Planning for change is inherently uncertain, but in the face of climate change, continued population growth, and the COVID-19 pandemic, planning decades ahead for state-wide infrastructure development is a formidable undertaking.
Infrastructure Victoria, the state’s independent infrastructure advisory body, has been tasked with this challenge since 2016. Making 94 recommendations to the Victorian Government across sectors such as transport, land use planning, health, water and energy, its latest report charts the evolution of Victoria’s infrastructure priorities until 2051, in the face of considerable uncertainty.
CEO Dr Jonathan Spear, who is due to address The Age Infrastructure Summit, says under these conditions, long term, strategic thinking is needed now more than ever when addressing infrastructure challenges.
“In addition to the uncertainties of the future, COVID-19 has highlighted how quickly situations can change and government priorities can shift,” Dr Spear said. “Since the first 30-year infrastructure strategy was released six years ago, we’ve seen record new infrastructure investment from the Victorian Government in transport, health, education, social housing and tourism. Firstly to support population growth; then in response to Victoria’s devastating bushfires and the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“However, our evidence shows that applying the principles of good infrastructure planning can steer government decision-making even in times of rapid, transformational change.” In fact, of the 137 strategy recommendations in the independent advisory body’s 2016 infrastructure strategy, over 90 percent are underway or completed.
An integrated approach
In planning ahead under these conditions, Infrastructure Victoria took an integrated, cross-sectoral approach to infrastructure development.
“Integrated infrastructure planning supports better decision-making, delivers better services and value for money for the taxpayer,” Dr. Spear said.
“We can’t think about the transformation of the energy sector, for example, without also factoring in the growing uptake of zero-emissions vehicles and its impacts on electricity infrastructure. Nor can we make decisions about transport infrastructure without understanding where the greatest demand will come from and its impacts on land use and service demand.”
Making better use of existing infrastructure
Additionally, the organisation looked at how to maximise the use of existing infrastructure assets, with more than half (56 percent) of the recommendations based on this premise. Maximising asset use can be achieved by managing demand, integrating land use and infrastructure planning, and moving beyond short-term cycles to ensure new infrastructure is built and ready, where and when it is needed, Dr. Spear said.
As one key example, the agency has recommended a rethink of how public transport fares are priced, including discounts for off-peak travel, and lower prices for buses – which are often underused compared with trains.
“Through a combination of policy development, legislative reform, and planning, we can extend demand across the system, improving services and reducing the need for new infrastructure.
“Our research shows that working from home will not fix road congestion – road traffic is already above pre-pandemic levels, but public transport usage is significantly down. By reducing off-peak transport fares there is a real opportunity to encourage people back to public transport and accommodate more people on existing networks once demand returns.
“Moreover, people that don’t need to commute during peak hours can enjoy a quieter and cheaper ride to work, while those that do, can have a more reliable service,” Dr. Spear said.
Evidence based recommendations
Thirdly, the strategy used strong evidence to support its recommendations for new infrastructure development, particularly major transport projects.
“For example, our initial findings show that reconfiguring the City Loop with two new rail tunnels has many potential benefits. It would provide additional capacity and services on several metro train lines, reduce overcrowding on the Seymour and Shepparton V/Line services and enable electrification of services to the growing north, towards Wallan,” Dr. Spear said.
The agency also recommended that government complete a detailed business case for the project over the next two years, including the determination of its timing.
“As Melbourne continues to grow, particularly in the west and north, we need ensure every new build delivers maximum benefit now and into the long term. By better connecting outer suburban growth areas and the regions to Melbourne, we can provide fairer access to jobs, transport and services for Victorians,” Dr. Spear concluded.
Hear more from Jonathan Spear about the strategies Infrastructure Victoria is using to advance state infrastructure priorities at The Age Infrastructure Summit, due to take place April 5, 2022.
This year’s event will be held virtually and in person at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre.
Learn more and register.