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.