By Garry Bowditch, CEO, SMART Infrastructure Facility
Australians are rightly cautious about grand infrastructure projects, after all, our track record with productivity enhancing big infrastructure is patchy.
The proposal for a High Speed Rail (HSR) on the east coast of Australia is certainly big thinking, but do we know the problem it’s meant to address? Is it about changing the future size of our cities? creating new cities? or dissatisfaction with existing inter and intra city transport? Whatever the problem it is generally good to know it first so the most effective solutions can be compared and assessed to ensure the best outcome possible.
History suggests that Australia too often comes up with technical solutions for infrastructure before we have properly identified the problem it seeks to redress. HSR is a case in point!
The necessary practical starting point for Australia’s long term infrastructure planning must be about future population growth, demography shifts and how we propose to shape future communities through land-use regulation.
The best outcome that can come from the HSR reports is to trigger the federal and state governments into action for an urgent planning of national transport corridors. The question of what goes into these corridors comes later, but first we need to secure the land connectivity between major cities to ensure our economic super-system on the east coast can function efficiently as it competes with other well-connected international hubs in Asia.
Australia has an unusual settlement pattern. Most of its population and economic activities occurs in an 80km narrow coastal ribbon running from Brisbane to Melbourne. This intense land use requires careful planning. Unless we preserve transportation corridors now, future infrastructure options like the HSR will be very limited and even more expensive.
Poor project selection and pork barreling for infrastructure has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the community. Past schemes of reversing rivers, decentralisation to places people don’t wish to live and systemic neglect of major cities – underinvestment in public transport and resulting road gridlock highlight the plethora of lost opportunity. The result is diminished public trust and appetite of policymakers to long term planning. Infrastructure Australia and INSW are good steps in building confidence, but its early days for both to prove themselves.
National infrastructure challenges like transport corridors requires a national response. The Federation gives Australia its own unique set of hurdles; the future of key economic precincts along the east coast demand a more coordinated and considered planning across all levels of government. Major cities and regions need urgent attention because urban encroachment is preventing or making new infrastructure provision very difficult. This is where serious reform is needed, not with expensive train sets. Without proper land-use planning and transport corridors preserved now to sustain our cities and regions HSR and most other major infrastructure projects will be just another dream that won’t come true.