A school community in Melbourne's north-west has slammed Transurban and VicRoads for the proximity of a huge new elevated road, part of the $1.3 billion CityLink Tulla Widening project, that will be within metres of classrooms.
Parents, teachers and students of Strathmore Secondary College accused the road builders of sham consultations and said it starkly highlights how differently private and public schools affected by CityLink are consulted and compensated.
Campaigners from lobby group A Bridge Too Close said the school will suffer severe overshadowing and loss of amenity. They hold serious fears about the health and safety of teachers and students, and their ability to work in the noisy, polluted environment.
The widening project also includes a three-lane expansion of CityLink's Bell Street and Pascoe Vale Road interchanges. Modelling obtained by Fairfax Media last year showed vehicles on the exit ramp beside the school will increase 79 per cent between 2014
"If Strathmore Secondary was private property, the impact of the new bridge is such that it would be compulsorily acquired," school council president Anne Kershaw said.
Appeals to reconsider the design have been fruitless, and on January 22, Ms Kershaw withdrew the council from what she characterised as sham consultations.
Those who attended meetings said VicRoads staff admitted it would be possible to site the bridge away from the school, but this was ruled out for cost reasons.
"It's BS consultation," said school parent, civil engineer and anti-bridge campaigner Jim (who declined to give his surname). "They're just drawing out the process so they can say they are consulting us when they're really just dictating. The [road design] creates an artificial easement over land that basically the school won't be able to use."
Strathmore school councillor Darren O'Connor said the only "concrete concessions" made were for the colour for the road panelling and input on trees to be planted.
A spokesperson for the project admitted bridge discussions with the school occurred during the "detailed design phase" of the project - a phrase that describes the final stage design stage of engineering projects.
VicRoads acting project director Peter Holcombe-Henley said the design "was determined to be the best solution that balances the need for road safety while not requiring land from the school or intruding over its boundary. He cited 30 traffic incidents on the road the bridge would replace since 2000, "six of which resulted in serious injuries".
"Our priority is to make the journey over the freeway easier and safer for all road users," he said. "Modelling showed the noise and air quality will remain the same or improve."
The modelling published on the project's is based on continuous speeds of 60kms-100kms when the project is complete. It does not consider the impact of "traffic metering" (using red/green lights to regulate vehicles entering the toll road).
"[Noise and air pollution] is already there with the proximity of the freeway but they're now building a bridge closer and increasing the traffic in a stop-start way, it can only increase," says Peter Woodhams, Strathmore teacher and elected Australian Education Union official.
A spokesperson for Minister for Roads and Road Safety Luke Donnellan said: "VicRoads will continue to work with the Education Department and the school to minimise any impact on students and staff."
Critics compare the Strathmore negotiations with those conducted with private schools St Kevin's and Scotch colleges in 2006, when the south-east section of CityLink was created by widening the Monash Freeway.
A slice of land 2.8 metres wide and 400 metres long was required for the road section adjacent to the elite private schools. According to contemporary media reports, Transurban consulted extensively with the schools. As it would have encroached on playing fields at St Kevin's "and gone within metres of classrooms", the land was compulsorily acquired from Scotch.
Old boy and then Liberal Party state president Dr David Kemp headed a taskforce to ensure "adequate compensation" for land VicRoads offered to buy for $1.06 million after independent valuation. The school hired acoustic engineers, planners and other experts to prepare a Supreme Court action, and was eventually paid $5.4 million for the land and compensation.
"The land Scotch College lost was flood land and couldn't have been further from school buildings or classrooms," Ms Kershaw said.
The different advocacy for private versus public schools is stark, she said. "Its not been lost on us that the senior VicRoads and Transurban representatives we've had dealings with make it very public on their LinkedIn pages that they are alumni of Wesley and Melbourne Grammar respectively."
The Victorian Auditor-General released a report last August that criticised the widening project's lack of transparency.
"I found weak assurance about the deliverability of the proposals' benefits, inadequate assessment of the alternative funding options and inadequate engagement with stakeholders about the likely impacts," then auditor-general John Doyle said. "The private sector will contribute $850 million to CityLink Tulla and is expected to recover an equivalent toll revenue stream worth approximately $3.2 billion up to 2035."
Originally conceived as part of the Napthine government's proposed East West Link, the widening project was assessed as an unsolicited proposal by the Andrews government after its election in 2014, partly on a pledge to abandon the link. Some observers believed its approval was as much political expedience as good policy, with the new Labor government needing a shovel-ready project to appease the road lobby.
Further details of the ties between state parties and Transurban were revealed last Tuesday, when the Australian Electoral Commission updated its disclosure of political donations. Transurban was revealed as a serial donor to Liberal parties around the country, donating $17,940 in 2014-15. Victorian Liberals also disclosed $66,300 income from Transurban shares – a stake they retained despite doing major deals with the company in what critics say is a clear conflict of interest.
Professor Graham Currie, chairman of public transport at Monash University, said Australia's frequently poor planning outcomes are connected to the urban planning industry's political clout.
He was not opposed to unsolicited proposals: "I think they're a good idea because [private sector infrastructure developers] are quite clever at what they do.
"[But they] seem to be doing a lot of investing in political parties and I don't think that's a good thing," he said. "We get bad outcomes for the community."
By Gina McColl
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