For whom the tolls will ring in the NSW election

Residents of the Coalition’s 15th most marginal seat, Badgery’s Creek, must pay a $25 one-way toll to get to the CBD. Labor Party polls have picked up the cost of tolls as the winning issue and Opposition Leader Chris Minns alludes to the ‘toll’ at every opportunity. If next March voters decide to blame the politicians who signed these contracts, the 12-year-old Coalition government could be shown the way out.

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Jago Dodson, professor of urban policy at RMIT University, says Australians are far more car-dependent than other countries because of our history. After the Second World War, the federal government wanted to enhance our status as a manufacturing nation by promoting the automobile industry. Cars, especially Australian-made Fords and Holdens, became icons and all future urban travel involved prioritizing road construction, says Dodson.

Additionally, when state governments became low in debt in the 1990s, toll highway contracts allowed them to keep the debt off the government’s books and shift the blame for rising tolls onto the operator rather than politicians.

The toll does not even solve the biggest problem of driving, namely congestion. We all know of a new highway that quickly becomes as congested as the road it replaced. If tolls were increased to the point of driving cars off toll roads, Dodson says, traffic would simply shift to local roads. This would displace congestion rather than reduce it.

Every car on the road emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. According to the Association of Public Transport Users, 95% of transport emissions come from cars, trucks and planes, and only 5% from trains, trams and buses.

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Over the decades both sides of NSW politics have entered into toll road contracts which maintain ‘confidential commercial’ secrecy on information such as the money collected and which possibly contain ‘exclusivity clauses’ which compensate toll companies for public transport projects that reduce the number of drivers using their tolls.

This type of lack of clarity around government decisions was a key issue in the last federal election and one that independents in the community successfully campaigned on.

A NSW upper house committee recently investigated road tolls; a private member’s bill requiring greater transparency around toll systems has passed the Legislative Council and will be debated in the lower house during parliamentary sessions in October. Abigail Boyd of the Greens, chair of the commission, told parliament she understood ‘how secrecy the government has become in relation to these toll contracts, rather than letting the public decide on the basis of real and accurate information on whether or not the toll the price is fair”.

The committee was told that NSW governments have spent around $100 million on the road network over the past few decades.

“Imagine,” says Dodson, “if that money had been spent on an underground network in the metropolitan area and good bus and light rail systems. It would be a very different city from the congested, toll-road dependent city it is today.

Margot Saville is a journalist and author.

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