After seven weeks of hearings, more than 850 public submissions and thousands of pages of arguments from lawyers, the independent planning panel examining the government’s North Eastlink Toll Road Project has retired to prepare its report on the project’s future.
The final hearing day on Monday was devoted to lawyers for the project rebutting evidence provided during the hearings from councils, businesses, community groups and the public.
A total of eleven hearing days were exclusively allocated to the Project’s lawyers who have argued that the proposed reference design and environmental management plans provide the best option for the construction of the taxpayer funded toll road.
The project’s managers who are part of the revamped Department of Transport, were represented by a large legal team led by Barrister Stuart Morris QC. Mr Morris’ summed up the government’s case admitting that the environmental impacts are significant, however, he asserted that the widespread criticism was not justified and unwarranted.
He also argued that there is an urgent rush to deliver the North Eastlink Toll Road in order to meet the needs of Melbourne’s rapid growth and to help a national economy that is “flat-lining.”
Despite receiving less than a two-paragraph mention in the project’s economic report, Mr Morris told the hearing that the razing of the Bulleen Industrial Park with the loss of around 800 jobs was necessary.
Those community and business representatives who previously appeared, highlighting the similarity of the Bulleen job losses to the closure of automotive factories were accusedof “overstating” the impact.
The conflict between the Project managers and the four affected local councils continued with Mr Morris delivering a veiled threat in relation to legal options where land in and around Bulleen Park could be acquired with only limited compensation be available to Councils. The adversarial position also extended to the loss of open space with Mr Morris dismissing concerns over the loss of parts of Koonung Creek and Bulleen Park stating that “although the open spaces will be smaller, they will be better quality than what they are now.”
The Project managers also held firm that the Freeway Gold Course should be reduced to 9 holes and that they have done everything possible in relation to relocation of sporting clubs. Mr Morris reinforced the Project’s position that it should not have to pay compensation when it has provided alternative land.
Expert evidence in relation to ground water and impacts and the lack of historical data, including concerns over Bolin Bolin Billabong, was also dismissed. The Panel was told to disregard concerns given that the Project was confident it could manage the water levels by “pumping” and that what was described as the ‘canal-isation’ of some parts of waterways was deemed acceptable by Melbourne Water.
Air quality was briefly mentioned with Mr Morris openly rejecting advocacies to ensure that the design of the ventilation systems include the ability to add-on filtration units should the air quality be less than the levels estimated in the EES documents. Mr Morris stated that the cost of such a measure was impractical and unacceptable.
Through its lawyers, the Project systematically rejected almost every issue and alternative idea raised during the EES process claiming that the reference design and the proposed management plans represent the best outcome for the state.
However, no mention was made of aspects such as important feeder roads such as Bulleen Road south of the Eastern freeway which would require the project boundary to be amended.
The Project’s rebuttal devoted considerable attention those submissions that called for a longer tunnel which would reduce the overall footprint and eliminate the highly invasive ‘cut and cover’ trenching method.
The Project’s lawyers claimed that the additional cost and additional construction time is unacceptable. The lawyers also claimed that “the Councils failed to express the benefits” (of extended tunnel options). In concluding, Mr Morris argued that the Panel’s Terms of reference precludes prescribing design outcomes within the declared works. He also told the panel that they are required to limit their consideration of changes to the Reference Design which is the subject of the EES.
He stated that the Panel members should also reject the calls for a comparison of tunnel costs claiming that the Project managers had already sought the opinion of a Quantity Surveyor.
Mr Morris also refuted the impacts of the cut and cover trench, saying that areas such as Watsonia are already a ‘road environment’ and the trench makes no substantial change to the urban road environment.
The lawyers concluded their rebuttal by rejecting the calls for the project’s Environmental Performance Requirements (EPRs) to be more specific. Mr Morris stated that the EPRS will inform the Environmental Management Framework and will cascade into the “25 or so” contractor management plans.
While most submissions across the seven weeks of hearings have been met with applause, the lawyer’s closing arguments were met with a cold silence from the 50 or members of the public sitting in the audience.
Without the austere formality that opened the hearings, the Panel Chairperson closed the hearings stating that the panel members will assess the evidence provided within the strict terms of reference which was specified by the government and present their report to the Minister for Planning within 30 business days.