Business Opinion

Cost of toll roads take Sydneysiders for a ride

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Sydney's toll roads impose an unacceptable burden on the city's disadvantaged (image by Alex Proimos via Flickr)

Road infrastructure is becoming less accessible, as market forces seek to monopolise a system that is intended on being available to all.

The increasing corporatisation of Sydney’s road network risks worsening quality of life indicators for some of the city’s most vulnerable.

A deeper relationship than first thought

While we don’t regularly think of it, our relationship with roads is actually closer than initially thought. Findings from Professor Melony Ding’s study into driving and its association with quality of life outcomes, found that increased road use may lead to poorer overall health.

More recently, researchers in 2020 found that driver anxiety can also negatively impact perceived quality of work life.

What these studies propose is that social relationships with roads and infrastructure is more nuanced. We use roads almost every day, and the experiences we have on them come to impact our life indicators. 

Matt Wade and Nigel Gladstone of The Sydney Morning Herald, reported that Sydney has among the worst congestion for a city of its size, compared to those of similar population such as San Francisco and Montreal. This was based on research conducted by Professor Stephen Greaves, chairperson of Transport Management at Sydney University.

Sydney’s infrastructural woes, then, have an impact on the quality of life of motorists and nowhere is this relationship more noticeable than in the city’s toll road network.

Sydney remains one of the most tolled cities on earth and chances for developing a free-flowing road network are becoming scarce, as the State Government prefers to confer the rights of road management on monopolising corporations.  

If you were sitting in traffic for hours, paying exorbitantly for roads your tax dollars help build and had to spend your hard-earned money on astronomical parking fees, wouldn’t you be a little less than happy?

That’s why Transurban is in our sights. Wilson Parking isn’t forgiven here either.

Problematising the road network

Toll roads are a less than innovative response to Sydney’s road problems and represent a failure of the political system to manage the road network with one key indicator in mind: that of equality of access.

Dr Michelle Zeibots, Research Director of the UTS Transport Research Centre, noted in 2018 that toll roads are ineffective in managing congestion and exacerbate infrastructural issues rather than remedying them.

Theoretically, toll roads are designed to ease the burden of traffic flow on main arteries by providing alternative networks, thereby spreading traffic outwards and more evenly. While toll roads do indeed do this, to a degree, they also amplify the barriers to developing a free-flowing system that would benefit the majority of the population.

An ideologically dangerous framework

Toll roads are not an infrastructural "norm" that ordinary road users and motorists need to simply get used to.

Toll roads are much more than that: they represent a corporate mechanism designed to funnel money upwards, to investors and wealthy CEOs while ensuring those in precarious financial situations remain out of pocket for longer.

A struggling family living in the South-West of Sydney, on average, spends considerably more of their disposable income utilising toll roads in order to get to work or other opportunities than families in the rest of the city.

This is not to say that families in other regions do not also spend a considerable portion of their income on toll roads — the defining characteristic of toll roads is that they impact almost everyone and practically everywhere in the metro.

Toll roads place an added barrier to movement rights for the vast majority of Sydney’s residents. The ordinary travel discussion for families is no longer a conversation about how long a trip will take, but how much it will cost them.

Travellers residing outside of Sydney are also becoming disgruntled at this situation, with many claiming that merely entering Sydney imposes an unfair cost to them.

Sydney risks becoming a city of inaccessibility, one where a single trip from one end to the other is defined by exorbitant toll charges within a poorly integrated system that is designed to do one thing: maximise profits.

A toll here, a toll there

Tolls feature as part of almost every major piece of road infrastructure in Sydney. Virtually every trip around the city can cost road users up to $30 in tolls and can be considerably higher for repeat trips, factoring in the duration and extent of travel.

But one thing remains resoundingly clear: if you travel anywhere in Sydney and need to move around, you will be slapped with tolls. This is in addition to fuel costs and parking fees — the other strange bedfellows, clinging to the corporate racket that is Sydney’s motorway system.

Wilson Parking is also implicated in contributing to worsening quality of life outcomes for the city’s road users through eye-wateringly excessive parking fees.

No choices on the table

The toll system worsens financial pressures on families struggling to make it through the week and effectively pressurises decision making in favour of congested public roads.

Road users commonly opt for non-toll thoroughfares as a mechanism for not having to pay charges. These are roads which are often congested, confusing, lack coherent road dimensions and often have poor surface quality.

These factors amplify frustration and lack of care by motorists which can translate into aggression. The road system produces poor community outcomes too: low income road users are deincentivised to travel freely, owing to cost. If they fall behind on toll payments, they are subject to a retrieval process that can best be described as predatory.

Infrastructure as a right

Re-nationalising the toll road network is not currently a viable solution — not in terms of the cost to taxpayers nor in the political processes needed to bring Transurban to the table.

So long as Transurban continues to acquire publicly funded road assets, the solutions to this problem will keep moving further afield.  

Access to a free-flowing road network is a right of all people. The unfair imposition of tolls that severely hinder the access of these road networks constitutes an ideological attempt at limiting movement rights.

Human rights extend beyond the socioeconomic and cultural — they also encompass the physical and the need for infrastructure that enables free movement is essential in realising this right. Especially so when taxpayers contribute heavily to the construction and maintenance of this infrastructure and are essentially "double-tolled" when having to use it.

Pressure needs to be consistently applied until the State Government commits to not further screwing the road users of Sydney — hopefully, then, at least motorists will spend less time stuck in traffic, out of pocket and generally less susceptible to acts of aggression.

The collective pressures of a road system that punishes movement is not only ironic, but can also contribute to worsening overall health. Whatever the case, you shouldn’t be paying through the nose for roads your taxes already paid for.  

Navishkar Ram is an avid opinion piece writer, social commentator, life-long progressive and a local of South-Western Sydney.

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