1 November 2019
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Summary of document
Melbourne’s transport challenge, as it grows from a city of 4.5 million to almost 8 million by 2051, requires a road network to cater for around 10 million more trips per day – an increase of more than 80%. The North East Link (the project) is one response to that challenge. Infrastructure Victoria identified the North East Link as a high priority project for improved accessibility through a congested road network. The project will provide a vital orbital road connection between the M80 Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway and the northern end of EastLink. That connectivity will enhance access to major employment centres, reduce travel times, improve the capacity and reliability of the freight network and connect metropolitan activity centres.
Having studied the proponent’s environmental effects statement (EES), listened to the community and other stakeholders and considered the report of the Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC) that I appointed, it is my assessment that the project will meet the evaluation objectives that I set for it.
Even though the project will produce significant environmental impacts, borne largely by the community of Melbourne’s northeast during a protracted construction period, the project will create significant environmental benefits for the community of Victoria. The recommendations contained within my assessment, along with the project’s further statutory approvals and a rigorous environmental performance regime will ensure that the project will be delivered with the highest environmental safeguards, and that it will result in an overall net benefit to the community.
I find that the project’s adverse environmental effects can be appropriately managed and will be acceptable considering the project’s significant benefits.
The project’s environmental effects have been assessed through a reference design. The reference design is not intended to represent the final design for the project. Rather, it represents a feasible means by which the project might be designed, constructed and operated. The reference design identifies a project boundary, being the area within which all temporary and permanent works and structures must be located.
The reference design also enabled the types and potential magnitude of environmental impacts that will stem from the project to be identified and thoroughly assessed; and for an appropriate environmental management regime to be developed to reduce the identified impacts.
The IAC recommended modifications to the reference design in relation to some aspects of the project, including specifically in relation to extending the project’s tunnel northwards, and avoiding surface works within Simpson Barracks. I do not support the IAC’s recommendations in relation to these aspects, as I consider that these measures are not necessary to ensure that the project achieves acceptable environmental outcomes. I am also not satisfied that the overall environmental outcomes of the project would be improved if these aspects are implemented, because of the potential for those modifications to result in different environmental impacts; including additional cost, construction duration and land acquisition. This is not to say that the design modifications should not be explored in the detailed design of the project, or that they should not be adopted wholly or in part if they can be demonstrated to be acceptable having regard to the EMF, the EPRs and the UDS. However, I have not found them to be necessary modifications.
The EES and the public hearing before the IAC included consideration of a sound regulatory framework and environmental control regime that will be implemented to ensure any adverse environmental effects of the project are effectively mitigated. The methods and measures employed to mitigate impacts will be set out in the project’s environmental management framework (EMF). The EMF will ensure the project achieves acceptable outcomes through setting environmental performance requirements (EPRs) for the variety of project activities and functions.
Traffic and transport
The EES addressed the potential effects of the project on traffic, freight, public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. The EES included analysis of strategic transport modelling outputs to understand potential traffic and transport effects across metropolitan Melbourne, as well as modelling to understand local impacts within the northeast and along the project corridor.
Traffic modelling of the project indicated there would be redistribution of traffic away from local and arterial roads and onto the North East Link. The largest change is expected to be on Rosanna and Greensborough Roads (reductions of up to 12,000 and 19,000 vehicles per day respectively). There is anticipated to be an increase on a number of feeder routes including the M80 Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway as well as some arterial roads south of the Eastern Freeway (Bullen Road, Elgar Road, Surrey Road and Springvale Road) and near the Greensborough Bypass and Grimshaw Street Interchange (Watsonia Road and Erskine Road in Macleod).
The project’s positive impact on the road network will result in a significant redistribution of medium and longer cross-city trips away from local and arterial roads compared with the no project scenario. Traffic volumes on all five existing roads crossing the Yarra River are anticipated to reduce significantly by a total of approximately 50,000 vehicles per day (two way).
Various alternative design options were presented both in the EES and in the hearing before the IAC, and I have agreed with the IAC that these alternative designs should be provided to tenderers for their consideration. However, I do not agree that a northern tunnel extension is necessary. I am also of the view that the Lower Plenty Road Interchange must be retained because of the significance of its traffic benefits.
I support the IAC’s findings that the traffic functionality design principles used for the reference design were appropriate. I consider that the reference design would achieve the projects’ objective for traffic performance and functionality without unacceptable environmental impacts. However, I support the IAC’s conclusion that the project’s traffic performance and functionality need to be balanced against its environmental effects. I consider that it is desirable that the detailed design of the project carefully explore whether the same (or equivalent) traffic performance and functionality can be achieved on a smaller footprint which has a lesser impact on the surrounding suburbs.
Urban design, visual impacts and landscape
The project alignment traverses established residential, commercial and industrial areas, the Yarra River and associated parklands, valued open space with high amenity and landscaping, sport and recreation facilities, schools, community facilities, and other valued cultural and natural places.
The potential impacts are significant. The M80 Interchange and the Eastern Freeway Interchange will create elevated road infrastructure. Manningham Road Interchange will displace the Bulleen Industrial Precinct. Lower Plenty Road Interchange will impact the biodiversity values of Simpson Barracks. Along with ventilation structures within Simpson Barracks and near Bulleen Park, the project’s infrastructure will impact on nearby residents’ visual amenity, landscape values and open space. It will change the way that people move, live, work and play in and around the project area.
I am satisfied that the EES together with the material provided to the IAC provides sufficient information to allow me to assess the landscape and visual impacts of the project, notwithstanding some of the criticisms of the method adopted in the EES. The potential landscape and visual impacts can be managed and mitigated if a robust framework is established to guide detailed design. The draft urban design strategy (UDS) and EPRs exhibited with the EES provide a starting point for such a framework but I consider that further changes are required. The IAC identified locations along the project corridor that it considered would benefit from urban design framework plans to address land use and design constraints and opportunities more holistically before more detailed urban design and land use plans (UDLPs) are prepared and approved. I consider the urban design framework plans are desirable and should be included as part of the UDS. This will strengthen the capacity of the UDS to minimise landscape and visual impacts and influence the urban design outcomes of the project. When further design detail is available, later, public consultation on the UDLPs will provide a meaningful opportunity for the community to comment on the design of the project.
The draft UDS was informed by expert advice and guidance from an urban design advisory panel (UDAP) and the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, councils and public authorities. The UDAP will continue into future phases of the project with involvement in tender evaluation and ensuring the UDLPs comply with the UDS. I recommend that the UDAP is expanded to include two new independent design experts to bolster the design review of this city shaping project.
Once in operation, the project will deliver community benefits through reduced travel times and improved connection between Melbourne’s north and southeast. People travelling or living along the project corridor will benefit from less trucks on arterial roads, enhanced active transport infrastructure and better bus services along the Eastern Freeway. Amenity at some residences and open space will improve through reduced traffic noise compared with existing and no project conditions. I consider these benefits to be very significant.
However, many public submissions on the EES identified significant negative social effects. Acquisition of up to 36 residential properties to allow project construction and operation creates significant upheaval for affected individuals and their loss will be felt by the broader community. The impacts on businesses and employees in the Bulleen Industrial Precinct are also very significant. Construction will disrupt residents and others who visit and travel through the project area in terms of temporary occupation of land and reduced amenity and connectivity along and across the project corridor. Once the project is built, adverse social impacts will be more localised and limited as open space is returned and connectivity and amenity generally improve. However, some residents will experience ongoing traffic increases and the imposition of new noise walls, elevated ramps and the slow establishment of replacement trees.
Open space is highly valued for environmental, social and wellbeing reasons. The project could impact as much as 35 hectares of open space, with 18.2 hectares required permanently. In terms of active open space replacement, I consider that a workable concept emerged during the IAC hearing for temporarily and permanently relocating most sports clubs, recreational facilities and private school facilities to alternative locations generally consistent with the IAC’s like-for-like recommendation. However, I accept that it will be challenging to retain the current level of functionality of all sports and recreation facilities and some compromises may be required.
Replacing lost passive open space is generally consistent with state policy and the relevant principles of the Yarra River Protection (Willip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 and is a reasonable expectation of the proponent, and government more broadly. Considering this, I require the development and implementation of a relocation and replacement plan to canvass the important practical considerations related to the selection and acquisition of land and its subsequent development as open space.
The activities and locations of construction compounds was the subject of much discussion at the IAC hearing with a focus on the proposed use of open space at the Winsor, Koonung Creek and Borlase Reserves. Whilst I am satisfied that the locations for construction compounds identified in the EES are generally acceptable, I expect that the proponent will consider and assess all possible locations during the process of detailed design and construction planning. A construction compound plan, subject to my approval, will assist to mitigate impacts associated with the location and management of construction compounds.
I have not accepted the IAC’s recommendation that Borlase Reserve be excluded as a TBM launch/retrieval site, because I am satisfied that amenity impacts will be acceptably mitigated by the EPRs. However, if Borlase Reserve is used as a TBM launch site, I consider that voluntary acquisition of the most affected residences should also be offered. Adoption of the UDS and EPRs, in the way that I specify in my assessment, will address the need for sympathetic urban design of permanent project infrastructure and protection of local amenity to the extent practicable. I consider that the amenity impacts of the project during its operation will not be unacceptable, and would not, either when considered in isolation or in conjunction with other environmental impacts, be of such a scale as to outweigh the project benefits.
The project will acquire 102 business properties, predominantly from the Bulleen Industrial Precinct (BIP) but elsewhere within the project areas as well. Other businesses, not acquired, could be adversely affected by changes to access, connectivity and amenity. Notable, in this latter category are the businesses that make up the Watsonia Neighbourhood Activity Centre. However, the project’s broad economic and business benefits outweigh the economic impacts from the loss of local businesses.
Construction of the Manningham Road Interchange will require the land associated with all the businesses in the BIP, which employs about 770 people. The loss of an entire industrial-zoned business precinct due to an infrastructure project is unprecedented in Melbourne, and the disruption to BIP business owners, employees, customers, suppliers and the local economy will be very significant. Land acquisition under the Major Transport Project Facilitation Act 2009 provides for compensation to those with an interest in land, but impacts go well beyond this and so must avoidance and mitigation measures.
The proponent has been consulting businesses and the Manningham Council about issues and managing the impacts that would result from the project for nearly 18 months. I commend these efforts and trust they will continue. However, effective support must be informed by the specific needs of each individual business and employee. The EPRs of the project must include planning and support for each BIP business and employee on request. Watsonia Neighbourhood Activity Centre provides convenient access to a range of retail outlets. The project has the potential to exacerbate the existing divide created by Greensborough Highway and the Hurstbridge Rail line between the centre and its catchment to the east. Greater connection and amenity impacts from the project could lead to a decline in customers and added business pressure. The EPRs that concern business support and traffic will therefore play an important role in managing and mitigating these impacts.
Project design will also be central to achieving greater connectivity and an attractive and viable activity centre in the longer term. My assessment recommends revision of the UDS to provide greater direction to improving the functioning of the activity centre. I expect that the proponent and Banyule Council will work in partnership to investigate opportunities for the activity centre. Looking beyond the project’s construction horizon, I support return of employment use to land where businesses were displaced by the project, wherever it is practicable to do so. It is especially important that residual land at the Manningham Road Interchange is not precluded from future employment land uses.
Land use planning
The project has broad strategic support in planning policies, including Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 (Plan Melbourne) and the Planning Policy Framework. However, a key challenge for the project is balancing transport related policies with other planning policies relevant to economic development, environment and landscape values, open space, and urban design and amenity.
Land use planning impacts from the project are intrinsically linked with social impacts, business impacts, and urban design. I am satisfied that, provided the recommendations of this assessment are implemented during design and delivery, the project will achieve acceptable land use planning outcomes, and deliver a net community benefit. This includes responding to the significance of the Yarra River and parklands as set out in legislation and planning policies, and maximising the return of residual land at the Manningham Road Interchange for employment uses.
The project area retains fragmented remnant, or re-established, native vegetation described in the EES as mostly ranging from poor to moderate condition. However, significant biodiversity values remaining in the area were identified along the Yarra River floodplain, Koonung and Banyule Creeks and within Simpson Barracks.
The project will impact established Matted Flax-lily and Studley Park Gum populations within the Simpson Barracks. In response, the proponent will prepare and implement a translocation plan for Matted Flax-lily and a management framework for Studley Park Gum. When these mitigation measures are considered in addition to offset requirements, and in the context of the overall benefits of the project, I believe the impacts, while significant, are acceptable.
The loss of urban tree canopy is an ongoing challenge for Melbourne; the loss of 25,947 amenity planted trees and the associated canopy cover will be a significant impact. For this reason, the proposed tree canopy replacement plan is paramount to mitigating this impact, and I encourage the proponent to commence plantings as a matter of priority, continuing progressively throughout construction.
The impacts on native vegetation are significant but acceptable. However, every effort should be made to minimise the actual disturbance of native vegetation through detailed design and sympathetic work practices.
Noise and vibration
The EES notes that the duration of noise generating construction activities will vary from site to site, but indicative timeframes range from one month up to three years (or possibly even longer). It is inevitable that some works at some sites will be undertaken outside normal hours, including works that would otherwise create major traffic congestion during the day. I am satisfied that the noise impacts of the project during construction will be acceptable overall, and that the noise limits for after-hours construction work proposed by the proponent are appropriate.
I agree with the IAC that it is necessary to specify a night time noise limit over and above the limits within the current, but dated, Traffic Noise Reduction Policy (TNRP). In contrast, I disagree with the IAC recommendation that project noise limits apply to all levels of habitable buildings. I am not persuaded that departing from the TNRP in this respect is necessary to ensure acceptable outcomes. I consider the noise management regime in the EMF will manage operational noise impacts to an acceptable level.
Air quality and greenhouse gases
The EES characterised the potential impacts of construction as arising from dust, odours and emissions from combustion engines, concluding that impacts would be localised, of short duration, and intermittent in nature. While the IAC considered these impacts as potentially significant, it was satisfied such impacts could be managed to an acceptable level through standard construction management techniques and I agree.
Beyond construction impacts, the IAC identified the tunnel ventilation system pollution control equipment as a key issue given the project would affect land uses of varying sensitivity to air quality impacts including residential areas, shopping and commercial centres, industrial precincts, parks and sporting facilities. As such, I agree with and support the IAC’s recommendation for the project to include provision for space to allow retrofitting air pollution control equipment on the tunnel ventilation systems.
Project induced changes to groundwater levels could reduce the availability of groundwater for groundwater dependent ecosystems, cause subsidence or initiate oxidation of acid generating materials. Changes in flow direction could also cause existing contaminated groundwater to migrate or expand into uncontaminated soils. Only the underground project elements between Watsonia Railway Station and the Southern Portal are likely to change groundwater levels or groundwater flow direction. The degree of groundwater change will decrease with distance from the tunnels.
Potential changes in the location or movement of groundwater contamination due to project-induced changes in groundwater level and flow direction might occur around the historic landfill sites at Borlase Reserve and Bulleen Park. However, the only contaminated groundwater detected during field investigations was petroleum hydrocarbons near the service station at the intersection of Yallambie Road and Greensborough Road, and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at the former Bulleen Drive-in and near Watsonia Railway Station. The EES also noted that another area with the potential for contamination is the Bulleen Industrial Precinct.
The proponent’s groundwater assessment has established a firm basis for environmental performance criteria to manage the project’s potential impacts on groundwater and protect key environmental elements. Bolin Bolin Billabong and other billabongs near the project are perhaps the environmental features most at risk from changes to groundwater. To this end, further work was undertaken subsequent to the EES assessment, and more will be undertaken pursuant to the EPRs, to ensure that no unacceptable impacts occur on the Bolin Bolin Billabong or other GDEs as a result of changing groundwater conditions.
Beyond the EPRs, Melbourne Water provided detail, in its submission to the IAC, of the works they are undertaking to reinstate natural watering cycles to Bolin Bolin Billabong. While I am confident that groundwater impacts can be managed effectively, I am also reassured that there are other technologies and ameliorative measures that might be implemented if groundwater levels change to adversely impact environmental assets.
In the context of the project, ground movement might occur due to dewatering (lowering of the water table) of compressible sediments, associated with tunnel boring or deep excavation work to construct the trench and cut and cover tunnel sections. The ground movement impact assessment included in the EES considered the geological and hydrogeological conditions within the study area and the sensitive receptors that may be affected by sub-surface activities. The EES noted that buildings, utilities or environmental features may be damaged or degraded where ground movement is severe.
The EES concluded that ground settlement from dewatering is unlikely to have a significant impact on sensitive receptors. The IAC accepted this, as do I. However, pre- and post-construction assessments of buildings near construction works will also be undertaken to give owners confidence that their property will not suffer from damage due to project-induced ground movement.
The EES investigated flooding, water quality, stream morphology and water supply and sought to understand their response to potential surface water changes as a result of the project. The potential for an increase in flood risk will be mitigated by ensuring the risk from changes to flood levels, flow and velocities are minimised and the project will demonstrate compliance with Melbourne Water’s requirements. In addition, water treatment features have been included in the reference design to filter and treat the stormwater captured by the new road surfaces, to minimise the increased runoff efficiency and potential for pollutants entering waterways. These water sensitive urban design features include wetlands, bioretention ponds and storage dams.
The project will also have impacts on Koonung Creek and Banyule Creeks, due to diversion and partial undergrounding. I consider that these impacts are acceptable.
I consider that the EPRs, as recommended in this assessment, provide an appropriate means by which to manage the design, construction and operation of the project to minimise surface water impacts to an acceptable level.
Land contamination and solid waste
Prior to its urbanisation, most of the project area was used for agriculture and no broad-scale contamination associated with heavy industry sources exists across the project footprint. However, decommissioned landfills and historic in-filling of land along with existing commercial and industrial land use are potential sources of contamination. Construction will disturb landfill material and could create preferential pathways for contaminant migration and alter land gas migration.
The IAC concluded that the proposed framework for development of a spoil management plan and the suite of EPRs addressing land contamination matters are suitable and can satisfactorily mitigate risks associated with spoil management, reuse and disposal. I accept the IAC’s findings that the proposed spoil management approach, EPRs and governance framework would sufficiently manage potential effects associated with contaminated spoil and other waste streams.
The project area features several discrete heritage places that may be directly impacted during construction or indirectly through vibration and ground settlement. During the IAC hearing, two nominations were made to the Eastern Freeway (between Hoddle Street, Clifton Hill/Collingwood and Bulleen Road, Balwyn North) on the Victorian Heritage Register. If included on the VHR, there will be additional approvals and requirements separate to my assessment here. Otherwise, I am satisfied that the UDS and EPRs provide a suitable framework for protecting heritage values across the project area, including the potential unidentified archaeological artefacts.
Aboriginal cultural heritage
Twenty-eight registered Aboriginal cultural heritage places and three historical references were identified in the project areas. Aboriginal cultural heritage values are to be largely addressed through a cultural heritage management plan (CHMP) under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. The IAC concluded that the project’s likely impacts on Aboriginal cultural heritage values can be adequately addressed and managed. I agree with the IAC.
Beyond the CHMP, I agree with the IAC’s conclusion that the potential impacts to Aboriginal cultural heritage can be adequately mitigated through the UDS. It provides the necessary framework to support meaningful engagement with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung to entrench Aboriginal cultural heritage values in the development of design themes and key features of the project infrastructure.
Health and wellbeing
The health impact assessment undertaken for the EES included health impacts associated with changes in air quality, noise and vibration as well as changes from a social perspective due to the project. The IAC accepted that the method adopted was sound and in the case of air quality and noise were based on measurable standards, concluding that the risks to health could be managed through the relevant EPRs. I agree with the IAC, subject to the recommendations of my assessment.
In the more intangible areas of social impact and particularly in relation to green space and visual changes, the IAC found that the health impact assessment did little to appreciate the value that community placed on these assets. The IAC did not recommend any specific EPRs for health and wellbeing but did recommended related changes to EPRs in areas such as biodiversity, landscape, visual and social. I support the IAC’s conclusion and acknowledge that the IAC relied on submissions including submissions from the Department of Health and Human Services, who indicated the project was not likely to result in significant or measurable impacts on community health.
Environmental management framework
The broad structure of the environmental management framework was endorsed by most submitters and the IAC. An essential part of the proposed EMF is the environmental performance requirements. The EPRs are proposed to set environmental standards, mechanisms and outcomes that the proponent and its contractors need to implement to mitigate or manage the environmental effects of the project. The EPRs were the subject of many submissions and focussed consideration through the IAC hearing. This led to the proponent tabling updated versions of the EPRs during the hearing, with refinements based on further consideration of issues raised by submitters and advice from experts. I provide my assessment of the EPRs in Appendix A.
The EMF set out accountabilities and auditing requirements for the EPRs to ensure the environmental effects and risks of the project are well managed. The proponent will prepare an environmental management strategy that responds to the EMF to outline how the EPRs will be implemented. An Independent Environmental Auditor will conduct independent reviews of activities and documentation, approve subordinate plans to the environmental management strategy and audit compliance of the project with the EPRs.
Under the Environmental Effects Act 1978 this assessment is provided in the first instance for consideration by the Minister for Transport Infrastructure as ‘the relevant Minister.’ My assessment will also inform subsequent decisions in relation to the specific approvals that will be required, and the final form of the project once a successful tenderer has been contracted.