WORK will begin on the east-west tunnel before the next election, Planning Minister Matthew Guy has insisted, even though the multibillion-dollar project has no federal funding.
Mr Guy made the pledge in front of some of Australia's leading developers at a corporate lunch earlier this month. At the lunch, hosted by the Urban Development Institute of Australia, Mr Guy said the toll road - the Baillieu government's top transport project - would keep Melbourne's traffic flowing as its population grew to 6 million.
"The government will begin the east-west link in this term of office and we will begin it in the knowledge that it will create, included with Hoddle Street, a ring around the CBD area that is needed," Mr Guy said.
"We can't be a city of 6 million people in the future and have CityLink collapse and lead to the traffic chaos that gripped our city just a few weeks ago. There needs to be alternatives."
The government is yet to secure any of the federal funding it says it needs to build the road, which has been estimated to cost $10 billion. It is due in March to complete its business case for the 18-kilometre link, which would connect the Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road via CityLink. It favours building the eastern section first in the expectation it would carry 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles a day.
Mr Guy said the east-west link would improve Melbourne's traffic flow - particularly for freight - as effectively as CityLink did when it opened in the 1990s.
But Luke Donnellan, Labor's roads spokesman, said the people of Melbourne's eastern suburbs were being sold a "myth" that the road would do away with traffic jams on the Eastern Freeway. "It won't deal with the congestion problem at the end of the Eastern Freeway because of the large amount of traffic heading into the city," Mr Donnellan said.
Sir Rod Eddington's 2008 transport plan found that 60 per cent of traffic that left the Eastern Freeway turned south into the city rather than continuing west.
Mr Donnellan said the uncertainty in predicting traffic volumes on the planned toll road would make its would-be financial backers wary.
The same view was recently expressed by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, which has financed a number of Australian toll road projects where traffic volumes have fallen well short of forecasts.
But Infrastructure Partnerships Australia said there was still a strong appetite for good transport projects among private investors, particularly from overseas.
Chief executive Brendan Ryan said bidding for the project would be highly competitive once the government put it out to tender.
But he conceded recent poor returns from toll road projects in Australia had led investors to lower their expectations about their profitability.