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The Federal Government will kick off its election year this week by announcing a national roads and rail project worth more than $1 billion.
Prime Minister John Howard has told The Age the Government is preparing to deliver more "nation building" infrastructure projects.
"I think that roads are a very important issue in this country, and I think you could expect the acting Prime Minister (John Anderson) to be making a major announcement on road funding," Mr Howard said.
The announcement, expected later this week, will involve more than $1 billion over four years, to be spent on overhauling Australia's road and rail network to cope with an expected doubling of freight traffic by 2020.
"The increase in freight traffic means there are big, heavy trucks on the roads competing with cars," a Government source said yesterday.
"It will end up being a bit like what you see in south-east London if something's not done to bring it under control."
The announcement will have a rail component, and also involve the upgrading of local roads, as well as a plan to restrict the hours during which heavy trucks may use certain roads.
"The benefits for Joe Motorist will be extraordinary, because we're going to try to have trucks travelling, where possible, at certain times of the day, and we're going to have rail playing a key part in moving product from one state to another," the source said.
Mr Anderson has campaigned within cabinet for the new spending for several years.
The spending will satisfy National Party MPs, who have been demanding that several billion dollars from the proposed Telstra sale should be quarantined for infrastructure projects.
Mr Howard flagged the transport announcement in an interview with The Age at the weekend as he flew to Darwin to greet the first train to travel across the continent on the new Adelaide-Darwin rail link.
He acknowledged that the spending would please Mr Anderson. "It makes John Howard happy, too," he said.
The announcement comes well in advance of the May federal budget, which is expected to include a new round of tax cuts.
"We are very keen, after we've provided for what should be provided for, to give the taxpayer back some of their money by way of tax cuts or benefits or whatever," Mr Howard said. "We think it's the sensible thing to do, and it's what the public wants. But how we do that, and in what combination, is something we genuinely have not decided."
Discussing trade and the final stages of talks with the United States in the coming fortnight, Mr Howard said he would be prepared to personally contact President George Bush to seal the deal.
He said he was "pretty happy" with the way Trade Minister Mark Vaile was handling the negotiations, but left open the possibility of his intervention. "If it's necessary, I will," he said.
Final discussions are scheduled for next week in Washington, involving Mr Vaile and US trade negotiator Bob Zoellick.
If successful, the Government will be able to announce a free trade agreement just as the Labor Party is gathering in Sydney for its biennial policy conference.
Mr Howard said the odds of an agreement being signed were "slightly better than 50/50".
"Agriculture will be hard, particularly sugar," he said.
On the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Mr Howard said: "There is no way that we're going to agree to something that will put up the price of pharmaceuticals for Australians, and the Americans know that."
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/01/18/1074360633946.html
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