By JOHN DOOLEY
IN what didn’t come as a great surprise to many, the State Government revealed this week that the Murray Basin Rail Project (MSRP) had run out of money, and effectively stalled.
Allegations had been rife for months before and after the State election that the project was in danger of derailing, and that completion was a long way down the track.
A shocked and dissapointed Member for Mildura Ali Cupper said that completion of the project is not a matter of if or when, but that it simply has to be done. She said that it was a core promise she intends holding the Government to.
“There is only one option here, and that is to find the money and complete it,” Ms Cupper said. “The Victorian Government will have a massive fight on their hands if they fail to complete this project or drag their feet on it.
“The prospect of leaving the project up-in-the-air and it dragging on until the next election can’t happen either.
“Our community wants a clear timeline for the completion and confirmation of the funding within the next six months − we want to know exactly when this is going to be done.
“It may mean all of the different Mayors from the municipalities within the scope of the Murray Basin Rail Project will need to work together as a strong lobby group to put maximum pressure on this government to do the right thing.”
Ms Cupper said that she raised concern with the Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan, in a meeting with her when she was first elected, where she was given an undertaking that concerns about the project were just rumours.
“The Andrews Government claims to do be a Government that does what it says it will do,” she said. “Therefore it’s my expectation that they will do whatever is necessary to ensure that this project gets back-on-track − that was their promise.
“It’s not okay under any circumstances for my electorate to be short-changed, and it’s critical that this project be completed.
“If they’re short of money because the scoping of the job hasn’t met the reality, because on these sorts of projects it can be difficult to foresee every obstacle, the Victorian Budget is very healthy and in surplus, and so the Government should find the money to fill the shortfall.
“There is no excuse for not completing the Murray Basin Rail Project. It’s not just in the interests of my electorate, it’s in the interests of the entire State.”
Ms Cupper added that the project was also a collaboration between the State and Federal Governments.
“Maybe this means that we need to be able to bring our Federal counterpart to the table as well and quantify what the budget re-adjustment has to be, divide the responsibility, and get the job done,” she said.
In a joint statement released from office of the Leader of the Opposition Peter Walsh and David Davis MP, the project was deemed to have been “thrown into chaos with revelations that the Andrews Labor Government has blown the budget and stalled the project.”
According to Mr Walsh, the Transport Minister had struggled to give clear and detailed answers this week when she appeared at Parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee.
“The Minister failed to explain why the Andrews Government has denied for more than 12 months that the project has derailed, only to be exposed in media reports today confirming the entire $440million budget has been exhausted and works for Stage 3 and beyond are indefinitely on hold,” Mr Walsh said.
“Ms Allan has had responsibility for the Basin Rail Project since December 2014, and previously spruiked to Parliament that, ‘It had taken a Labor government to deliver the Murray Basin Rail Project, it has taken a Labor government to complete the business case’.”
Mr Walsh said that the Andrews Labor Government has turned a transformational, once-in-a-generation rural infrastructure project into a wasteful mess of cost blow-outs, missed deadlines and appalling contract management.
“Under Jacinta Allan’s watch, there’s been a $100million blowout on the Mildura line stage; the Maryborough-Ararat works have been hampered by the use of second-hand rail line, broken welds and slow speeds; and now Stage 3 is indefinitely on hold because the Andrews Government claims it’s run out of money,” he said.
“Daniel Andrews and Jacinta Allan… have been able to find billions for cost blow-outs on level-crossing removals in Melbourne – but they treat Regional Victorians like second class citizens,” he said.
Rail Freight Alliance chair, Cr Glenn Milne, said that the group had known for some time that there were problems with the project.
“When Andrew Broad was still in Parliament he had expressed his concerns about the project’s viability, and now with this week’s revelations, once again, regional Victoria’s interest are being hung out to dry because of the priorities the Andrews Government have with building infrastructure in Melbourne,” he said. “After a comprehensive study, two business plans and the sale of Rural Finance Corporation to fund part of the project, this is what we are left with.
“Poorly scoped, mismanaged and poorly constructed, what promised so much for Victoria is now a complete mess.”
Cr Milne said what we have is a half-done project, leaving freight paths compromised and the work that has been done to date has left the track in a worse state than before.
“This project was to be a game-changer and bring prosperity to the regions.”
Cr Milne said that feeder-lines from Sea Lake and Manangatang to the main-line to Maryborough which were scheduled to be upgraded ahead of harvest, are now at a standstill.
“When a commitment is made to do something like this, they need to follow it through and finish it,” he said. “They did standardise the Murrayville line, but the trains are still travelling at 25km/h and it should be 80km/h and it’s not up to standard.
“You want a modern system, and the fact that you have to detour from Maryborough across to Ararat, adding almost three hours to the trip to Melbourne and they have ‘flag marshals’ slowing the traffic down on the crossings, is unacceptable.
“This was a project that promised so much, but really hasn’t delivered for the State, and the bottom line is that we want a commitment to actually see the project finished.”
The Mildura Weekly contacted Minister Allan’s office for comment, but did not recieve one prior to our print deadline.