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Established ahead of the 2019 election, the fund pledged to upgrade commuter car parks. Forty-three of its 46 projects were in key Liberal marginal seats. By Karen Middleton.

$500m fund was directed to key Liberals

A half-billion-dollar fund, set up ahead of last year’s federal election, has drawn ire from key state governments who say they were not consulted about the projects, some of which cannot be built as promised. Of the 46 projects funded in the past year across four states, all but three are in Liberal-held marginal seats.

The projects are part of the Urban Congestion Fund, now worth $4 billion, set up two years ago primarily to fund roads but expanded last year to include railway car parks.

Within that, the government established a $500 million Commuter Car Park Fund in last year’s April federal budget specifically to finance suburban commuter road-to-rail development.

Victoria received the bulk of the funds, with 30 projects announced in Melbourne.

Several stations were funded in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Victorian seat of Kooyong – where he faced an electoral challenge from the Greens and a high-profile independent – and in Tim Wilson’s seat of Goldstein, including the station at Brighton Beach in the state’s high-income south-eastern suburbs.

The Victorian government says it was not consulted prior to the projects being announced.

It has complained that the state’s areas of highest population growth – the low-income western suburbs, serviced by 40 train stations – received no funding.

The federal Infrastructure Department confirmed there are no public guidelines or eligibility criteria for selecting the car park projects.

“Project selection reflects decisions of government, as is the case for the vast majority of infrastructure projects,” it said in a statement. “The government took approximately two-thirds of these projects to the election as election commitments. The government has not published guidelines or eligibility criteria as selected projects are decisions of cabinet.”

Elsewhere in the country, 11 projects were approved in Sydney, four in greater Brisbane and one at Mandurah, south of Perth.

Seven of the car park upgrades in Melbourne and Brisbane were announced two months before the $500 million fund to finance car park expansion projects nationwide was created.

Three of those are in Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar’s marginal Melbourne seat of Deakin – at Mitcham, Croydon and Ringwood stations. These projects are also among at least half a dozen announced by Liberal MPs and candidates ahead of the election that engineers now say may not be able to be built in the form they have been promised.

Engineering advice to the Victorian government has raised questions about the viability of six Melbourne car park projects due to land availability or logistics complications.

The Saturday Paper has been told that no state rail land is available to build extra car parking at Ringwood, Mitcham or Croydon.

While multilevel car parks are possible on the existing sites at Mitcham and Croydon – likely putting existing parking out of action while they are constructed – at Ringwood, the state government has been advised there is no room for a multideck.

When announcing the Victorian package during the election campaign, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said some of the car parks would have extra layers above or possibly below ground.

Going below ground would likely increase the cost.

At Ferntree Gully, which was expanded by 200 spaces just three years ago, advice is that the only land available would require significant tree removal. The state government has been advised that local planning issues would make a multideck car park challenging.

There is no rail land available at another approved Melbourne location – Bentleigh – and both there and at Hampton station, multideck is either not suitable or not preferred due to other future development potential.

Michael Sukkar announced $45 million in funding for the Ringwood, Mitcham and Croydon projects in his electorate on February 12 last year.

He declared in a Facebook post that work had “commenced” on the three car parks, which he said were “fully funded” at a cost of $15 million each.

Two days later, he made a speech in parliament about the projects, indicating he had announced them locally in late January.

“I was very pleased when Alan Tudge joined me at Croydon station just a couple of weeks ago to announce that we would be funding multilevel car parks at Croydon, Ringwood and Mitcham stations,” Sukkar told parliament.

“… This is fully funded – these are not election commitments; these are fully funded, and work has already commenced on them.”

This week, a government spokesman clarified that planning had commenced on the projects in Sukkar’s electorate, not necessarily work. State officials confirmed there was no evidence work had begun.

In early 2019, Tudge – the minister with carriage of the car park funding program – also announced the $15 million commuter car park development at Ferntree Gully station in his own Victorian seat of Aston. The other now-problematic car parks in Bentleigh and Hampton were announced early in the year, too.

On a visit to Brisbane on January 29, 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced projects at two stations, Ferny Grove and Mango Hill, valued at $15 million combined.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and backbencher Luke Howarth, whose respective marginal electorates are serviced by the stations, spruiked the announcements on their Facebook pages.

A spokesperson for Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey indicated that the state government had no prior knowledge of these plans. He said: “If the Morrison government did any consultation or analysis on the suitability of these sites prior to its announcements, it did not involve the Queensland government.

“These were campaign announcements designed to extract maximum political value and coverage, so, understandably, we had no warning of them.”

The Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities has told The Saturday Paper that funding for projects financed so far through the Commuter Car Park Fund was not approved until after the April 2 budget.

A spokesman for Tudge said projects announced before the budget had not been financed through the car park fund, but separately and in advance, from the existing Urban Congestion Fund.

“The Urban Congestion Fund was first announced in the 2018-19 budget with an initial allocation of $1 billion,” the spokesman said. “Through this, funding was allocated to projects including Ferny Grove, Mango Hill, Croydon, Ringwood, Mitcham and Ferntree Gully. The Australian government has been working closely and constructively with state governments across the country to deliver essential urban road and commuter car park projects that will bust congestion, strip thousands of cars off the roads and get people home sooner and safer.”

None of those projects are named in the April budget papers but the Melbourne projects total $68 million – an amount that was specified as being allocated from the wider fund to Victoria.

It is not clear how the early Bentleigh and Hampton projects were funded. The Western Australian project, in Mandurah, was also allocated $16 million separate from the Commuter Car Park Fund.

Four other New South Wales projects, worth $50 million, are being financed from funding announced in the 2018-19 federal budget.

Those projects are in Gosford and Woy Woy on the NSW central coast, which are in Lucy Wicks’ marginal Liberal-held seat of Robertson, and Panania and Hurstville in Immigration Minister David Coleman’s marginal Sydney seat of Banks.

Even excluding all of these, though, the car park fund appears to be approaching its limit.

Other projects on the published approved list, announced during the election campaign and since, and not financed through the wider congestion fund, total $476 million.

The list does not include a commuter car park upgrade at Melbourne’s Officer station in the seat of La Trobe, which Liberal incumbent Jason Wood promised during the election campaign, and which has not yet been approved.

The federal opposition has referred the Urban Congestion Fund to the Australian National Audit Office and asked it to investigate.

In answers to questions on notice during senate estimates committee hearings last year, the Infrastructure Department advised that the first six Melbourne car parks were selected “on the basis of advice from councils”.

The department had also provided advice on “congestion challenges and priorities” but not on design and construction. It did not rule out having to charge commuters for parking – currently free in state-run commuter car parks in Victoria – saying the “introduction of parking fees, if any, may be investigated as part of the planning process”.

Several Liberal MPs promised the car parks they were announcing would be free of charge.

The department said details such as cost, scope and delivery of the projects would be determined in consultation with the state government.

 

It is not clear what, if any, assessments were done on the projects’ economic, environmental and social costs and benefits prior to their approval, which the legislation says the minister may – but not must – consider.

Some local councils appear to have been at least notified ahead of the announcements and some mayors were invited to participate.

The Saturday Paper understands that the only car park funded in WA was a project the state government already had under way and for which it had previously sought federal funding.

That project is in Liberal MP Andrew Hastie’s marginal seat of Canning but is represented by a Labor member at the state level.

The NSW Coalition government declined to say whether it was consulted ahead of the car park approvals.

Several of the federal NSW car park projects are piggybacking on announcements the NSW government had already made.

“Decisions regarding what commuter car parks the Australian government committed to as part of the 2019 federal election are matters for the Australian government and were determined by the Australian government,” a spokesperson for NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told The Saturday Paper.

“The NSW government’s commuter car parks program, announced at the 2019 state election, reflect the NSW government’s priorities with regards to commuter parking.”

The NSW government enjoyed “a strong working relationship with the Australian government” on infrastructure.

The Queensland government is negotiating with its federal counterpart about the funding rollout for the Brisbane sites and seeking to manage constituents’ expectations about what is possible.

The spokesperson for Mark Bailey acknowledged the projects were in high-growth areas that needed infrastructure.

“More parking is needed for commuters, so we certainly welcome the federal government’s contribution,” the spokesperson said.

“However, for some of the sites selected by the federal government, land still needs to be acquired, detailed design needs to be done or a business case to determine the actual cost of the upgrade still needs to happen. In other cases, we were at the end of that process when the federal funding announcements were made, so we’ve had to go back to the drawing board, to change the design to accommodate the extra funding.”

The Queensland spokesman said those were necessary steps before any federal funding was actually made available.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "$500m fund was directed to key Liberals".

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Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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