Back in the 1960s and '70s the Melbourne community fought against building the Eastern Freeway. These activists prevented the giant road ripping through inner city suburbs, containing damage to the parklands and green wedge in the east. Yarra Bend Park and Koonung Creek Reserve have been forever changed.
A slither of hope in the road mania was the rail reservation down the middle of the freeway – eventually a direct rail link from Doncaster to the CBD and broader public transport network could happen after being proposed in 1890.
Many of the extended Friends of the Earth family would remember this fight against the freeway better than myself. Many of you will know we are still waiting for the Doncaster train (or any kind of high-capacity reliant public transport to this black spot of Melbourne). What many don't know about is the current plan to expand the freeway to 20 lanes.
There are plans to turn our Eastern Freeway into a 20-lane monster as part of the North East Link Project. The sneakily-named North East Link is more than just the proposed 26 km road project connecting the Metropolitan Ring Road in Greensborough with the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen. A tunnel under the Yarra River at Banyule Flats will connect to a vastly 'upgraded' Eastern Freeway. From Hoddle Street to Springvale Road lanes will be widened, paving over the rail reservation. The enormous size of the future Eastern Freeway is like something from Los Angeles – spreading as much as 94 metres wide.
Construction is set to begin in 2019/2020 with estimated completion in 2027. It is estimated to cost between $10‒16 billion, making it the most expensive Victorian road project in history.
With all major roads projects, immediately after completion of the road there will be shorter travel times and less traffic congestion. The 40-year old Eastern Freeway is congested and full of traffic for long periods beyond the usual peak hours, hence the call to widen the lanes.
However, in five years' time the benefits would disappear, with the potential for even worse traffic congestion. Roads follow the law of 'induced demand', meaning that if there is more road space available then more cars will come to fill it. This is because people who stopped driving because of road frustration, begin to drive again. The new roads also attract new drivers, right up until they're completely full, with congestion as bad as ever. The road is predicted by the Victorian government itself to shift 25,000 people per day from trains to cars.
As the road widens it will also eat into green space, bringing the road closer to homes, schools and parks. Five different creeks or rivers will be affected by the North East Link: Yarra and Plenty Rivers and the Merri, Banyule and Koonung Creeks. The Plenty River, Merri and Koonung Creeks are already in 'very poor' shape according to an assessment of their condition. Construction near these sites risks further worsening their condition.
After years of work to create the Yarra River Protection Act, the government will risk this work and need to apply for an exception in order to go ahead with the North East Link. A report from the Andrews Government has admitted that the construction could "result in stress and degradation of ecosystem health" of the Yarra.
There are also questions about the lane widths on the Eastern Freeway possibly widening to 3.7m, so much larger trucks can use the road. With increased traffic, this means increased air pollution and road noise.
The scale and cost of the project mean the government is seeking a private consortium to build, operate and maintain the road. This tender process has shown tolls not only on the newly-constructed tunnel section, but other roads could also be tolled to fund the construction. Private car and toll companies will earn profits from this road for decades to come, while public transport and sustainable solutions miss out on the funding and priority needed.
The best alternatives for the North East Link, as with all major roads projects, is to upgrade our public transport system. If people do not have easy access to their public transport, they will opt for car travel. This means we need improved bus services from suburbs to their train stations, and upgrades to our train lines to carry more people, more often, and more reliably. Duplication of the single-track Hurstbridge line would ensure that more trains can run, with less delays and service interruptions. Committing to the long-awaited Doncaster line will move people from cars to trains and free up congestion.
The North East Link will eventually be used for access to massive trucks to move our freight. By getting rid of big trucks in our suburbs and moving more of the stuff we need by rail, we can ease congestion on the roads and improve air pollution at the same time.
What can we do?
We need to Rethink North East Link now. Tell our political decision makers that now is the time to stand with the community and protect our environment. Tell our political decision makers that now is the time to stand up to the car and toll lobby, and invest in public transport.
Please get started by signing the petition to Rethink North East Link: www.getonboard.org.au/rethink_nelink
Rachel Lynskey is the coordinator of FoE Melbourne's Sustainable Cities Campaign, [email protected]
Published in Chain Reaction #134, December 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction