What is network road pricing?
Pay-per-use or network road pricing is designed to encourage people to rethink the need to drive – especially during peak times – in favour of alternative options such as public transport, cycling or walking.
Advocates argue that road-pricing charges would also help replace declining fuel-excise revenue, which currently pays for road improvement and infrastructure, but is expected to plummet as electric vehicles gain traction over the next decade.
Several cities around the world have already implemented various forms of congestion charging, including London, Singapore and Stockholm, while New York City is expected to begin in late 2020 or early 2021.
The Grattan report recommends that a tolled CBD cordon be introduced within five years, where entering or exiting the area would trigger a congestion charge of $5 during the weekday peak and $3 at shoulder times, via licence-plate recognition technology.
The Institute’s Transport and Cities director, Marion Terrill, says setting charges at a rate comparable to the cost of catching public transport into and out of the city could result in 40 per cent fewer cars driving into the CBD in the morning peak. “It would also ripple out through the whole network; you’d see network-wide improvements, sometimes many kilometres away from the CBD.”
While the idea of charging motorists to use the roads is politically tricky – neither the state nor federal government has an appetite for introducing a road-pricing scheme – Infrastructure Australia’s CEO Romilly Madew says the alternative is to accept traffic chaos as the new normal. “The outlook is bleak, and that is, congestion costs will double by 2034,” she told ABC TV’s 7.30 program.
Indeed Infrastructure Australia’s modelling predicts a 23 per cent increase in delays on Melbourne roads by 2034, regardless of efforts to widen roads and smooth traffic flows.
Why more roads aren’t the answer
As the state government embarks on its billion-dollar ‘Big Build’, including major road projects and numerous public-transport initiatives, planning experts argue that today’s mega-cities can no longer build their way out of traffic congestion.
“As our cities are getting more and more congested and populations are growing enormously, the solution isn’t just building wider and wider roads, because where does it stop?” says RACV’s senior manager transport, Peter Kartsidimas. “Building more roads to solve the problems is not working.”
He says road users are already paying a de-facto toll in lost time and extra fuel costs that come with traffic congestion. “Politicians don’t like to talk about it, but road users are already paying a toll through fuel excise, no matter where you’re driving or the time of day, and you’re burning it sitting in traffic anyway. This will cost motorists more and more unless we change the way we tackle congestion.
“The state and federal governments need to work together and start planning for this because technologies change very quickly. Not wanting to make what seems like an unpopular decision will only make things tougher.”
He says any road pricing scheme needs to be considered as part of a bigger equation that factors in improvements to public transport, the rise of electric vehicles, the removal of fuel excise and a review of car registration fees. “Under road pricing, if you’re in an EV you’re plugging in for free and with a petrol car you’re removing fuel excise (currently charged at 41.8 cents a litre) so your fuel costs come down a lot. Registration might be free or a lot cheaper, and you get a network that’s less congested and actually works.”
Peter says an effective road-pricing system is likely to charge drivers based on time of day, type of vehicle, distance travelled and where you travel, measured by technology on smartphones or a device fitted in vehicles.
“So, for example, driving from Brunswick to the CBD in peak hour, along Lygon or Nicholson Streets – which carry abundant trams – would attract a premium because you’re impacting the network more than, say, a Tarneit tradie who drives to Craigieburn every day before the peak, who would end up with a cheaper trip.”
Some parts of the network, he says, might remain free. There might be a price cap on distance and concessions might apply based on household income and access to public transport.