Federal Government Funding for NE Link Freeway and Environmental Damage

The Honourable Catherine King MP
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government
House of Representatives
Parliament House
ACT 2600

Dear Minister,

RE: Federal Government Funding for NE Link Freeway and Environmental Damage

The Age newspaper (2 June 2022) quoted you as stating that no federal funds would be provided to a Victorian government to build the East West Link project in Melbourne. I thank you for making this commitment. Building EW Link would be disastrous for inner Melbourne residents for many reasons and I am sure you are aware that there was fierce community opposition to it several years ago.

However, as the article goes on to say, the state Liberal opposition is committed to resurrecting this dud project. I have also written several times to federal Liberal member Michael Sukkar complaining about his obsession with constructing EW Link. He has never bothered to reply to any of my letters when in government. Hopefully, Labor will win the forthcoming state election but this does not necessarily mean the Liberals won’t try to exhume it at some time in the future.

It does not take a transport engineer to understand that the construction of the environmentally disastrous NE Link ‘freeway’ and the widening of the Eastern freeway will put intolerable pressure on the arterial roads including Hoddle Street at the western end of the Eastern freeway with thousands of additional motor vehicles attempting to enter the inner suburbs and the CBD.

In my view this hands the state Liberals a free kick to ‘justify’ the construction of the EW Link, indeed The Age article quotes the state opposition as stating “that the EW Link will be even more crucial following the completion of the NE Link”. I can even see Daniel Andrews wringing his hands at the traffic log jam he has created with a mea culpa that perhaps we should build EW Link after all (and shift the traffic jams elsewhere).

My concern is less with traffic congestion but more with all of the negative environmental and social impacts of constructing NE Link and the widening of the Eastern freeway. When announced in December 2016, the Victorian government said the NE Link project was expected to cost up to $10 billion. Then, in May 2018 the Victorian government indicated it would cost $16.5 billion. The currently estimated cost of the project is about $18.6 billion, with $1.75 billion of federal funds committed to the project. Clearly, these costs will continue to rise exponentially.

I request that you do not provide federal government funding to the North East Link project and further, that you release a media statement that you do not support the project on environmental and social justice grounds.

The following are some additional comments as to why this NE Link project is an environmental catastrophe particularly for the residents of Melbourne’s north eastern suburbs.

Environmental issues and the climate crisis

I am appalled by the Andrews government’s decision to build the NE Link Freeway through vast swathes of parkland, residential and light industrial areas in Melbourne’s northern and eastern suburbs. Of particular concern is the arrogant, indifferent attitude of the NE Link Program (NELP) to our parkland and open space alongside the Eastern Freeway between Kew, Bulleen, Doncaster and Mitcham.

Not only this, but significant sections of the woodland western section of Simpson Barracks in Yallambie have been excised for road widening putting further pressure on endangered species, remnant trees and local wildlife habitat. Borlase Reserve in Yallambie has ceased to exist and now it seems Andrews did not really need this parkland as a tunnel portal after all!

Since when does a statutory authority have the right to demolish existing parkland to build a road? Melbourne’s founding fathers established parks around the inner city areas for good reason. Once these parks and trees are lost they are gone forever, covered in concrete and bitumen. The trees to be cut down apparently number in the tens of thousands – why are our traffic engineers so lacking in skills or environmental empathy that a road cannot be designed under or around trees and parkland?

The well established benefits of trees include absorbing carbon, reducing the ‘heat island effect’ and providing psychological benefits for people living in cities. Large mature trees also provide safe refuge and nesting hollows for birds and other wildlife which cannot be duplicated for many years.

This situation is bizarre especially considering yet another dire warning from the UN IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) on the potential global loss of a million species due to climate change. In addition, we have daily articles in the media on the worsening impacts of the climate crisis globally and in Australia.

Transport – cars, trucks, public transport, domestic flights and shipping – is Australia’s second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. The sector emitted 102 million tonnes carbon dioxide (MtCO2) in 2018, representing 18% of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas pollution. Transport emissions have the highest rate of growth of any sector since 1990, (reference, Climate Council: What’s the Deal with Transport Emissions? (22 December 2019).

The sector is the second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Victoria, making up a fifth of the state’s total emissions Road-based transport (cars, trucks and buses) that still depend on fossil fuels is the key problem, accounting for 90% of all transport emissions, (reference, The Age newspaper 19 July 2020).

Even the Hon. Ben Carroll, Victoria’s Minister for Public Transport and Minister for Roads and Road Safety states that transport is the fasting growing source of the state’s emissions increasing 12% between 2005 and 2019 accounting for 25% or the second largest source of emissions in Victoria, (reference, Transport Sector Emissions Reduction Pledge – Victorian government, 2021).

So we have the hypocritical situation where the state government recognises that there is a problem but on the other hand encourages greater motor vehicle use and thus more emissions by constructing yet another freeway in Melbourne. All transport and planning experts have long agreed that building more freeways just leads to increased vehicle use and greater congestion.

Apart from the climate crisis aspects of this dud project are the inevitable increases in local air pollution and noise. In her excellent paper, Health Impacts of Air Traffic Pollution – why freeways should not be built in or adjacent to an urban environment Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos cites Barnett 2014 that urban air pollution contributes to an estimated 3000 deaths per year in Australia, (16 February 2019).

Environmental Justice Australia, in its paper, The People’s Clean Air Action Plan for Victoria quotes very similar death rates due to air pollution, (Environmental Justice Australia, (undated). What right does the Andrews government have to increase the health risks of the hundreds of thousands of people living adjacent to the road corridor? Is this a potential breach of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 1970? Note that this Act binds the Crown.

Electric vehicles will not be with us for many years due to a number of factors and particularly the high cost of trucks will mean that transport companies will wish to maximise their investment so there will not be any altruistic dumping of dirty diesel fuelled trucks for a long time yet. Note that electric vehicles also come with their own set of environmental problems and are certainly not the answer to traffic congestion.

In addition, many campaigners against NE Link have stated that noise levels will increase drastically with a potential extra 100,000 vehicles per day using the Eastern freeway (at least).

In summary, the only real solution to traffic congestion in Melbourne is increased public transport and a far better strategic management of the existing road network using smart technology at intersections, tram prioritisation etc.

Public transport experts have been advocating for years for a train out to Doncaster along the existing Eastern Freeway easement. The widening of the Eastern Freeway into a Los Angeles style race track will kill any likelihood of Doncaster Rail forever.

Other factors, which often seem to be in the too hard basket, include stemming the poorly serviced broad acre housing development in outer suburbs by sacrificing our farmland and green belts thus forcing multiple car purchases by residents.

In addition, by not controlling population growth through immigration into our clogged cities in turn this leads to increased demand for motor vehicles and increased congestion. Instead we should be encouraging decentralisation to regional towns and cities.

Not everyone believes that constructing endless freeways is the solution to traffic problems and certainly there are no environmental groups or planning academics in Melbourne who support the construction of any new freeways. They can see the bigger picture. There are far more pressing issues to be dealt with which require a holistic, systematic approach. Thank you.