We need to look at just what is going on with toll roads in Australia, reckons Warren Clark, NatRoad CEO.
COVID-19 has disrupted every facet of our lives and the corridors of power have not been exempt.
A Parliamentary inquiry into how New South Wales runs its toll roads was shut down by the pandemic before it started in July and NatRoad finally got to have its virtual day in front of the committee late last month, via videoconference.
Even if you don’t drive in NSW you probably know that all but two tolled roads in Sydney are owned and operated by Transurban. They have a similarly dominant position in Brisbane. In Melbourne, Transurban runs City Link and West Gate with ConnectEast operating East Link.
Last month, NSW announced a Transurban-led consortium had won the bid to own the government’s own share of WestConnex.
If that’s not a monopoly, it’s the next best thing to it. ACCC competition watchdog boss Rod Sims was moved to warn that this will entrench the toll road operator’s dominance and road users will pay the price.
NatRoad told the NSW Inquiry that there is a lack of transparency and fairness in tolls for heavy vehicles in that state and described it as gold standard highway robbery.
It’s the same elsewhere.
Trucks attract tolls that are generally three times greater than those for cars, and up to 11 times more than a motorist pays in registration charges. Annual toll bills of up to $100,000 are not unknown in Sydney.
That’s an unacceptable burden for drivers who are mostly small businesspeople and working on an average profit margin of less than three percent.
One of my members now shells out more in tolls for a four-hour round trip from the Western Suburbs to the Northern Beaches than he pays a driver in wages.
The tolls constantly rise using a multiplier formula imposed by the operator that bears no relation to the real cost of road maintenance.
Tolling concessions are wrapped up in commercially-in-confidence contracts that have been negotiated in secret.
There are solutions.
NatRoad told the NSW inquiry that the state needs an independent regulator to control tollway prices and look at the unwinding of unfair contracts.
Tolling companies would be banned from hiking charges for better quality tollways unless they can prove they’re delivering improvements.
Similar watchdogs could manage tolling regimes in Queensland and Victoria.
They would evaluate pricing and make sure it is line with evidence and not back of the envelope calculations.
This regulator’s decisions would not be subject to Ministerial approval or Parliamentary disallowance. Its powers would be wide-ranging but they’d restore fairness that simply no longer exists.
Secondly, let’s make toll roads attractive to use.
If Governments and operators want to get trucks back onto tollways, they need to provide some relief.
Variable toll rates for off-peak journeys are an option. So are discounts for multiple journeys.
Toll roads are invariably the shortest route between A and B. They’re well-constructed and safe.
They take heavy vehicles off suburban streets, lower emissions, reduce noise and relieve congestion.
Using them more frequently makes sense.
If only every driver could afford to do so.