include: 

'Project 10 000'. A big plan to create 10 000 jobs in the construction sector. To allay concerns about Labor's cancellation of the E-W Link, address some weakness in employment and keep the CFMEU on-side. Became the Level Crossing Removal Project, Metro Tunnel and other 'big build' projects. 

'Homesafe'. Sought to address concerns over late night workers getting home at night. Became 'Night Network' when it started in 2016 with 24 hour weekend service on trains, some trams and (later) some regular bus routes. 'Night Network' is also more in keeping with similar services elsewhere.

SRL has been changed in scope a bit (eg divided into stages and including other bits eg airport rail) but hasn't yet been renamed. However something that gave legitimacy for its size was its concept as a wider planning project that would address matters like more high-paying jobs near the suburbs most people lived in and connected suburban subcentres (that also had denser housing options). With the (rarely realised) potential for land value capture to shore up its business case.

Those who have raised concerns about SRL opportunity costs have included transport planners. They think they can achieve more with less with some other transport scheme. For instance instead of one super-fast underground rail corridor you could build more kilometres of somewhat slower orbital routes that create a more ubiquitous network with more connection points and thus more spread benefits.

Whereas those approaching the SRL from a planning view aren't so much concerned about the cost but are very keen that matters like land use are taken care of to ensure dense centres around stations with lots of jobs, land value uplift and concentrated accessibility benefits leading to high agglomeration economies. In this case defining SRL as more than a transport project could make its price tag seem better value with so-called 'wider benefits' counted. A worry though is that too much concentration on expensively serving a few centres while ignoring the rest risks perpetuating access inequality, favouring the few over the many.  

3. An initiative must be seen to address a particular problem. It doesn't have to be the most cost-effective approach if the political support is there. Although it's even better if it is as we could have the initiative replicated several more times by 2100. In mass transit, "if it doesn't scale it doesn't count". 

To the chagrin of data wonks who think that "If only we had more data and evidence the funding for effective projects would appear", cost-effectiveness or massively positive benefit cost ratios do not by themselves win political support and funding for initiatives. No matter how good and worthy they may be. 

Examples include a general recent reluctance to invest heavily in highly cost-effective smaller capital projects, active transport or more frequent timetables that work the existing network harder, eg higher off-peak train and bus frequencies on productive routes.

Proponents of such cost-effective transport initiatives simply need to do better, including in political influence. That includes presenting a compelling positive agenda that taps in to peoples' needs (unlike  the 'just say no' SRL critics at the Grattan Institute who seem to think that fiddling with pricing is everything).

Despite not having had this government's ear much, advocates of better value for money in transport projects remain with plenty to think about. Problems aren't going away and Melbourne's still growing. In retrospect 2018 marked 'peak major project announcement year' with the subsequent fare mainly being more level crossing removals. Cost blow-outs, higher interest rates and calls for the government to shift priorities elsewhere (eg to housing) are only likely to increase scrutiny of major transport projects and revive interest in what's possible cost-effectively.  

That's it for the SRL today. Its existence and scale reflects the low interest rate conditions at the time it was announced along with the government's so far unshakable faith in its merits and political appeal (demonstrated over two elections). However it remains quite a while between now and its projected opening in 2035. It will be interesting to see what we end up with as demographic, political and budgetary priorities evolve. Especially since some (like urbanisation) are a long term trend while others (like economic and political fashions) seem to follow see-saw or pendulum cycles. 

1 comment:

Malcolm M said...

The SRL planning process has been deeply flawed. It has a target of one third of its cost being offset by value capture around stations. But there are very few stations where this can occur. At Box Hill most of the land value increase has already occurred prior to any SRL contracts being let. At Burwood the land north of the highway is Deakin University and non-rateable, while south of the highway it is residential, and existing residents will fight any efforts to upzone. At Glen Waverley there are relatively few remaining sites that can be developed, and the land to the south of the station is residential, and again the existing residents will resist upzoning. The Monash Uni station has has the greatest potential for land value capture as land to the north is zoned industrial, and would welcome up-zoning. However the pedestrian catchment only extends as far as Ferntree Gully Road, and the industrial area to the north of this road is too far from the station to experience an increase in land value. Ped-sheds extend only about 400m from stations at the destination end. This is why Melbourne built its City Loop, to spread development throughout the Hoddle grid rather than just around Flinders St station. To service the area north of Ferntree Gully Road and gain its land value capture there should instead have been a station on Ferntree Gully Road, serving industrial areas both sides of the road, and a separate station to serve the Monash Clayton campus on Wellington Road. The current proposed Monash Uni station is too far from most of the campus, and won't get much land value capture to the south of the station as it's university land. At the Clayton station much of the land is residential, with some intensification into townhouses. Residential towers won't be popular except along Clayton Rd and Centre Rd, and some pockets of industrial land. Finally, at the Southland SRL station land to the north is park, a regional shopping centre is to the south, and the remainder low-rise residential. Current residents will resist conversion of their park and neighbourhoods to high-rise, but may be more tolerant of high-rise on the Southland block as it's surrounded by a moat of stroads. That's it. There is not a single station where the entire 400m radius around a station can achieve full land value capture. Furthermore the SRL's zoning for value capture uplift at up to 1.2km from a station, and not borne out by actual behaviour. This is the distance between Flinders St station and Southern Cross station, a distance that very few people walk, and it would be very hard to prove that land value increase can extend this far from a station.