Is The Age providing fair comment on transport issues?

Prospective corridors for road tunnel (Eddington Report)

I take an agnostic view of freeway proposals – I don’t assume apriori that they’re all bad or all good. I prefer to look at the evidence first before deciding if a proposal has merit or is a poor idea. But it seems there are some who will overlook evidence to the contrary if it undermines their ideological view.

Like Kenneth Davidson in his column in The Age on Monday, Why the east-west road tunnel is a stinker, I have some misgivings about the tunnel proposed to connect Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road. The Victorian Government has just submitted a proposal to Infrastructure Australia, seeking funding to develop the tunnel idea further.

My key concern is the anaemic benefit-cost ratio. But Mr Davidson, who’s a senior columnist at The Age, goes further. He reckons the proposed tunnel recommended in 2008 in the Eddington Report is a “stinker” and a “confidence trick”.

That’s because an earlier study undertaken for the Bracks government in 2004, the Northern Central City Corridor strategy (NCCC), found most of the traffic coming off the Eastern Freeway heads into central Melbourne. It found only 15% is bound for the northern or western suburbs. “In other words”, Mr Davidson says:

the public justification for the east-west link – that it would take traffic away from the central business district – was a confidence trick……The first question (Eddington) should have asked was where did the 2004 study go wrong.

I don’t think anyone disputes the NCCC study was negative about the case for the tunnel. Nor is Mr Davidson the first to raise this objection. The “gotcha” Mr Davidson seizes on with such alacrity is that Sir Rod Eddington apparently ignored the NCCC study’s key finding.

But it seems it’s Mr Davidson who’s doing the ignoring. The Eddington Report actually does consider the NCCC study. Moreover it deals with it in a way that is prominent and impossible to miss by anyone with their eyes open (read it – Chapter 5, page 129).

The Report argues it’s a myth that nearly all Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city. It says the NCCC produced diagrams that present “a distorted view of traffic distribution (and further NCCC modelling for a future link would have identified and addressed this issue)”.

In a section titled, ‘Myth 2: nearly all the Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city’, It argues the NCCC study didn’t look beyond the capacity of existing roads or the ultimate destination of traffic once it left the NCCC study area.

First, given the roads in question, the traffic distribution (identified in the NCCC study) is not surprising: at the end of the freeway, there are ten freeway standard traffic lanes (five each way). By the time traffic reaches Macarthur Avenue in Royal Park, the corresponding ‘connection’ is a two-lane road (one lane each way). The traffic distribution is as much a function of the roads available, which progressively reduce in capacity towards the west, as it is a reflection of the demand for a particular direction of travel.

Secondly, when the (Eddington) Study Team analysed how traffic from the Eastern Freeway is distributed (with the analysis closely matching the NCCC distribution), it revealed that around 40 per cent of the daily traffic from the freeway travels beyond the central city area – to the south and the west. That is the case with the current network: in the future, EastLink will add a new dimension.

The Eddington Report also argues (page 137) the NCCC study focussed on Eastern Freeway traffic and didn’t fully consider traffic using adjacent streets instead. Moreover, it didn’t recommend against the tunnel because insufficient vehicles would use it, but rather because the high cost of construction yielded an inadequate benefit-cost ratio.

Thus the Eddington Report specifically and explicitly repudiates the claim made by Mr Davidson. It is of course possible to disagree with the Eddington Report’s logic or line of argument and if it’s wrong the obvious and sensible thing to do would be to say so. But no one appears to have done that, certainly not Mr Davidson. The point has just been ignored, as if it were never put.

Even with close to 40% of traffic travelling beyond the inner city, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the East-West tunnel is a good idea. I think it’s hard to endorse any project with a negative benefit-cost ratio. But it certainly makes the case a lot stronger than the 15% meme that Mr Davidson insists on perpetuating.

The issue I’ve addressed here is whether or not a certain way of thinking – an ideological position – affects the way the press analyses and presents issues. Failing to even acknowledge the existence of Eddington’s counter argument, much less address it, is just not good enough in a newspaper than claims to be a paper of record.

I hope to look at the overall merits or otherwise of the tunnel another time.

6 Comments on “Is The Age providing fair comment on transport issues?”

  1. RED says:

    Kenneth Davidson has a history of ignoring facts and counter-arguments if they get in the way of a good story, as anyone who has read his opinion pieces with a critical and informed eye would know.
    It’s very disturbing that the fact checking at the Age is so poor that they still regularly publish his rants.

    • nick says:

      Agreed but I think listening to someones “expert opinions” lads us into a direction which distracts us from to real questions down a blind alley!

      If we are to ask the right questions we should be thinking for ourselves and forming our own opinions based upon factsand ideas not opinion.

  2. kymbos says:

    Is this the same Kennith Davidson who continues to argue for a water pipeline to Tasmania to solve our water problems?

    Nuff said.

  3. Davidson’s articles are frequently shallow and one sided, unfortunately that can be said of virtually all mainstream media in this country.

    I look forward to your opinion on the road tunnel itself.

  4. Chris G says:

    The 2001 Northern Central City Corridor Study’s Draft reports were quietly removed from the DOI website after the Eddington EWLNA report was published, which is a set back for open society.

    The NCCC published their methodology, triple bottom line performance criteria and all their data, including consultants modelling. It also included extensive and genuine consultation throughout.

    By contrast The Eddington report was a throw back to the days when wise autocrats with superior access to data and experts would make decisions (on the back of an envelope as we have just learned) and then invite submissions – over 2000 were received and duly noted.

    The NCCC report demonstrated the tunnel not be cost effective. It dealt a body blow to the road lobby and their pet project to link all their freeways.

    Apart from the problem that the distribution of traffic from the Eastern Freeway does not suit a tunnel unless there are many on and off ramps in difficulty inner-city locations, it uncovered another issue.

    A significant percentage of the traffic going east-west along Alexandra parade was found to be made up of journeys north-south, where the drivers made a dog-leg to get on to another north-south road. This significantly complicated the tunnel design.

    That finding brings into question whether the NCCCS analysis was as limited as the EWLNA report made out.

    The counter proposal to build a tunnel direct from Citylink to the Eastern, with no other exits, was not cost effective. The NCCC also found that the eastern was used more for commuters than for freight compared with other routes. This may change if a tunnel was built as it could lead to more freight intensive industries in that east.

    In summary, I don’t think the NCCCS was discredited by EWLNA as much as the road lobby would like to believe, and the arguments above are unconvincing. The Age may be a paper of record, but its opinion pieces are just that. Despite whether or not Davidson should have cited the obtuse arguments on page 129, the tunnel in my opinion, really is a stinker.

  5. Alan Parker says:

    I think the Age is making fair comments on many issues related to freeway construction which is making many problems worse as well as generating more road congestion. Indeed
    China, Japan and EU countries are leading the way by supporting more bicycle infrastructure , energy, efficient hybrid cars, alternative energy, and more public transport.

    The Age is looking at how to risk manage 4 serious problems Australia shares with most other countries : global warming, oil depletion, population growth, and less liveable cities. All four of these threats need corrective policies according to experts who understand these risks. Indeed China, US and EU scientists are researching these problems (US Academy of Sciences 2007). Fatih Birol, IEA, has spelled out the problem of the growth of fossil fuel based production of electricity oil supplies peaking and a probable dangerous increase in global warming.

    In Australia we can see road congestion growing worse, encouraging petrol headed lemmings has created a serious threat to the Australian economy And some people like me, Peter Newman and Kenneth Davidson have been saying that for 30 years.

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