Is Sydney ready for “congestion” tolling?

NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal handed down his government’s much awaited mini-budget today, and boy has he been hit with a few brick bats in the media. Ross Gittins has effectively panned the mini-budget, commenting that it will “impress no one and win the Rees Government no friends”. One of the most contentious new measures has been a move to introduce a kind of cutdown congestion charge to two of the inner city’s toll roads. Roozendaal outlines the scheme in his budget speech [PDF]:

The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Tunnel will become the first motorways in Australia to switch to time-of-day tolling.

The toll on these roads will be a ‘peak’ toll of $4, a ‘shoulder’ peak toll of $3 and an off peak toll of $2.50.

This is the first change to the Harbour crossing tolls in six years.

Mr Speaker, every cent of the extra revenue raised will go to buying new buses.

Despite the fact that this new measure comes in difficult economic times, I honestly think that on balance, it is a welcome step forward. If New South Wales does need more money to invest in public transport (and I don’t think this is in dispute), why not raise it through a new measure that acts as a disincentive to motorists? Why not ask the people who are causing Sydney’s ugly traffic snarls to pay for it? As Roozendaal says, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Tunnel tolls have not changed in six years – if we really are concerned about climate change and decreasing traffic on our roads, then an increase is more than due. It is probably worth adding that the cost of the toll will actually drop by 50c per trip for people who use either tollway in off-peak times.

Predictably, both NRMA President Alan Evans and the NSW Opposition have condemned the congestion tolling concept, but the reasons they give for their opposition seem fairly half-baked. Besides throwing tee-hee slogans like “Nathan ‘Ned Kelly’ Rees”, “daylight robbery” and “highway robbery” out there, Evans’ main argument in opposition to the new measure is that Sydney does not currently have a sturdy enough public transport system for motorists to switch to. This seems to be the line that Barry O’Farrell is pushing as well, with the Opposition Leader suggesting that CityRail can’t cope with any increased utilisation during peak hour. While there is an element of truth to what both Evans and O’Farrell are saying, they are also somewhat missing the point. This new measure is being used to pay for more buses for Sydney. In other words, better public transport. In the current fiscal environment in New South Wales, assuming that we do actually want to improve the state of Sydney’s public transport, I feel that the new congestion tolling regime is quite reasonable.

So am I saying the measure is perfect? Hell no. Anyone who drives around Sydney or has done so over the last decade will know that there are several other key arterial roads that could do with a lot less traffic on them – Victoria Road, Parramatta Road, and the City West Link to name just three. Presumably because these roads do not currently have the infrastructure necessary to support a toll-based congestion charge, the traffic snarls on these three roads will not be going away any time soon – in fact, they may even increase as some drivers change their route in order to avoid the increased tolls. The measure, bound as it is to the Sydney Harbour toll roads, also unfairly targets those who live north of the harbour and work in the CBD or south of it, and vice-versa.

It will be interesting to see if we see the vigorous public objections to this charge that Ross Gittins predicted we would see if a congestion charge was introduced back in 2006. The NSW Government has not gotten a lot right in recent history, but I think it deserves a bit of kudos here for delivering a spot of tough love to motorists and indeed the motoring lobby.

The great Sydney metro dream?

Like many folks living in Sydney I suspect, I am not sure quite what to think about the Iemma Government’s grand metro proposal. Let’s consider the negative aspects to the proposal to begin with. The current government’s record on delivering successful PPP agreements is less than stellar. The project would be a massive one, taking a significant amount of time to complete, and highly likely to require the involvement and support of multiple governments. The project would represent a highly significant infrastructure investment specific to the Sydney metropolitan area, and would not really benefit all those people in New South Wales living outside this area. It is not clear what the benefits and negative impacts of the project to the city of Sydney would be precisely, in the absence of any detailed inquiry commissioned by the government. When you combine all these factors and consider them together, it would be a brave soul who does not have a doubt in his or her mind that a project of this magnitude can be carried off.

But then let’s consider the flip side of the coin. The proposed metro line would open up a fantastic and much needed transport option for Sydney’s burgeoning north-west suburban zones. The suburbs through which the metro lines pass would likely undergo something of a rejuvenation, with residential and commercial interest increasing, and traffic decreasing due to the increased use of public transport. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who values public transport and appreciates the potential economic, cultural and environmental benefits that it can bring can not help but feel a little excited about the proposal, whatever their doubts might be. The transformative possibilities that a big public infrastructure development like this would bring to Sydney are arguably hard to overestimate.

Few policy proposals in the modern history of NSW state politics come burdened with so much doubt and yet uplifted with so much hope. On the slightly sceptical side, Scott Rochfort had quite a good piece in the SMH yesterday that took an interesting line on the Iemma Government’s recent track record with PPPs. This line in particular captures something quite important, I think, and something the NSW Opposition would be on to in a hurry if they were smart:

Mr Roozendaal should realise PPP stands for private public partnership. Mr Roozendaal, like his private partners, should “accept the risk” of the road, whose opening was delayed until a week after the last state election.

When two people enter into a “partnership” they usually both take responsibility if a joint venture fails to deliver. The Government so far only appears to know the concept of taking credit for infrastructure projects that have not made it off the drawing board. Such as the new $12 billion metro.

The NSW State Government has played a generally quite adversarial role in the public eye in relation to its PPPs; more than happy to portray its private partners as the “bad guys” trying to make a buck at the taxpayer’s expense. Perhaps with this massive infrastructure project now on the table for discussion, it is time to take stock and repent for the sins of the past. Minister for Roads Eric Roozendaal should admit what is bleedingly obvious to everyone in NSW; the recent PPP agreements for the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel were far short of optimal for the people of Sydney. The government should come out, and publicly admit that it should have done better. And most importantly, the government should then make it crystal clear that it will do a far superior job with this next proposal, and outline exactly how it intends to deliver on that promise.

This sort of openness and transparency is just what the Iemma Government needs at the moment if it is to bring the people of NSW along for the ride on this ostentatious metro scheme. Without public support for the proposal and a reason to have a renewed sense of faith in NSW Labor, there is no credible way forward for the government. Indeed, without the justified confidence of the people, the average punter is more likely than not to inform Mr. Iemma and Mr. Roozendaal at the next available opportunity that based on the current form guide, they’re dreamin’ with this metro stuff.