One way or the other the government better bite the bullet on road charging or else watch it drift off again into a nether world where no-one quite knows what’s going on. The issue of road charging has always been a thorny one and it doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Back in 1979 a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the New South Wales government to a number of issues with the trucking industry was a punitive increase in rego charges on trucks. The result was the Razorback blockade which stuffed up the Australian economy.
Five angry truckies blocked the Hume Highway, without a list demands or anything tangible. They were just a bunch of pissed off truck drivers. Nine days later some kind of muddled compromise got the highway open again, but nothing really got solved. Demands included uniform GCM rules and lower road tax. Sound familiar?
After the furore died down and the Road Maintenance Tax faded away, fuel excise was hiked to get the revenue back up for the NSW government. As a result disputes rumbled on throughout the eighties as enquiries and tribunals reported on the situation and the governments of the day went off in various directions.
By 1988, the situation was fraught with disputes between federal and state governments over road tax and we saw competing hikes in the cost of getting truck on the road. Before this angry truck operators began forming radical organisations like the National Transport Federation, which had a long list of grievances. The result? The Hume Highway was blocked again, this time at Yass.
It was another ten years later that the concept of a nationally consistent road user charge came into being, where the truck related cost of maintaining roads around the country was calculated and that amount divided up around all of the various truck registration charges to raise that amount of revenue to go along with the excise raised on fuel for the trucks.
Sounds like a sensible solution, and it was, for over ten years, and then it turns out that the formula dreamt up by the bureaucrats and handed to the National Transport Commission to calculate road charging was flawed.
It was a few years before the government would admit its mistake and that it had been overcharging the trucking industry for billions of dollars. The solution? To freeze the charges where they were and not reduce them to compensate trucking. Luckily for the economy, no-one got angry enough to block the Hume that time, and it is probably impossible to do these days.
Now the boot is on the other foot, by keeping the charges freeze going too long, and actually spending up big on road infrastructure, the road user charge is now in deficit. The solution? Increase the charges to cover the cost. According to the NTC that amount would be an over 13 per cent increase in charges.
Of course, this is not expedient in a time of the coronavirus, but that deficit is going to continue to blow out. Someone better bite the bullet by putting the charges up, reducing road spend, or coming up with a better way of charging trucking for the roads.Let’s go with that last option.