The human toll of being the “Freight State”

By Sean Car

When the news broke that a truck had mounted a curb collecting a traffic light and five pedestrians in the process in Southbank last month, the entire community immediately knew which intersection was being referenced.

For many years, the community has raised the life-threatening safety issues of the now ill-fated City Rd and Power St intersection with both levels of government and anyone who’ll listen, only for those calls for change to continuously fall on deaf ears.

And lo and behold, it’s taken a tragedy – one which nearly cost two lives – for decision makers to finally pay attention to the issue. It should never have come to this.

But while the state government worked with the City of Melbourne to implement some short-term safety upgrades at the intersection shortly after, those too were scuttled by a truck within 24 hours as a concrete bollard was sent crashing into a newly erected sign smashing the front window of Southbank Grand (pictured).

So, where to next?

Despite the best hopes and the very reasonable wishes of local residents to remove trucks from the pedestrianised streets of Southbank and send them through the Domain Tunnel, that will never happen, according to the Department of Transport and Citylink operator Transurban.

Trucks that are more than 4.65 metres and higher, as well as placard loads such as fuel tankers, cannot pass through any Victorian tunnels under the Road Transport (Dangerous Goods) Act 1995.

Livestock vehicles are also unable to use CityLink tunnels due to both the physical constraints of the tunnel and for animal welfare reasons.

Irrespective of May’s events, a spokesperson for Transurban told Southbank News that it wasn’t feasible to modify the tunnel to accommodate over-height vehicles, which could damage the inside of the tunnel and cause an extremely dangerous situation.

“Thousands of trucks a day use the CityLink tunnels to help move important goods around the state,” a Transurban spokesperson told Southbank News.

“To keep everyone safe, a small number of trucks cannot access tunnels as there are strict national safety regulations that prevent trucks carrying dangerous goods or over the allowed height limit from entering any tunnel.”

The Department of Transport, when asked by Southbank News last month, reiterated this and said it had no plans to allow placard loads access to the tunnel in the future. So, option A, is ruled out.

The next issue is the intersection itself, which is currently made up of two right turning lanes into Power St (citybound), a through lane and a slender left turning lane which takes vehicles to the freeway.

This is the turn in which the incident on May 6 unfolded. And for truck drivers, road users and locals who know the corner, it’s easy to see how it happened.

With developer Central Equity’s Southbank Grand tower façade built within metres of the corner, it provides pedestrians using the footpath virtually no room to move. Combine that with a turning lane regularly used by the some of the largest trucks on our roads and their huge turning circles and you have a recipe for disaster.

Minister for Roads and Road Safety Ben Carroll said the government was developing a “long-term and permanent solution”, as traffic engineers and safety experts will no doubt be looking at somehow reconfiguring the intersection.

Next, there is the issue of the footpaths themselves – a City of Melbourne responsibility.

Prepared in partnership with VicRoads as the authority responsible for the City Rd carriageway, the long-awaited, and now long-delayed, City Road Master Plan should have been the council’s leverage stick with the state government to improve safety a long time ago.

While the council holds limited power on what’s a state-managed road, a core principle of the master plan sought to better serve the many pedestrians calling Southbank home through simple measures such as footpath widening.

It may not be the ultimate authority on City Rd, but the council’s voice holds a lot of weight. And one would imagine, had there been more conviction to progress the City Road Master Plan when it was first endorsed in 2016, safety issues could have been more rigorously discussed around the table.

But irrespective of the master plan, ratepaying locals have been lobbying the council to lobby the government on this issue for some time. So, to what extent has the council, through leaders past and present, formally addressed the matter with the government during the same time since the master plan was endorsed?

When asked by Southbank News, the council’s current CEO Justin Hanney didn’t specify, but said it was in “regular and ongoing conversations with the Department of Transport … to help make this a safer intersection for locals, workers and visitors.”

“The Lord Mayor has spoken to Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Ben Carroll, and the Member for Albert Park, Martin Foley, about this intersection and has been assured that the Victorian Government is urgently working on a permanent solution.”

“The Department of Transport has committed to a redesign of the intersection and the City of Melbourne will work closely with them on this design solution.”

But more broadly speaking, how, through years of planning, has a rapidly developing and gentrified suburb like Southbank found itself in a situation where it is being forced to accommodate the trucks, rather than the other way around?

Transport planning expert from the University of Melbourne Dr John Stone points to Victoria’s self-promotion as the “Freight State” as central to this power imbalance, arguing that the trucking industry had always got what it wanted.

And nowhere was there a starker example of this imbalance, according to Dr Stone, than the Victoria - The Freight State report, commissioned by the former Denis Napthine Liberal government in 2013 – the 2050 “freight vision for Victoria”.

“Victoria - The Freight State really says moving vehicles through our cities and towns is something that is seen as vital to the economy and that every support will be given to the freight industry,” Dr Stone said.

“People would be alarmed to see the scale of the expected growth in freight. It’s very well entrenched in government planning and government economic thinking.”

According to Dr Stone, the ultimate questions were – how much freight should we have? How much freight can we move safely around the city? How do we minimise it? And how much of it can be transferred to rail?

Unlike many countries overseas, which were increasingly transporting more freight via rail, Dr Stone said government policy in places such as Victoria still placed too much emphasis on trucks and roads.

While floating other measures for City Rd, such as possible curfews and limiting the size of vehicles permitted to move through Southbank, he said that until a major policy shift occurred, residents of Southbank would continue to be adversely impacted.

“We build the Melbourne Metro, and we build the North East Link and the West Gast Tunnel. We constantly invest in both options rather than saying we actually have a duty to climate, duty to safety of the population to be moving to rail much, much quicker,” he said.

“Basically, the government and Transurban are sort of washing their hands of the problem and saying Southbank people just have to cope. The risks to people in Southbank should be higher on the government’s priority.”

“So, in the short term it should be limiting the size and nature of the trucks moving through there while you come up with alternative routes, or the alternatives to the way you manage freight.”

“Something has to give and it’s really up to the freight industry to say how it’s going to manage itself against the lives of pedestrians in Southbank.” •

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