Victoria’s Transport Policies Ruled By The Heart, Not The Head

Possibly the most economically irrational and counterproductive policy of this state election was offered by Labor this week.

You won’t be surprised to learn it was a transport policy. On Tuesday Daniel Andrews’ team proposed a freeze on the Napthine government’s expansion of the number of new taxi licences.

Over the last few years, the release of new licences has seen the market price of a taxi plate plummet. Now there are more taxis on Melbourne’s streets (a win for consumers) and the drivers themselves are more able to afford them (a win for drivers). The only losers are investors who speculated on taxi plates hoping the government would keep them artificially scarce.

Incredibly, Labor also wants to establish a compensation fund for licence holders. (And to think Labor used to be opposed to “rentiers”.)

The Napthine government was only doing what scores of economists have recommended over decades: break the taxi-licence cartel.

But, then, transport policy is ruled by the heart, not the head.

The taxi announcement got little press. It’s not what the parties want us thinking about. It’s just another micro-policy for a micro-constituency.

The Napthine government is pinning its transport vision on one great big project to rule them all: East West Link. Andrews is going with everything but East West Link: most distinctively removing 50 level crossings.

It is fundamentally absurd that the connection between the Eastern freeway and Citylink involves a one-lane crawl through a park, past a zoo, and over a tram crossing. If we can’t fix these sorts of problems Victoria is going to stagnate.

Labor figures giant infrastructure projects are a little abstract, whereas every voter can think of a level crossing between home and their kid’s creche they’d like removed.

But that sort of retail politics cleverness is undermined by Labor calling its transport plan Project 10,000 – after the 10,000 construction jobs it will create. This is weird. You’d hope infrastructure plans were more about what was being constructed than how many people will do the constructing. And the label doesn’t do much to dispel the impression that Labor is doing the bidding of a militant construction union.

There are a near infinite number of infrastructure projects governments could build. Figuring out which is the “best” project is a non-trivial problem. Market-based pricing systems like tolls would offer some guidance to policymakers but these mechanisms are politically unpopular.

The two parties have competing metro rail projects, and competing plans for new ports. On Friday they both committed to overhaul of the Frankston transport hub.

We’re at that end of the campaign.

The parties are honing in on just two or three marginal electorates.

So whose projects appeal most to you? With the exception of Labor’s surrender to taxi rent-seekers, there are few great matters of principle at stake here.

But this is transport. We’re used to that by now.