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Controversial East-West tunnel comes under fire from protest groups, residents and local businesses

With the Linking Melbourne Authority due to deliver its business case for the East-West Link at the end of the month, Wes Mountain reports on the controversial tunnel and the campaign by those in its path to oppose the development.

By Wes Mountain

It’s a cold, wintery night and the Protectors of Public Land are trying to catch teenage netballers to talk to them about geotechnical drilling and dotted lines. “Do you want to see where the holes are being drilled?” Julianne Bell, the group’s organiser, asks a gentleman who stops to talk. “We’ve got a map of the drill holes; all they’ve got is a dotted line.”

Elsewhere, the Linking Melbourne Authority is holding a public information night on the East-West Link in a second story corner of the State Hockey and Netball Centre. Over the squeak of runners on polished floorboards people stop to ask a room full of green-shirted attendants about potential paths, acquisitions and tolls.

Geoff Rayner, the Chief Operating Officer of the Linking Melbourne Authority, says that it’s the first part of a public consultation process, “for the first stage of the project”.

“This phase of the work is really just the start of our engagement with the community. It’s important to get out and talk with people and understand what they’re thinking. It allows us to take on board their concerns.”

Rayner says that he always expected opposition and, while there are people opposed to the project in the broad “spectrum of views”, there are equally people who support it strongly.

The project involves a planned tunnel from around Hoddle street through to the north-west side of Royal Park, exiting through the recreation area into Parkville (just a few hundred metres beyond the State Hockey and Netball Centre), before connecting with CityLink and eventually south toward port facilities. The development was plucked from Sir Rod Eddington’s 2008 state government report into transport infrastructure.

Interactive map showing the course of proposed tunnelling and geotechnical drilling locations

The cost of the eastern portion of the East-West Link is projected to cost between $6 to $8 billion, according to Linking Melbourne Authority estimates. Dennis Napthine’s State Government says that $1.5 billion of this needs to come from the federal government – the Coalition has promised to deliver it if they are voted in at the federal election in September.

The project was granted $294 million in the 2012/2013 State Budget. Despite still being in the planning process, Mr Rayner says that it is “a definite project; the state government has said it is going ahead.”

The cost of just the eastern portion of the project is almost double the projected $3 to $5 billion cost of the Doncaster Rail line, which is also currently being investigated by the State Government.

The East-West Link plans will swallow the centre median strip of the Easter Freeway, which negates the course of the Doncaster Rail project, but Mr Rayner says that he doesn’t think one necessarily needs to be at the cost of the other.

“We certainly don’t see them in competition,” he says, despite the conflict over the shared course of the projects. “We see them as delivering a service for an entirely different market. And we’ve worked closely with the Doncaster Rail Investigation team in the last year or so.”

Yarra Council – a major proponent of the Doncaster Rail line over the East-West Link – are coordinating the “Trains Not Toll Roads” campaign, putting together $300,000 towards fighting the tunnel’s development.

Addressing a well attended rally at Fitzroy Town Hall last Thursday, Yarra Mayor Jackie Fristacky said she thinks the $3 billion price-tag for Doncaster Rail has been inflated due to the road development being given priority by the State Government. She asserts that the $1.5 billion suggested by the Public Transport User’s Association is the real cost of building the line.

Keith Fitzgerald, a 69 year-old life-long Collingwood resident lives in the likely area of compulsory acquisitions for the project.

He says that he is happy to see the Council using rate payers’ money to fight the East-West Link. “It’s why we pay rates. It’s so we can continue to actually pay rates”.

Mr Fitzgerald has seen the effect that expansive road development and compulsory acquisitions can have on an area like Collingwood. He remembers people living behind his Bendigo Street property leaving when Hoddle Street was expanded in the seventies.

“Before the Eastern Freeway, Hoddle Street and Johnston Street were the heart of this community. Now you could fire a cannon up Johnston Street at midday and not hit a soul.”

It’s not just residents who will be affected. Local businesses are also likely to be impacted by acquisitions and the changing flow of traffic.

Peter Newen is the joint-owner of Allure Bathroom. His Collingwood showroom sits at 57-61 Alexandra Parade, just a couple of hundred metres from the Alexandra Parade exit of the Eastern Freeway.

He said that the first he had heard about the East-West Link potentially having an impact on his property was when he was contacted by The Citizen. “You probably know more about it than I do,” he said, but mentioned that he had received a general notice from a lawyer about a potential group action suit.

The large line which makes up the “indicative corridor” on the Linking Melbourne Authority’s map suggests the tunnel would start either around the showroom’s address or travel at a low level directly below it.

Newen later called the building’s owners and was told that they were already in contact with lawyers about any future compulsory acquisition orders.

For Mr Newen, this is just another hurdle for his business: it took over a year of planning permissions and disputes with local residents at Council to get the showroom open.

“We thought we’d put all of that stuff behind us, and now that we’ve been operating for 6-7 months I thought we could stop worrying about anything but customers for the next year or so,” he said. “So this could obviously put a pretty big spanner in the works.”

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Mr Rayner says that he has never worked on a project that didn’t involve some amount of compulsory acquisition, “even when there’s been a corridor there for forty of fifty years”.

He said the project is focusing on “the commitment to long tunnels in this area” and that this “is about minimising impacts from this facility on not just businesses and houses but also on park lands”.

Despite the fact that the East-West Link team has already held meetings with international engineering, finance and construction firms on June 6 to discuss public/private partnership, Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt is confident that the opposition to the road will prevail.

His office organised a community meeting at the North Melbourne Language and Learning Centre on Wednesday 9 June, urging people to make their views known to their state and federal representatives. He also called upon the gathered audience to vote with their feet by attending the various rallies opposing the road.

“The state government wants to give the appearance of doing things,” he told the crowd of just over 100 people. “But I maintain that this will not happen and that we will prevail in opposing the project. We’ve done it before and we will do it again.”  

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