Transport News

Highway robbery for Sydney's motorists

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Sydney's drivers are being hit hard by major road toll increases (Screenshot via YouTube)

The impact of toll roads on a predominantly car-dependent Western Sydney risks exacerbating financial precarity and movement rights for residents, writes Navishkar Ram.

WESTERN SYDNEY has been hard-done by. It’s a vast region that covers more than half of Greater Sydney’s total land area and houses approximately an equal proportion of the city’s population.

In all its vastness, one would likely expect the area to benefit from a robust and well-developed road infrastructure, linking the suburbs to the job hubs of the east, the CBD and the northern business districts.

Current infrastructure linkages exist in the form of motorways that were partially paid for and built with public funds and public money.

The vast majority of linking infrastructure that connects the regions of the West to the East and North are anchored by these motorways, namely the M7, the M4, the M5 and other, often unacceptably busy arterial roads.

What’s with tolls?

Tolls aren’t a new phenomenon. They have been in regular use for at least a century and the prevailing logic behind their use remains largely unchanged. That is, that commuters pay a toll for the passage of a road which enables them fast and unhindered travel to their destination.

This logic is sound when applied to the majority of cases. But in Sydney there is an exception.

Assumedly, a reasonable person can posit that most Sydneysiders would not have a problem paying tolls, if only the roads they are applied to actually improved travel times.

However, what often goes unheard of is the impact of toll roads on the residents of Western Sydney and more specifically, on their pockets.

Western Sydney misses out. Again

In 2016, motor vehicle transport was the primary mode of transport for Western Sydney commuters around the metropolitan region.

Ideally, if you’re a “Westie” you have four choices to get to the city for work:

  1. The M4: which is a parking lot on the best of days. No toll as yet west of Church Street, Parramatta. A toll is incoming and billions of public dollars have gone into expanding the existing network.
  2. The M7: which eventually leads onto the M2, with a combined toll charge of over $15 for a trip.
  3. The M5: the cheapest option and with a cash-back scheme. 
  4. Public roads; Parramatta Road or the Great Western Highway — all roads notorious for their congestion, inaccessibility and which are difficult to navigate for new drivers.

The overarching theme here is that if you reside in Western Sydney, your only option for getting into the city is through toll roads, or you risk sitting in traffic for hours on end just to reach your destination using public roads. You can use the train or bus network, but any Sydneysider can tell you just how unreliable they are.

Sydney’s toll-road fetish

Sydney has the unpleasant distinction of being the most tolled major city on the planet and for a region with barely over 5 million people, this isn’t exactly something we should be proud of. Transurban, the operator for the majority of Sydney’s tolled roads, generated more than $2 billion in profit in the last financial year and expects, despite a downturn in commuter activity due to COVID-19, roughly similar profits to its 2020 takings.

To be excruciatingly fair, Transurban is a corporation and corporations are not always motivated by philanthropic goals. By having tolled roads, Transurban is at least alleviating some of the pressure from public arteries. However, where majority public funds were spent on any infrastructure works, the majority of those works should remain in public hands, for the benefit of everyone who paid taxes to its construction.

Transurban benefits enormously from its deal with the NSW Government — it uses public enforcement in the form of police to monitor road safety on the motorways, the State Revenue Service which enforces penalties and attacks the public purse by hiking toll fees every quarter.

Time for change

Western Sydney residents are tired of this. In order to sustain fulfilling lives and gain meaningful employment in hubs closer to the CBD, most “Westies” spend a greater share of their disposable income on travel than residents in the North, South and East of the metropolitan region.

This is unfair, unethical and slaps yet another barrier to engagement with comparatively higher paying jobs and opportunities afforded to residents East of the “latte line”.

Transurban is perhaps the one corporation most ordinary people wouldn’t mind seeing hit in the pocket, nor would they mind it so much if Transurban cries poor each time commuters turn away from their toll roads.

It’s time for a rethink about the way infrastructure is developed in Sydney. Movement is a right of people and impositions in the form of unfair, unreasonable and malignant tolls should not impede participation.

Free, fair and available movement and transportation options are vital for a growing city like Sydney. Further roadblocks and financially ruinous barriers to this free movement constitute an ideological and moral degradation of all Sydneysiders’ rights to a useable motorway network. One which was largely already paid for by our collective taxes and charges.

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

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