No more freeways!

Issue 

By Dave Wright and Lyndall Barnett

MELBOURNE — In most states around the country, plans are afoot to extend freeways. Building new or extending existing freeways continues the trend to sidestep thorough long-term urban planning and community consultation. As they pump billions of dollars into building freeways, federal and state governments have drastically reduced funding to public transport.

VicRoads recently released its transport blueprint, Linking Melbourne, in which plans to encircle Melbourne from Frankston to Sunshine and Werribee are detailed. The linking of the Westgate, Tullamarine and South Eastern freeways in the "Southern and Western Bypass" — a bitumen maze through the inner city — will involve tunnelling under the Yarra River and the Domain near the Myer Music Bowl, and constructing a bridge or tunnel over the lower Yarra through the docklands.

Work on the Eastern Freeway Extension (F19) which will link Bulleen to Ringwood is about to commence. Not only will this affect the bushland habitat of koalas in the Koonung and Mullum Creek area, it will allow an extra 30,000 cars — a 50% increase — into the city each day.

The first stage of the F19 project will widen Alexandra Parade from four to six lanes through Collingwood. Work has already begun: at 6am on August 7, some 70 trees, some over 100 years old, were destroyed on Vicroads' orders. Three Victorian buildings, previously with protection orders, were also demolished.

In 1977, similar moves to destroy Alexandra Parade's green median strip were met with mass community protests and a blockade which led to a partial government back down. The state Liberal government and VicRoads' bureaucrats have a good memory. Many police were on hand to prevent any repeat of those protests. However, some 40 local residents climbed and sat in front of the trees and successfully saved 30.

Transport policy

The Kennett government and VicRoads transport policy raises many questions about health, environmental and social considerations which are being ignored.

Cars contribute between 15-20% of Melbourne's greenhouse gas emissions and 60-70% of the city's smog. The average car emits more than 1000 pollutants; the main chemicals which damage the lungs are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and heavy metals. Pollutants such as nitrous oxides, lead and noise are also damaging to public health and asthma is on the increase.

At a recent transport public meeting Rick Jarman, head of Ambulatory Paediatrics at the Royal Childrens Hospital, said that more than a quarter of Melbourne's children suffer from asthma, mostly caused by particulate smog from cars and trucks.

Along the Eastern Freeway, noise levels are already in excess of 76 decibels; most people find 63 uncomfortable.

The combined total cost of the proposed freeways is $2 billion; this year $650 million was spent in Victoria fixing potholes and country freeways. The Kennett government has cut $158 million from the public transport budget and slashed over 7000 jobs making night train and tram travel even more unsafe. Automatic ticket machines are also being installed, which will lead to the total phase-out of tram conductors.

It is important to remember that the former Labor government's transport policy was not very different to the Liberals'. Many of today's freeway proposals were developed by the Kirner government during which time there were also massive cuts to public transport.

Since the 1980, some 90 cities around the world have halted freeway construction and are moving to light rail. Suppressed VicRoads figures indicate that public transport alternatives to the plans for the F19 could save the Victorian taxpayer as much as $800 million.

The Kennett government has recently rushed through a number of council amalgamations and appointed commissioners as overseers. This has resulted in many developments being fast tracked, with little or no community consultation. In 1977 local councils supported the campaign against the F19. Today the newly-appointed commissioners to the City of Yarra look set to ignore community objections and rubber-stamp the extensions.

The urban development of the 1950s and 1960s went hand in hand with road-based transport. Urban development in the 1990s continues at a rapid pace but little consideration has been given to the public transport needs of these communities.

Poor infrastructure in many of the outer-suburban communities has contributed to increasing social problems. Young people reliant on public transport are particularly disadvantaged; in Melbourne more than 70% use buses and more than 45% use trams on a regular basis.

The alternatives

Public transport is a real alternative to road transport and should be part of all urban planning projections. Some of the benefits include better environmental standards, job creation and an improvement in the quality of life.

A light or heavy rail should be built along the Eastern Freeway up to Doncaster Shopping Town. A rail trip from Doncaster to Parliament takes 19 minutes, a much quicker alternative to commuting by car during peak hours. The middle strip of the freeway, originally designed for a rail line, could cost-effectively be put to immediate use.

Successful, anti-freeway campaigns, like the Coalition Against the Freeway Extensions, need to be able to transpose community anger into focused action against the government. CAFE is campaigning to halt the Eastern Freeway Extension proposal. Its members include: the Public Transport User's Association; Alternatives to Freeways Now; tenants associations from Collingwood; Collingwood Traffic Action Committee; Greenpeace; the People's Committee for Melbourne; Save the Upfield Line Campaign; Koonung Mullum Forestway Association; Bicycle Victoria; Democratic Socialist Party, Australian Democrats, Victorian Greens, People for Environmentally Sustainable Transport, International Socialist Organisation and many individuals.

According to Cam Walker, a CAFE activist, "Just as the Hydro Electric Commission in Tasmania exists to build dams, VicRoads exists to build roads. It was not until a massive campaign forced a halt to the Franklin River dam that the HEC changed its direction. It appears that nothing less than a similar public outcry will force changes to the way VicRoads carries out its business".

Apart from stopping the F19 extension, CAFE is campaigning to substantially upgrade the state's public transport system. It has already organised several rallies, pickets and a public meeting called "Tramways not Freeways". A tree planting day at Alexandra Parade is scheduled for September 4, and a rally on September 18 at 2pm. CAFE meets every Tuesday at 7pm at Friends of the Earth in Smith St, Collingwood. It can be contacted via FoE on 419 8700.