AusLink dead, nation building on hold


Rudd Government refuses to support amendments to its Nation Building Program, possibly delaying funding for road projects

By Brad Gardner | June 2, 2009

The Rudd Government has refused to support Opposition amendments to its Nation Building Program, possibly delaying funding for road infrastructure projects.

The Nation Building Program Amendment Bill yesterday passed unchanged in the House of Representatives after the Government used its majority to send the Bill to the Senate.

The Bill aims to extend the Black Spot program’s coverage, while also renaming AusLink and altering funding grants under the Roads to Recovery scheme.

Labor must now gain the support of the Greens, Family First’s Steve Fielding and Independent Nick Xenophon to pass the Bill.

The Coalition wanted the Black Spot program limited to local roads, arguing the Government’s plans to extend it to the national road network would result in less upgrades in local areas.

"The Government is in effect stealing money from local streets, local roads and local projects to put on major projects on the national highway which will scoop up huge volumes of this money," opposition spokesman on transport Warren Truss says.

But Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese says extending the scheme is necessary to improve road safety, claiming local roads will not suffer because Black Spot funding has doubled.

"The leader of the Nationals knows that a number of dangerous black spots are indeed on the national network, particularly in areas where the national network goes through regional centres," Albanese says.

The Government has signed memorandums of understanding with state and territory jurisdictions to fund projects on national routes such as the Sturt, Hume, Bruce, Pacific and Newell highways, but needs the Bill passed to begin construction.

According to a list of road infrastructure projects released by the Government, new heavy vehicle rest areas and boom gates at high-risk level crossings are also in danger of being scrapped if the Senate does not pass the Bill.

While saying the Coalition will not oppose attempts to rename AusLink the Nation Building Program, Truss has accused the Government of trying to turn road funding initiatives into slush funds.

The Government wants to change the AusLink Strategic Regional Project to the Nation Building Program Off-Network Project, and Truss says the change will deliver 82 percent of funding to Labor electorates.

Labelling it "a major rort", Truss claims $532.9 million of the $655.2 million program will be invested in Labor-held seats.

"Of 39 projects on the list, 30 are in Labor seats and appear to be nothing more than meeting election commitments of local Labor candidates. Many other projects were in electorates Labor was targeting," Truss claims.

Albanese, however, blamed the Coalition for using the regional funding scheme to buy votes in marginal urban electorates Wentworth, Bennelong and Hasluck when it was in government.

"It was about not the road map but the electoral map," Albanese says.

If passed, the Bill will allow the Government to increase funding to local governments under the Roads to Recovery scheme.

"This flexibility is incredibly important, as currently no increases can be made during the funding period once the funding has been determined," Labor MP Amanda Rishworth says.

Under Roads to Recovery, local governments apply for a share of federal funding for road construction and maintenance projects.

The Black Spot program is designed to reduce accidents by funding upgrades to traffic signals and roundabouts on roads with a high crash rate.

The Bill has been sent to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, which will report on June 15.

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