Extending free trams would double costs and lead to “busier service”

By David Schout

Extending Melbourne’s free tram zone to include the sports, arts and biomedical precincts would cause further congestion and leave the state government $15 million out of pocket, according to the Department of Transport.

At the public inquiry into expanding the zone established by the Andrews Government in 2015, the department’s now former head of transport services Jeroen Weimar said modelling indicated the move would increase patronage by around 13,700 a day.

And he said it could worsen periods of the day that were already “beyond capacity”.

“It would of course potentially lead to a busier tram service,” Mr Weimar said of extending the free zone, which currently covers the CBD and Docklands.

“We would generate new patronage. People who are currently either walking or cycling or taking alternative transport modes are now choosing to use a tram and displacing therefore people who are relying upon the normal tram service. I think that we will see an increase in congested and busy travel.”

Mr Weimar said extending the zone to include major destinations such as the MCG, Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne Zoo, and key institutions like the Alfred and Royal Children’s Hospitals, would also more than double the current cost.

“The revenue loss of the current free tram zone is around $10 million to $13 million a year,” he said.

“We estimate then that the extension of the free tram zone would take a further $15 million—14.8—out of the existing fare box.”

In June 2019, Transport Matters MP Rod Barton passed an upper house motion to consider extending the zone.

Over 15 key bodies presented at the inquiry in recent months.

Some of these planted themselves firmly in either camp, of either outspoken support or strong rebuke of expanding the zone.

The Public Transport Users Association not only disagreed with extending the zone, but with the zone’s existence altogether.

The group cited issues with overcrowding, a lack of benefits to paying public transport users, and a disincentive for “active” modes of transport (walking and cycling) in their arguments against the zone. 

Committee member Cameron Tampion said the cost of providing the free tram zone should be redirected.

“There is an urgent need to prioritise investment in under-serviced areas rather than making it free for those areas that already have fairly good public transport access,” he said.

But other key figures in the debate said costs of extending the zone were outweighed by long-term benefits.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp, presenting in a personal capacity rather than as a representative of the City of Melbourne, said there was a significant economic benefit of expanding the zone.

“Expanding the free tram zone can increase the options for travelling around our city at a time when we need to be encouraging people back into our city,” she said.

“Expanding the free tram zone connects more workers and students across our knowledge and healthcare economic precincts. It will encourage more visitors and tourists to our cultural and sporting attractions.”

Martine Letts, CEO for lobby group Committee for Melbourne, agreed and said it was essential the zone was expanded to include “five iconic stops”: Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, MCG, Melbourne Museum, and Melbourne and Olympic Parks.

“We believe that such an extension will significantly improve our city’s reputation as a national and international destination as well as its ability to attract and retain talent,” Ms Letts said.

“It would also benefit the visitor economy and have accessibility and participation benefits for Victorians and visitors alike.”

A report from the inquiry will be provided to the government later this year •

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