Toll roads are spreading across Sydney, but the alternatives aren't there
Nick Greiner, the grandfather of Sydney’s toll road network, is fond of saying there are only two ways of paying for new roads. New roads can be funded using taxes that could otherwise be spent on schools or hospitals. Or they can be funded using tolls.
Greiner’s observation is a truism. But with the state government seemingly prepared to launch from one era of record toll road construction to another, it is worth asking whether the growing number of toll roads in Sydney might start to sum to something more than its parts.
This week, the Herald provided new details into what an emerging toll road regime in Sydney might look like.
The full WestConnex motorway will already cost about $11 a trip when it opens in 2023. A few years after that, it seems, WestConnex will be connected to motorways to the northern beaches, and potentially to the south. Using the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link, a return drive from Parramatta to Manly might not return change from $40.
At a recent parliamentary inquiry into toll roads, the chief executive of Roads and Maritime Services, Ken Kanofski, was asked whether Sydney had the most toll roads in the world. The answer to the question is relevant other than as a nugget of trivia. The transport economist, David Hensher, has suggested the internationally exceptional number of toll roads in Sydney makes it an ideal petri dish in which to test a commuter’s stomach for paying.
Kanofski took the question on notice, and responded in writing a month later. His response nominated three other cities with extensive tolling regimes. The first, London, has a congestion charge that covers 21 square kilometres of the city centre. London’s charge had a higher daily cap than WestConnex, Kanofski said. (His response did not actually say this represented more toll roads than Sydney).
Kanofski then nominated Singapore, which has an array of variable tolls and gantry points across the island.
And the RMS chief nominated Tokyo. According to Kanofski, there are around 300 kilometres of toll roads in Tokyo, more than three times the combined length of Sydney’s tolled motorways.
What Kanofski’s response did not say, however, was that these three cities also have some of the world’s most extensive and efficient public transport systems. These cities, in other words, offer residents a choice. They offer the choice of driving and paying. And they offer the choice of getting about using a lot of trains, and a lot of buses.
By contrast, the NSW government is preparing to launch new toll roads into areas of Sydney that have historically been starved of decent public transport, and which will likely continue to be starved.
For instance, the government has been building expectations that it will build a toll road on land reserved for an F6 motorway through Sydney’s south. Much of the F6 corridor runs through areas of Sydney without convenient access to a rail station – Brighton, Ramsgate, Sans Souci and Sylvania.
The government invariably says that new toll roads in Sydney are part of an integrated mix of transport options. And it is true that the Berejiklian government is complementing motorway spending with a vast amount of spending on new rail projects – particularly the metro to the north-west suburbs, to be extended through the city. In terms of its cost to the budget, the spending on new rail projects outweighs the spending on toll roads, which can largely be recouped through privatisation deals.
But it is also true that the government has conspicuously failed to integrate these toll roads with other transport options. Fifteen years ago, a former roads minister, Carl Scully, declared the F6 corridor should be used for public transport rather than a road. (Typically, Labor built neither). In 2012, one of Scully’s successors, Duncan Gay, said planning for the F6 should revert to the old concept of a motorway. One of the benefits of a motorway, Gay said, was that a motorway could also be used for public transport, or buses.
Yet none of the toll roads currently under construction – WestConnex or NorthConnex – seem to offer anything for the bus user. WestConnex was announced alongside a commitment to revitalise public transport alongside Parramatta Road; this pledge now appears more embarrassment than promise.
Toll roads are certain to be an increasingly large part of Sydney transport. Motorists are certain to ask whether those tolls are fair. This is particularly so if new toll roads are funded through levies on existing roads, such as a northbound toll on the Harbour Bridge. But another question to ask, and to demand an answer to, is what is being provided as an alternative?