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Transportation

Australian anti-road protests continue

Melbourne is building a new tunnel to stem traffic currently clogging the streets. As anti-road protests continue, critics say the project points to Australia's failure to commit to climate protection.

On a sunny afternoon in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, around a hundred people are gathered to protest against one of the biggest urban infrastructure projects the city has ever seen: the East West Link.

The protest is next to a busy road; people are milling around and dancing to music that's being blared on wooden speakers hitched to a bicycle trailer. This is one of the peaceful demonstrations - other protests have involved arrests after protesters have attempt to block major roads.

The protesters here carry signs that read 'Stop the Tunnel' and 'We live in an ecology not an economy.'

"I think we've got enough roads in this city," says Rasha Tayeh, a 28 year old local resident at the protest. "It’s much more important to be looking after our climate and our public transport system. No to tolls, yes to trains!"

Two groups, two views

With an initial price tag of 8 billion Australian dollars (5.2 billion euros, $7.16 billion), the East West Link is set to be a 18 kilometer tunnel joining two of Melbourne's existing freeways.

Community activist Mel Gregson is one of the leaders of the campaign to stop the East West Link.

Cars travel down the Burnley Tunnel in Australia

Melbourne already has a number of major road tunnels, like here at Burnley

"It’s not even a question of where it’s going to be built or if could be built differently," she says. "It's more along the lines of, why is it even necessary?"

"People want the government to invest in more public transport and not in more road infrastructure," Gregson told DW.

Matt Phelan, however, argues that the East West Link is crucial infrastructure that will ready the city for the future. Phelan works as spokesperson for the Linking Melbourne Authority, which is responsible for managing major road projects on behalf of the Victorian state Government.

"Tens of thousands of vehicles pour through the city each day," he says. "At the moment there are five lanes of freeway terminating at traffic lights on Melbourne's doorstep."

"We think that this project will carry a huge amount of traffic west-east and also east-west, and really improve the urban amenity of the inner north of Melbourne."

He argues that the debate over public transport versus roads is a false dilemma.

"I think Melburnians want both, it doesn't need to be one or the other," he told DW.

Environmental impact

Sustainability expert Nicholas Low from the University of Melbourne says that he thinks the traffic numbers are not enough to justify the construction of the East West Link however.

He believes that major urban infrastructure projects like the East West link strike at the heart of a pressing global issues, climate change.

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott talks at a press conference

The East West Link is getting considerable funding from Prime Minister Tony Abbott's federal coffers

"Australia is the biggest per capita polluter on the planet," he says. "Low carbon transport or zero carbon transport is the way of the future. It doesn't seem to be recognised in Australia and I think that is very unfortunate."

"Australia is absolutely out of step with the international community on climate change and it looks like it's going to go backwards even further."

Australia has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the developed world. Since new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott took office in September 2013 he has stripped funding for green projects and plans to abolish the country's carbon tax.

Parkland affected

Royal Park, a 181 hectare expanse of greenery with views of Melbourne's skyline, is due to lose six percent of its land to the proposed East West Link, turning a section of one of Melbourne's oldest parks into a multi-lane overpass and tunnel entrance.

Local resident Louise, 24, uses the park for bike riding and walking, and is angry about the proposed development.

"To be destroying parklands and houses to build more roads just seems ludicrous," she says. "Royal Park won't be Royal Park, it won't be a little oasis. It will be a place to stay away from, to be honest."

But others, like 54-year-old Tom, who walks his dog in the park every day, feels the East West Link is a necessary sacrifice.

"We do need this bit of freeway and we have to give up a bit of park and this will make life happier for a lot of people," he says.

With the first stages of development complete, the contract to construct the East West Link is soon to be handed out to one of three construction firms that reached the final round of bidding.

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