When the gentlemen sat down to write their development plan for Melbourne, trouble on its roads was foremost in their minds.
They quoted US planner Harland Bartholomew: “The average town or city dweller is quite apt to pay little more attention to the streets he uses than the air he breathes… he uses the streets with a sense of satisfaction when his way is direct and free from interruption and of irritation when opposite conditions prevail.”
Irritation prevailed. Greater Melbourne’s sprawl of roads was often congested and poorly linked. With a community’s future growth absolutely dependent upon the development of suitable avenues of travel, “even very considerable sums expended to secure them will in the long run be many times repaid”, they advised.
And so their report, when presented to the Victorian Government, contained a map showing – among many wide, efficient arterial roads and river crossings – an unbroken connection of existing and planned main roads running in a circle around Melbourne’s outer periphery.
A ring road, in other words. Although the three authors wouldn’t have used, or even known, the term.
Car before the horse
After all, they also noted that despite advances in internal combustion engines promising speedier commutes, it would be many years before horse-drawn travel was obsolete.
It was 1929. Their report, the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission’s Plan of General Development, was, and is still, regarded as perhaps the most comprehensive and forward-thinking scheme for Melbourne’s growth and future.
But the Great Depression and conservative fears around property rights and local government autonomy saw the initiative lapse. Many of the recommendations would not see life for decades.
$100 million for planning
Finally, almost 90 years later, many road and public transport projects have been delivered and that uninterrupted road link around Melbourne is now approaching reality with a vital planning step for the North East Link, connecting the Metropolitan Ring Road at Greensborough with the Eastern Freeway.
In April, the Victorian Government announced a $100 million funding allocation in its State Budget for design, planning and pre-construction works for the so-called “missing link”, and today the North East Link Authority (NELA) presented the Government its initial findings on four potential routes along three corridors. These are now open for public comment to determine, as NELA puts it, “if, and how, each option stacks up”.
There is scant argument that the link is vital to the city – and to Victoria as a whole. RACV general manager public policy Brian Negus says: “The RACV has said for the last decade that this is the number one road project that Melbourne needs.”
The Victorian Transport Association (VTA) says that, whatever route is chosen, the freight industry “desperately” needs the link, while the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) embraces the proposal as a critical piece of infrastructure that will support increased agricultural production in Victoria.
A clear winner
When Infrastructure Victoria presented the link to the Andrews government as Melbourne’s “priority road project” in October, it was the week after the AFL Grand Final and its chief executive Michel Masson said, “it is as clear a winner as the Western Bulldogs were on Saturday”.
Though the 1929 scheme gave a glimpse of a ring road, and it was looked at more closely in the late 1960s and in 2008 as part of the Victorian transport plan, Mr Negus says the need is now critical: “The RACV’s recent Red Spot survey on traffic congestion showed that six of the top 10 worst-congested locations in Melbourne were clustered around the Eastern Freeway, and five of them were on routes that this particular project will solve.”
Those include Bulleen Road, the Banksia Street Bridge, Rosanna Road and Greensborough Highway as well as Fitzsimons Lane and Main Road through Eltham and Greensborough.
The ‘pseudo link’ is packed
Currently, freight and commuters use these routes to get from the freeway to the ring road. It’s what Mr Negus calls “the pseudo link” and is packed to capacity.
So NELA, established last year to develop a business case and progress delivery of the project, was not asked to establish whether a Link is needed, says chief executive Duncan Elliott. That’s a given.
“Our task is how to best deliver that link,” he says.
At a public consultation meeting in Banyule this year, Mr Elliott described the North East Link as “a transformation project” for Melbourne. As well as relieving congestion in the booming north, it would unlock employment opportunities, aid freight and provide environmental benefits, he said.
100,000 vehicles off local roads
“The estimate is that it will carry 100,000 vehicles a day, much of it freight,” he told RoyalAuto. “That’s a shift of traffic off local roads, particularly in the north where there are seven new suburbs planned (and where the City of Whittlesea has added about 176,000 residents in the last decade).
“The big myth is that the North East Link is another connection between freeways to get people to the CBD. It’s not. As we speak, the Government is investing in significant rail infrastructure upgrades, on the Hurstbridge line, at South Morang and Mernda and so on, to deal with that demand.”
In fact, says Mr Elliott, the link would have a host of other benefits. It would conveniently take freight, needing to get from Gippsland and Melbourne’s south-east to the markets at Epping or further, to say Adelaide or Sydney, off the M1 or the current “rat-run” of Bulleen and Rosanna Roads.
‘A raft of opportunities’
It could give workers efficient commutes to employment at either end, such as the Heidelberg medical precinct, the polytechnic area near Greensborough and the technology parks growing around EastLink. “And it triggers a whole raft of complementary opportunities around public transport, cycling, the environment, jobs and services.”
Broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway – estimated to cost between
$5 and $10 billion. One echoes the “pseudo link”, in a roughly north-south path through Rosanna, the Banyule Flats and Bulleen.
A second would arc, as a more traditional ring road, from Greensborough approximately via St Helena, Eltham and Warrandyte to EastLink near Ringwood. (NELA has presented two variations on this route.) The third would cut a much wider arc through Kangaroo Ground and Lilydale.
But the word “through” is misleading. More appropriate is “beneath”.
Any of the three routes would pass through environmentally sensitive – and therefore electorally sensitive – locations. The Yarra parklands and rich wetlands of the Banyule Flats; Eltham and the river around Warrandyte; or the swathes of open country in the ‘green wedge’ on the outer route.
Tunnels would be required, whichever option is chosen, adds Mr Elliott. “There’s no way you could put a surface freeway through, say, the Banyule Flats. No one’s going to let that happen.”
The need for significant tunnelling, at hundreds of millions of dollars per kilometre, with the shortest, north-east route requiring perhaps five kilometres underground – from north of Lower Plenty Road to just north of the current Eastern Freeway, suggests Mr Negus – accounts for much of the project’s $5 to $10 billion nominated budget figure.
That route would also require construction of at least two extra lanes in each direction on the Eastern Freeway, probably with auxiliary lanes near the ramps, from Bulleen Road to the existing tunnels at Ringwood, says Mr Negus.
Later this year, NELA will announce its preferred corridor.
Stronger business case
The RACV has not stated a preference, though Mr Negus says, overall, a completed route east from Greensborough to Ringwood has an attraction as a true ring road. But a north-south link, “a skewed ring”, with significant upgrades to the Eastern Freeway, would likely produce a stronger business case.
“To be frank,” admits Mr Elliott, “none of the options is easy, all are challenging for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the environment.
“There’s challenges around grades suitable for freight transport; geo-technical challenges around tunnelling; hills and topography, particularly east of Viewbank; and of connecting to the local road networks.
“Our preferred option will be selected on the basis that it best satisfies the project’s objectives, that it best connects the two ends to create a link that trucks will use and get them off local streets and also delivers the best outcome in terms of cost benefit across the network.
“In the past there might have been arguments about whether we actually need this thing. But the community view has moved on and the overwhelming assessment is that we need it, but we have to get it right.”
You can get regular North East Link project updates and invitations to consultation opportunities by registering your interest online.