Rockliffe & White must commit to end Tasmania’s era of public transport neglect: McKell Institute

Max Douglass, McKell Institute Policy Analyst. 

Originally published in The Mercury, 27 February 2024. 

On the eve of the March election, Tasmania’s public transport system is languishing in an abysmal state.

It is suffering from the lowest per-capita spending on public transport in the nation.

Its bus drivers are facing abuse and low pay, pushing them towards other careers.

And those who need public transport the most are seeing their services stripped away.

It wasn’t always this way.

Half a century ago, Tasmanians enjoyed a golden-era of public transport.

Its coveted eight-line electrified tram network was world-class.

By the 1970s both the tram network and passenger train line had been replaced in favour of Hobart’s current bus network.

Initially, the switch to buses seemed popular: by the late 1970s Hobart residents used public transport at a rate greater than residents of either Perth or Adelaide.

But ever since then, the system has suffered from profound neglect, which has seen patronage and the quality of Tassie’s public transport system crater.

The sad story of this decline are detailed in McKell Institute’s latest report, A Better Deal: Fixing Tasmania’s broken public transport system.

It tells the story of how the MetroTas bus network, particularly in Hobart, has been left to fall apart at the seams.

Commuters, pensioners, students, and families all tell the same story — cancelled services, unreliable schedules, and hostile bus environments.

The slashing of hundreds of regular services in August last year worsened an already bad situation.

MetroTas clearly isn’t being funded adequately.

The 2023–24 Tasmanian budget allocated only $115 dollars per person per year to public transport services: the lowest in the entire Commonwealth.

This figure is over four times lower than Victoria’s spend of $611 and remains below even the smaler states and territories like ACT, NT and South Australia.

Other Australian governments are investing significantly in their public transport systems.

Major capital investments on the mainland — think Victoria’s Metro Tunnel, the Brisbane Cross River Rail, and the Canberra light rail — demonstate how seriously some governments are taking the public transport challenge.

But in Tasmania, governments have been tinkering at the edges. Ticketing tweaks and refurbished bus stops don’t make up for the overall decline of the system.

Even the 2019 flagship ‘Hobart City Deal’—an agreement between the Commonwealth, Tasmanian, and five Hobart local governments—purported to ‘establish a reliable, sustainable and cost-effective transport system’.

And what do Hobart residents have to show for the deal? Nothing.

The only mention of the deal’s public transport initiatives was in the 2019–20 and 2020–21 budgets, which committed to $500,000 in bus services which were then promptly slashed in the August 2023 round of cuts.

But underfunding and underinvestment are only part of the picture.

Inequitable access, traffic congestion, driver retention and the fundamentals of MetroTas management are actively undermining Hobart residents’ transport options.

And it is the Hobartians that need public transport the most that are paying the price.

Despite being situated directly next to the central business district, Glenorchy —the most disadvantaged local government area in Greater Hobart — sees fewer services than Hobart’s much more affluent south.

This is a clear inequity, compounded by Glenorchy’s significantly lower rates of car ownership.

The awkward nature of the Tasmanian Government’s relationship with MetroTas is also contributing to poor service provision.

MetroTas is operated as a private company wholly owned by the Tasmanian government.

Yet their primary source of revenue is through contracts with the state government.

This means decisions, like route planning and service cancellations, are buried in complex, hidden contracts and are not made by publicly accountable decision makers.

Underspending, inequitable service delivery, urban congestion, and an obscure contract structure have left Hobart’s bus network moribund.

Hobart residents deserve better.

The good news is, the March election provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn around Hobart’s public transport system.

Our report proposes five recommendations: greater routine spending on services, equitable route planning, protecting bus drivers from intimidation, proactive investment in non-bus transport infrastructure, and bringing MetroTas back under direct public control.

None are radical, but all will require ambitious, decisive action by whoever forms government at the election.

Access to reliable, safe public transport is a cornerstone of a functioning, equitable city.

And it shouldn’t be partisan.

Both Premier Rockliffe and Rebecca White should pledge to do all in their power end Tasmania’s era of public transport neglect.