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Population Growth Outpaces Infrastructure

The latest Australian Infrastructure Audit examines major infrastructure industries—energy, transport, telecommunications, water—and for the first time, it also includes social infrastructure and waste in its analysis. According to the audit, current estimates project Australia's population to reach 31 million by 2034. It further estimated that $40 billion a year must be spent on infrastructure development to keep up with the fast pace of growth.

However, the federal government has only pledged $100bn into the infrastructure pipeline, with $30bn to be spent in the next 4 years. While a staggering amount by itself, if the estimate of necessary infrastructure spending of $40bn a year holds, then the planned spending of $30bn in 4 years falls painfully short.

Despite this, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham asserts that the government has already made a record investment into infrastructure and cannot afford to continuously pour money into it.

Infrastructure Australia chair Julieanne Alroe observes that in the big cities, particular attention must be paid to developing 'high-capacity public transport, enhancements to existing energy and water infrastructure, improved shared spaces and a renewal of inner-city health and education services'.

Satellite cities such as Gold Coast and Geelong enjoy high-quality infrastructure—however, whether they can support the level of growth forecasted in the Australian population is uncertain, in particular with the development of the fast rail expected to shift significant amounts of population burden away from major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne to satellite cities.

The impacts of lacking infrastructure are seen most visibly in the increasingly congested roads and crowded public transport systems. Less visible impacts include 'hospitals and schools reaching capacity, overcrowded parks and city green spaces, ageing water pipes, and the quality of services like the NBN'.

On individual households, the costs of infrastructure amount to $314 a week on average—or $16,000 annually. Alroe notes that while many households believe that energy expenditure is more expensive, particularly due to recent rising costs, infrastructure bills take up a much higher proportion of household income, peppered in costs for running cars, phones, internet, power, water, etc.

Currently, the costs of poor infrastructure on our quality of life are not yet critical. Infrastructure Australia policy and research director Peter Colacino notes, on the whole, public transport access is improving, quality of services are good and affordability has improved for most Australians.

However, these costs will only rise in the future if the Australian infrastructure fails to keep up with population growth. Alroe estimates that if investments are choked, the cost of road congestion will 'grow by $18.9bn to $38.7bn in 2031'.

There is also a need to adjust the way we analyse and make projections on population growth. One of the challenges facing the government's planning capacity is that population growth is outpacing expectations, growing faster and in different areas than anticipated.

Thus, rather than patching over current problems, Infrastructure Australia emphasises the need to deal with these issues on a deeper level to implement 'long-term changes to the way we plan, fund and deliver infrastructure'. (ET)



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