The state government's plan for fast rail to Ballarat would be stumped without a tunnel into the city - that's why any airport rail link needs to include the tunnel, according to prominent Ballarat voices.
While the state government is yet to commit to a final rail connection plan, alleged comments from Treasurer Tim Pallas at a business event - reported on Friday evening in The Age - have sparked a furious response from Ballarat representatives, including councillors and the Committee for Ballarat.
Mr Pallas allegedly remarked the government was "considering delaying building twin rail tunnels between the CBD and Sunshine, warning that the project's cost could skyrocket and even double if the tunnels were built," The Age reported.
FROM THE AGE: Treasurer Tim Pallas hoses down hopes for airport tunnel
Instead, an above-ground route stopping at suburban stations is also a possibility.
The state government has repeatedly said it is investigating all options, with a spokesperson telling The Age "no decisions have been made".
The Committee for Ballarat, which has lobbied for faster rail for years, reiterated the need for the decoupling of metropolitan and regional rail to enable population growth from the city.
While this will also require the quadruplication of tracks from Melton - which is the top priority in the state government's $100 million Western Rail Plan - the rail tunnel from Sunshine to Southern Cross Station is crucial for ensuring Ballarat trains don't get stuck behind metropolitan services in the booming western suburbs.
The state government is prepared to spend $5 billion on the airport rail link project, as is the federal government - however, federal senator Sarah Henderson said in a statement last week "our government will not agree to a second rate faster rail plan and that the Commonwealth and Victorian governments are negotiating the inclusion of the rail tunnel".
"Bickering" about building the tunnel or using a cheaper option is not helping, according to the Committee for Ballarat's chair, David Deutscher.
"It's not just the infrastructure, it's the credibility of the political process and engagement of our youth in that aspect of our community living that's on show, and at stake at this point in time," he said.
He added the private consortium AirRail, which includes Melbourne Airport, has offered to build the link.
"The whole idea of public-private enterprise is not something we're reinventing," he said.
"There's solutions around the world that run in much more complex and mature environments than we do, and we should learn from that."
The Committee's chief executive, Michael Poulton, urged the state and federal governments to work together and listen to the regions.
"It's short term, poor thinking, it doesn't solve the population growth issues," he said of Mr Pallas' alleged comments.
"If you seriously look at what Melbourne and regional Australia is going to look like in 20, 30 years time, you can't cut corners on infrastructure now, you've got to build the infrastructure that's about the next generation of travel."
The Stronger Together partnership between the City of Greater Geelong, the City of Ballarat, and many other regional councils and lobby groups, has also been pushing for fast rail - meetings have been productive, Mr Poulton added.
"We've requested a meeting with (Transport Minister) Jacinta Allan, and we hope that'll come off," he said.
"We think a delegation of key leaders from Ballarat to the Minister of Transport and the Treasurer, particularly, will do enormous good."
Chair of Regional Capitals Australia, City of Ballarat's councillor Samantha McIntosh, said it would be a simple solution to unlock the region's potential, but it was expensive and needed to be planned properly now.
"There's promises that have been put on the table and we want to make sure they commit and follow through on those," she said.
"To hear the Treasurer is suggesting the possibility of peeling that back to save money at the cost of connecting our regions, is very sad, and we won't stand here quietly."
Long-time Ballarat rail advocate Nick Beale said it was important to keep the quadruplication from Melton in mind - new stations like Cobblebank have been planned with this expansion in mind.
"I'm very happy to see the City of Ballarat and the Committee for Ballarat are working together to bring pressure on the state government around the tunnel," he said.
"But it must be emphasised that quadruplication is an absolute requirement, whether there's a tunnel or not, and this is achievable in the near future."
The state government was contacted for comment.
Federal shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Development, Ballarat MP Catherine King, said she wants to see fast rail to the regions "done right", but attacked the federal government for its record on Victorian infrastructure projects.
"Both the Victorian Government and Federal Government claim to be working constructively on the designs for these important projects," she said in a statement.
"If the best route for Fast Rail and the Airport Link involves a tunnel between Southern Cross Station and Sunshine, Alan Tudge and Scott Morrison should ensure there is sufficient federal funding available.
"Victorians haven't forgotten that in 2013 the Liberals cancelled a $3 billion federal investment in the Melbourne Metro project. Under this Labor Government in Victoria the Melbourne Metro project is under construction.
"The Liberals' might claim Fast Rail is a priority but their own Budget documents confirm only 1 per cent of Federal funding for Geelong Fast Rail is available in this term of Parliament.
"It's time for the Morrison Government to end the blame game and get to work to deliver a real plan for infrastructure to create jobs, improve productivity and bust congestion."
Have you signed up to The Courier's variety of news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat.