Freight task needs plans, not bans

The now-former State Government was committed to building the Perth Freight Link project, which was designed to alleviate significant congestion issues on a key Perth metropolitan freight route, and address poor access to Fremantle port and other strategic industrial areas.

The project had been nominated as a high priority project by Infrastructure Australia, and was also supported with significant investment from the Federal Government. Contracts had been signed, and construction work was under way.

It was, however, not without controversy – the project attracted trenchant opposition from some local residents and environmental activists. The campaign waged by these groups succeeded in persuading the then–State Opposition to oppose the project. Thus, with the change of government in WA, it will not be proceeding.

If you were thinking this sounds familiar, you’d be correct.

In late 2014, the incumbent Victorian Government had committed to building Melbourne’s East-West Link, to alleviate significant congestion in the passenger and freight traffic network. As in the case of the Perth Freight Link, contracts had been signed and the Federal Government had made a significant financial commitment to the project.

Yet, consistent opposition from activist groups and local residents persuaded the then-Opposition that the better electoral bet was to oppose the project. They did so and, upon winning office, immediately abandoned the project, despite the fact that to this day Infrastructure Australia designates it as a high-priority initiative.

Now, we are seeing significant protests around Sydney’s much-needed WestConnex project, with the NSW Government recently forced to abandon one option for a tunnelling site, and opposition to the new preferred option appears to be building.

Any observer could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the prospect for major road infrastructure projects in our cities.

The National Transport Commission anticipates that our national freight task will increase by 26 per cent over the next decade. With road networks in most major cities already groaning under capacity constraints, it will be difficult to accommodate such growth if decision-makers start to wilt at the first sign of political pressure.

Put simply, the protests against each of these major road projects have their genesis in poor planning. The failure to properly preserve freight corridors in past decades has helped to fuel unrealistic community expectations today.

All of us want safer roads and more efficient roads, whether we drive cars or trucks. But we can only achieve these things if we learn from the mistakes of the past by developing and implementing a National Corridor Protection Strategy, as Infrastructure Australia has recommended.

Governments of all political persuasions – and in all jurisdictions – must do more to protect existing and future freight corridors from urban encroachment. Merely slapping truck bans on particular routes is a short-term tactic, not a strategy.

This will be a core challenge in the development of a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, which is now being undertaken by the Federal Government following the Australian Logistics Council’s successful campaign to highlight its economic importance.

In the meantime, the task for our industry is to better explain how integral we are not only to national economic activity, but also to the day-to-day lives of all Australians. By engaging positively with local communities, we must persuade them that we are not intruders, but enablers.

After all, online shopping is only convenient if consumers are ultimately able to have their goods delivered. Supermarket shelves can only be stocked if there are products with which to stock them.

To that end, it’s time for all of us to become more visible and more vocal about the central role we play in making those things happen.

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