Roads Amendment (Toll-Free Period) Bill 2020

With so many Sydney commuters forced to use privatised tollways to get to and from work, today Abigail spoke about the need to eliminate private tollroads and invest in world-class public transport.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (21:15:13): On behalf of The Greens, I contribute to debate on the Roads Amendment (Toll-Free Period) Bill 2020. In New South Wales you can hardly move without being charged for it. Unless you are lucky enough to live close by to accessible public transport, your trip to work is likely to involve driving on at least one toll road. If you want to drive into the city from the Central Coast, for example—a journey a great many Central Coast residents will make by car given the lack of easy public transport connections from the coast—you will pay over $20 in tolls both ways. You can add an extra $15 or so once the new NorthConnex opens.

Given the poor state of public transport on the Central Coast, which can add over an hour each way to your commute depending on where you live, many people have no choice but to spend a huge chunk of their family income on toll roads. There are a great many people in this State in this position: unable to easily access public transport and instead being forced to drive. There can be good policy reasons for introducing certain tolls on public roads. Top amongst them is to encourage more people to catch public transport to get more cars off the roads, coupled with investment in our public transport system so people can get where they need to go easily, quickly and comfortably. A toll on roads can reduce congestion and curb harmful emissions. Tolls can also be used as a form of wealth redistribution where those able to afford the tolls are paying, effectively, an additional levy that can be used by the Government for reinvestment in other transport infrastructure for wider use by everyone.

Given the new technologies available for collecting tolls you can envisage the use of quite sophisticated tolling systems by a government, tolling progressively to ensure that those on low incomes who are forced to use the road are paying lower tolls than those on higher incomes or those who live in areas with ready access to public transport. Whether as an incentive to change behaviour or as a way of raising funds to use on other worthwhile projects, toll systems can be a useful lever for a State Government and do not necessarily have to create inequities. However—and this is a very large "however"—traditional road pricing theories simply do not apply when it is a private company and not the State that is collecting the toll. In that situation the Government is constrained because relieving the burden on road users means effectively redirecting funds to private corporations.

Not only can our Government not redirect the tolls raised on our roads towards other infrastructure projects that benefit everyone in the State, but also every action by our Government to alleviate the burden on poorer families has the nasty side effect of helping the profits of private road operators. Tolls, per se, are not the problem; the privatisation of our major infrastructure projects is. The fact that road users in New South Wales are forced to pay more and more of their money on toll roads is a symptom of a much more serious and concerning disease: the privatisation of State assets. The result of privatisation is a self-inflicted inability of our Government to provide relief to the people of this State when they need it without, at the same time, sacrificing scarce State revenue to line the pockets of private companies.

WestConnex, the latest in a long line of privatised toll roads in Sydney, is perhaps the best example of the insidious obsession with privatisation by successive governments and the impact it has had on the commuters forced onto those roads. According to Christopher Standen, a transport analyst with University of Sydney, that toll road has cost taxpayers in excess of $23 billion. He states that it is "the biggest misuse of public funds for corporate gain in Australia's history." The New South Wales Government sold off half of WestConnex to Transurban for a paltry $9.3 billion, which happens to be one of its largest corporate donors. Included in the sale was not only WestConnex but also the M4, M5 East and M5 South-West. Those roads were toll free and publicly owned but because of the New South Wales Liberal Party's obsession with privatisation commuters travelling on those roads now have to spend annually up to $2,400 to use the M4 or up to $3,100 to use the M5. A great many people who cannot afford to pay that will be forced back onto congested roads.

The New South Wales Government has actively worked to reduce the capacity of congested roads in an effort to force residents onto private toll roads. WestConnex is not the only example of this, but it is the latest and clearest sign that the New South Wales Coalition's obsession with privatising essential public infrastructure costs billions of dollars. That money could be much better spent constructing public transport, which takes cars off roads, and gets people where they need to go when they need to get there. This well-meaning bill from the Hon. John Graham seeks to relieve the pressure on commuters of the increasing burden of tolls on private roads across this State. With the greatest respect, it completely misses the point.

It is not enough to simply oppose future privatisation. Successive Labor and Liberal governments have made mistakes. They have sold all the furniture from our house and now we have nothing to sit on. Until we fix those mistakes, bills like this will make little to no difference to the bottom line of households across the State. We need to reverse the privatisations and return those assets to public hands for the good of the people of New South Wales and for future generations. Assuming the bill makes it through the lower House, it may make some small improvement to people using toll roads for a short period, depending on how it is implemented by the Government of the day. But it is just as likely that it will make the situation slightly worse for the people of New South Wales in the long run.

A holiday from a toll on a privatised road is like a try-before-you-buy marketing scheme delivered on behalf of the toll road operator. It could have the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to use toll roads when they would otherwise use public transport due to the comparatively lower cost. Once people give up commuting by public transport and get into their cars, it is very difficult to get them back onto public transport. Who would benefit from habits being changed in favour of using toll roads? Again, it is the private operators of those toll roads. The bill will create more money moving from the State to private toll operators as compensation. That leaves less money to fund essential public services and frontline community organisations, which are desperately underfunded and overworked during this pandemic. We are in a messy situation. The Government's ability to use tolls for the public good has been sacrificed through the privatisation of our roads. The bill is not exciting, but it might make a good headline. It might also make some people across the State feel they are being listened to when they complain, quite reasonably, that far too much of their income goes to private toll operators. The Greens will not oppose the bill.

For the full transcript of the debate please visit the NSW Parliament website.

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