This massive fund sent more than $200 million to each of the three fringe coalition seats: Higgins, centered on Malvern; La Trobe, centered on Pakenham; and Casey, centered on Healesville. Meanwhile, no Urban Congestion Fund dollars went to Wills’ safe Labor seats centered on Coburg; Gellibrand, targeting Altona and Point Cook; or Hotham, targeting Clayton.
The coalition’s federal government is also rewarding its base. We know about the parking garages for Kooyong, but research by Grattan shows that the problem is much worse. The five voters with the most urban congestion are all government-owned, with Aston centered on Knoxfield taking the top spot with nearly $300 million. Of the nine voters who did not receive any of the Urban Congestion funds, seven are in the hands of Labor and one of the Greens.
For an urban congestion fund, it’s surprising that the electorate that owns the CBD, the Greens’ seat in Melbourne, got just $5 million, while the fringe Flinders electorate, which includes the Mornington Peninsula, received nearly $100 million, and the marginal McEwan’s electorate, which owns Woodend, received $170 million.
The bigger question is why the federal government is funding small local projects in the first place.
The role that the federal government has agreed with the states is to contribute to a nationally important infrastructure; that is, when there are benefits to a road or rail link beyond the state where that road or rail line is located.
Roundabouts, overpasses and commuter parking lots can be very important to the communities where they are located, but it’s hard to argue that a parking lot in the country is of national importance.
Commuter parking garages have attracted attention when they were canceled due to infeasibility or community opposition. But they are by no means the only small local projects funded by the federal government. Over the past 13 years, successive federal governments have funded nearly 800 roundabouts, overpasses, and parking lots that are not connected to nationally important roads or rail lines.
Of course, it’s no surprise that politicians are throwing money at seats they hope to win in the upcoming federal election. Some people defend it – after all, shouldn’t politicians be lobbying hard in Canberra for their communities? Maybe – but not this way.
Throwing money at marginal seats and electorally important states ignores questions about what communities actually need, and that’s never more true than when politicians put ideas on the back of an envelope or based on a color-coded voter spreadsheet.
Voters should demand better. Whichever party wins the 2022 federal election must strengthen the transport spending guardrails. The government, whether Labor or Coalition, should require a minister, before approving funding for a project, to consider and publish Infrastructure Australia’s assessment of the project, including the business case, cost-benefit analysis and ranking according to national importance.
And the next federal government, whether Labor or Coalition, must stick to its job: no more roundabouts, overpasses or parking lots, just nationally important infrastructure financed in a balanced way.
Marion Terrill is Program Director for Transport and Cities at the Grattan Institute. her latest report, Roundabouts, overpasses and parking lots: returning the federal government to its proper role in transportation projectsis available at www.grattan.edu.au.