Helen Haines says the Australian Rail Track Corporation must deliver good outcomes for Indi communities where the North East leg of the federal government’s $15.4 billion Better Rail project requires major infrastructure works.

The Independent Federal Member for Indi said the government-owned ARTC had not done enough to reassure residents of Wangaratta, Glenrowan, Benalla and Euroa that their communities will be heard as it finalises designs.

The works will allow taller and heavier double-stacked trains to run on the North East line, but Dr Haines said there were deep concerns across rail communities about the potential impact of the ARTC’s plans.

“The ARTC insists that it is constrained by lack of funds,” Dr Haines told Parliament today.

“But this excuse doesn’t add up.

“Better Rail was originally costed at $4.4 billion in 2010. In 2015 it was bumped up to $9.9 billion, and just two months ago the government announced the cost had blown out by another $5.5 billion.

“But as far as we know, not a cent of this was earmarked to do a proper job on the North East upgrades.

“When I asked Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Tuesday in Question Time how much of this increase will be spent in these towns to deliver outcomes that meet community expectations, he did not answer the question.

“The ARTC is also refusing to disclose their budget to complete each upgrade in Indi and insisting that good design outcomes for our communities are ‘out of budget’.

“People in Indi are entitled to ask why the government can find $5.5 billion for the ARTC, yet can’t find a few million to make sure the station and bridge upgrades in towns like Benalla, Euroa and Glenrowan are done properly.”

Dr Haines said two things were clear from her recent consultations with these communities.

“First, each town is anxious that the upgrades must deliver outcomes that create connectivity, allow small businesses to operate, are accessible and respect the heritage of their communities,” she said.

“Second, there is a very strong feeling that the ARTC has not been fully transparent and consultative.

“I’ve been told that questions are going unanswered, staff turnover is high, and decision-making is unclear.”

Dr Haines said the depth of feeling was apparent in Euroa in January when 80 people turned up to voice concerns to her about the proposed rebuild of the Anderson Street bridge.

“When the [Anderson Street] bridge was built in the 1960s, it created huge physical divide, splitting the town in two,” she said.

“House prices on one side have never recovered. Small businesses feel cut off from the rest of town. There is a real fear that a bigger, taller, more imposing bridge will further exacerbate this divide.

“In Benalla, too, people fear the government is repeating the mistakes of the past.

“In 1975, against the wishes of the community, the government demolished Benalla station’s historic tower, building the Mackellar Street overpass that cut the station off from the town.”

Dr Haines said ARTC should work to make sure such decisions were not repeated.

“In its ambitions to claim a nation-building project, the government should not trample on the aspirations of the local communities in everyday places like Wangaratta, Benalla, Euroa and Glenrowan” she said.

“I’m looking forward to the Deputy Prime Minister visiting these towns, as indeed he will in March. Then he’ll hear from the community itself about its concerns and ambitions, and I sincerely encourage him to listen and take action”

“I’m calling on the ARTC to do better in engaging with our communities. Tell us how much has been budgeted for each location Be upfront about your plans. Publish the results of community engagement so we all know what is being said.

“I’ve met with the ARTC and raised this directly with them, but now I feel it’s time to escalate these concerns as I’m doing here today in parliament.

“We are not unreasonable people. We know the ARTC cannot deliver everything that everyone wants.

“But what everyone rightly expects is transparency and a genuine commitment to delivering a good outcome for our towns.”

Hear my speech in Parliament [February 18, 2021]

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