The Victorian government’s decision to ask the federal government for a four-year delay to the construction of its airport rail link has triggered surprise and frustration among Labor frontbenchers, and advocates for Melbourne’s booming western suburbs fear the move could throw related transport projects into disarray.
Five senior state and federal government sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential budget plans, confirmed the request for the delay of $4 billion of funding for the Melbourne Airport Rail project was made by the Victorian government in a letter that also flagged the state’s intention to abandon plans for fast rail to Geelong.
The Victorian government has already spent $1 billion on early construction work for the project, which is linked to the completion of new train stations at Keilor East and the redevelopment of Sunshine Station.
The state government has also said it needs to finish the Geelong line work before it can deliver on its promise to extend electric Metro train services to Melton and Wyndham Vale, suburbs struggling with rapid population growth and poor transport links.
Barbara McLure, the chief executive of the Committee for Wyndham, questioned whether she would live long enough to see the Melbourne Airport Rail after advocating for the project for about two decades.
“While I’m not surprised, I’m very disappointed because the west will miss out once again,” she said.
Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan confirmed this week that the $13 billion airport rail link would not meet its current 2029 opening date, with a revised timeline to be confirmed in the upcoming state and federal budgets.
Premier Daniel Andrews has for weeks been foreshadowing cuts in next month’s state budget to rein in the state’s ballooning debt, which is tipped to reach $165 billion by 2025-26, and deal with a multibillion-dollar hit to the budget owing to rising interest rates.
But three senior Labor MPs, commenting anonymously because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said they were shocked and frustrated by news that the two major projects would be delayed and said they had not been briefed on the changes to the infrastructure pipeline.
One state minister told The Age they were expecting projects that would have their funding lapse this year to not be funded further unless they were deemed critical or were an election commitment. Another minister said they were expecting some local road projects to be halted.
Andrews blamed the federal government and Melbourne Airport for the delays at a cabinet meeting earlier this week, according to two ministers.
The state government did not provide an on-the-record response by deadline.
The federal government wrote to all state and territory governments asking them to identify projects that had received federal funding to determine whether any could be reviewed or delayed as the Commonwealth prepared to confront its own debt bill that has reached a record high of more than $911 billion.
Sources close to the negotiation say the federal government was focused on projects that were not already under construction, but that the Andrews government ignored the directive and put forward the airport rail project despite the almost $1 billion spent on construction.
“This is 100 per cent the state’s initiative,” one Canberra source said, expressing frustration about Victoria’s reluctance to publicly make clear which government had initiated the delay.
“You’d be relatively confident an airport rail link would be a more meritorious project than perhaps some other projects in the state.”
John Hearsch, from Rail Futures Institute, a transport advocacy and research group, said the airport delay presented the opportunity to bring forward the Melton electrification, which would also free up capacity for more V/Line trains from Wyndham Vale and ease overcrowding on Geelong trains.
A month before his landslide 2018 state election victory, Andrews pledged to bring electric Metro trains to Melton and Wyndham Vale and flagged possible new stations as part of a Western Rail Plan.
But last October, Andrews said work on those upgrades could not start until the Geelong Fast Rail was finished, which would not happen until 2028.
When the federal Coalition last year announced it would not fund the Andrews government’s orbital Suburban Rail Loop after an independent analysis found the first two stages were expected to cost $125 billion – more than double Labor’s initial estimate for the project – Andrews warned it would cost more to mothball the project than press on.
“One sure way to make sure that the Suburban Rail Loop will cost more is to scrap it, delay it, shelve it,” Andrews said last year. “And you have to do road and rail.”
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