A new report states fast rail connecting the regions to Melbourne will unlock more jobs and stimulate the economy during the long-term coronavirus recovery.
That's why councils across regional Victoria say a new tunnel from Sunshine to Southern Cross Station is the first step to provide massive benefits.
According to a detailed economic analysis, fast rail, with the tunnel, could bring a $189 billion boost to the state's economy in the long term.
The Stronger, Together alliance, which brought together councils and lobby groups from Ballarat, Geelong, Bendigo, Shepparton, and the Latrobe Valley, has long pushed for the new tunnel to be built as part of the Melbourne Airport Rail Tunnel project, which both state and federal governments have committed to.
Train capacity could soon be limited on existing lines, which would inhibit new faster trains to regional centres - the alliance argues the new tunnel would provide extra capacity to unlock the network.
In a detailed independent study by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research, the long-term economic benefits from building the tunnel are clear - these include a 5 per cent increase in gross state product, a halving of the wage gap between regional and metropolitan Victorians, and massive congestion savings.
The institute used a broad model, using decades of data, to measure the potential economic outcomes to 2060 - instead of using a cost-benefit analysis, several variables were examined, including commuting distances, hours worked, and population change.
"The economy does not settle down from the disturbance caused by a major transport project (until) decades after project completion. NIEIR circumvents this problem by constructing a dynamic comparison which plays out over the several decades of a realistic planning horizon," the report states.
By investing in fast rail to the regions, according to the report, over time more people would move to regional cities, which would support the creation of more jobs, which would in turn attract more people - a "virtuous cycle".
"Thanks to the economies of agglomeration, productivity along the rail corridors increases rapidly compared to Base case (with no rail upgrades), with an increase after 30 years of around 15 per cent," the report states.
One of the authors from the institute, Dr Ian Manning, said the outlook for Ballarat with fast rail was "favourable" - the model estimated a 56-minute trip between Ballarat and Southern Cross Station.
"Ballarat results are actually right at the peak (of the report) - what's currently happening in Geelong already, can happen in Ballarat," he said.
"Ballarat is already an urban centre of consequence - you've got the basic infrastructure, a lively community that brings people together in quite often creative ways, what that means is that Ballarat is there, ready to go, if we get the economies of scale and agglomeration."
Agglomeration is a key word throughout the report - the increases in productivity (output per hour worked) when large populations are able to interact.
Dr Manning noted the coronavirus would change some variables - there are more people telecommuting, for example - but fast regional rail would still encourage more people, particularly knowledge workers, to leave metropolitan areas if they were able to work flexibly.
"There's a big experiment going on at the moment, and we haven't got the results," he said.
"I suspect that gathering in central places will continue to be important."
There would also be benefits for smaller towns that are within reach of major stations, as populations spread outward, as well as similar benefits for metropolitan areas as population pressures are relieved.
Dr Manning added non-train users would benefit as well from the agglomeration, new jobs, and other factors.
"The problem with the general assessment ... is that they tend to think the benefits are going to go to those who actually ride the train, or perhaps a few driving cars who face less congestion," he said.
"The problem is, when you take a longer term view, there's a lot of people who gain benefits from it who never go near the train."
The analysis estimates a 10-year construction phase, and a complete project - connecting Ballarat, Geelong, Bendigo, Shepparton and Traralgon with fast rail to Melbourne - in the 2030s.
According to the Committee for Ballarat's chief executive Michael Poulton, the report's conclusions, combined with the long-term construction jobs, make fast rail - and particularly a Melbourne Airport Rail Link tunnel, which would increase capacity out of the city - a winning prospect for the economy's slow recovery from the pandemic.
"(It's) a post-COVID recovery that has a bold long term vision, (that) can set Australia up for the next 30 years and beyond," he said in a statement.
"Such a vision can include significant infrastructure that will deliver economic and social prosperity in much the same ways that other key visions such as Medicare and superannuation delivered economic and social prosperity 30 years ago.
"The NIEIR report makes the overwhelming economic, social and environmental case for investment in the next generation of fast, high frequency and reliable regional rail."
Mr Poulton encouraged the state and federal governments to look to the long term and seize the opportunity presented by building a new tunnel, instead of using existing infrastructure.
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