One set of traffic lights costs $11 million!?

I learned something last week that has reinforced for me the need to completely rethink the way council plans for and delivers local infrastructure. In the annual council budget, I was very pleased to see that my advocacy has paid off with $4.4 million allocated to installing traffic lights at the intersection of Victoria St and Montague Rd. But we learned during the subsequent budget estimates session that the total estimated cost of upgrading this intersection is a whopping $11 million, and that this will be a two-year project with the rest of the money allocated in the following financial year. Even a budget of $4.4 million seemed surprisingly large just to install traffic lights, and the total projected cost of $11 million clearly raises a lot of issues.


Infrastructure Charges

I’ve written previously about why infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with rapid development. At the moment, council collects about $10 100 in infrastructure charges for 1 and 2 bedroom dwellings, and just over $14 100 for dwellings with 3+ bedrooms. So if a developer builds a large new apartment block with two hundred 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, council receives just over $2 million towards “Transport, community purposes and stormwater” infrastructure (that includes land for new parks, community facilities etc). These figures are capped by the State Government on a statewide basis, so even if a particular council wanted to increase infrastructure charges, current state government rules prohibit this.

A common criticism, which I still agree with to some extent, is that council collects money from developments in rapidly growing suburbs like West End or Woolloongabba, but then spends some of it in other parts of the city (mostly on road-widening projects).

But if you take the $5 million cost of installing lights at the Vulture St-Montague Rd intersection in 2018, plus the $11 million cost of the Victoria St-Montague Rd intersection, that’s the equivalent of infrastructure charges from more than 1580 new 1- and 2-bedroom apartments. Over the last few years, we’ve also had several million dollars spent in the Gabba Ward on park acquisitions and upgrades, new bikeways, new stormwater drainage infrastructure etc.


Nowhere in Brisbane is getting enough investment

So the problem is not necessarily that council is spending less on new local infrastructure than it is collecting via developer infrastructure charges. The problem is that infrastructure charges are not high enough to begin with. So the delivery of most new infrastructure to cater for new development is actually being paid for out of other sources - mostly general rates revenue and increasing public debt, but also grants and targeted funding programs from other levels of government, such as the federal government’s Black Spot Program.

This means that for me as an individual councillor, rather than squabbling with other councillors about how much investment their ward is getting vs how much investment my ward is getting, I’m focussing on how we can reduce produce costs and increase revenue across the whole city.


Reducing costs or rethinking projects?

What does it mean for our city when a single set of traffic lights can cost $11 million? How does spending on transport infrastructure compare to other possible projects in terms of value-for-money? For example, rather than upgrading a road to connect a residential neighbourhood to a commercial precinct with shops and services, could we put that money towards setting up some of those services closer to where people live? In inner-city areas where active and public transport is the priority, does the high cost of continuing to accommodate cars in the network justify the benefits?

I definitely think there are opportunities to reduce the cost of projects like the $11 million intersection upgrade at the Victoria St-Montague Rd intersection, but it involves tricky trade-offs. For example, if more of the construction work happens during the day rather than overnight, that would reduce labour costs, but mean more traffic disruption.

It would perhaps also be cheaper for council to deliver these projects in-house rather than outsourcing to private contractors who add in their own profit margins.

And perhaps most significantly, we could design these intersection upgrades for lower traffic speeds. The higher the speed limit is along a corridor, the wider the vehicle lanes are required to be. This means more expense is incurred in widening intersections to increase the lane width.

But the hard truth is that any kind of infrastructure project in a constrained inner-city environment is always going be particularly expensive. Whether it’s a park upgrade or new traffic lights or a new bike lane, finding space is harder (and thus more expensive) in denser neighbourhoods, and there are more flow-on impacts to other stakeholders.

So we might have to come to terms with the fact that any kind of significant road upgrade that’s focussed on maintaining traffic flow is going to be an inefficient use of money. There are many ways to design roads and intersections, and I’m increasingly leaning towards supporting simpler, slower transport corridors that feel more like shared zones or like the older narrower streets of European cities. Rather than pushing for complicated signalised intersections, should we be pushing for drastic reductions in the speed environment so that pedestrians can freely and safely cross a road wherever they want, safe in the knowledge that cars will slow down and give way to them?

Council will soon be releasing a draft concept design of the Victoria St intersection redesign. It will probably show an enlarged intersection where lanes have been added and the corridor has been widened so as to accommodate motor vehicle traffic flow. The $11 million price tag reflects the fact that council designers are trying to improve pedestrian safety without significantly reducing access and travel times for motorists. But maybe we need to rethink that approach.

When more and more residents are travelling via active and public transport, perhaps we should stop designing intersections to prioritise and accommodate cars. Perhaps we should be saying: "Sorry, we can't afford to widen this corridor to make room for you, so you'll just have to wait a bit longer while the pedestrians cross the road." This would mean cars might have to wait longer to turn into and out of Victoria St. It might mean that cars would have to give way to the bus when it's pulling in and out of the intersection. But it would encourage active and public transport in a neighbourhood where the road network simply can't handle more and more cars...