Ask not for whom the road’s tolled, it’s tolled for thee
May 13, 2016
Roger Clarke has taken part in a survey which could see us all paying every time we jump in the car. Photo: Wayne Taylor
It began with a written invitation received in the mail.
Research group Ipsos wanted to recruit Roger Clarke for a study of people’s driving habits in Melbourne.
If Mr Clarke, a retiree living in bayside Brighton, agreed, he would have to complete a short survey and have a small device fitted to his car for about nine months.
A $100 incentive was offered.
Mr Clarke said yes and over the next few months the full scale of the study he had signed up for became clear: it was not merely a survey of people’s driving habits, but an attempt to create a blueprint for a new way to pay for roads – a future in which all of the roads in Australia would, in effect, become toll roads.
And the study was not being driven by Ipsos, but by Transurban, Australia’s toll-road giant.
In that future, every time each of us gets in the car we will pay a toll – be it to drive to work, to the local shops or down the coast for a holiday.
An Ipsos representative visited Mr Clarke’s house to reveal more about the nature of the study.
Mr Clarke was one of 1200 motorists in Melbourne who had been recruited, and whose every move behind the wheel was being tracked in a bid to find the best model for a switch to user-pays roads.
The matchbox-sized device plugged beneath Mr Clarke’s steering wheel was a GPS-enabled geolocator, recording his journeys so Transurban could tally up a monthly road user charge.
Transurban’s “geolocator”, which tracks 1200 Melbourne motorists in a study of driving habits. Photo: Wayne Taylor
The charge would be entirely fictional, for the purpose of exploring the best payment model for a system of user-pays roads.
Mr Clarke also had a virtual bank account – or “piggy bank”, as Transurban cutely coins it – with regular statements he could view online and three options for how they would like to pay to drive.
Pay $1 a trip, pay 10c a kilometre, or pay a flat rate each month.
Mr Clarke chose the third option, and was given a notional monthly balance of $92, which bought him the right to drive 926 kilometres. If he exceeded the cap, the charge would double from 10c a kilometre to 20c.
A virtual monthly account balance from a participant in Transurban’s road usage study.
He says he is uncertain, several months into the study, if he would be personally better off, or worse off, if he paid to drive like this.
“I’ve got a statement I can look at any time I want online just to see how I am going and it’s really amazing how the kilometres stack up and the costs stack up,” he said.
Transurban is bullish about the need for Australia to break away from its long-standing roads funding arrangements, which are based on collecting taxes from fuel excise, vehicle registration and licence fees.
The company says the current funding model “is reaching breaking point” and must change, or Australia will run out of money to build new roads and keep existing ones in good condition.
Unless there is change, Australia’s cities will become less liveable, the toll road operator argues, in a series of discussion papers published on its website.
The road user charge will perform two crucial functions, Transurban argues: it will relieve congestion, by making people put more thought into their driving patterns, and it will ensure there is enough money in the national kitty to pay for new and better roads.
To bolster its argument, Transurban points to figures that show the amount of money government and private companies such as itself spend on roads increasingly outstrips the revenue raised from petrol excise and other taxes.
Ten years ago the figures were roughly equal, at about $16 billion a year, but the shortfall has grown ever since, stretching to $6.6 billion in 2012-13.
It is a disparity that will only widen further as newer, more fuel-economic vehicles and electric vehicles replace older ones.
The company has an influential ally in its quest to nudge Australia to a new way of paying to build and maintain roads.
Infrastructure Australia published a major audit of the condition of the nation’s transport networks last year and reached the same conclusion, that Australia is increasingly unable to pay for the infrastructure it needs.
“This deficit will, on a business-as-usual basis, continue to worsen as a growing population and economy increases demand for infrastructure networks,” the federal advisory authority found.
It also found the way roads are paid for is “unfair, unsustainable and inefficient”, because taxpayers pick up most of the bill, rather than the heaviest road users.
The Turnbull government, which has just entered caretaker mode, is more circumspect about the need to shift to a user-pays system.
Paul Fletcher, the Minister for Major Projects, said revenue raised from taxes is roughly on par with government expenditure, though a discrepancy may occur in coming years.
“This is not an issue in the next five years or so, but over the longer term a gap may arise,” Mr Fletcher said.
Any move towards a new way of paying for roads that put the onus more heavily on individual motorists would be pursued with extreme caution, he said.
“Any decision to change our system for funding roads is likely to be a 10-to-15 year journey.”
Professor David Hensher, an expert in road pricing from the University of Sydney, agreed with Transurban’s proposition that the current road-funding model is inequitable and doomed to expire in coming years.
But he said a shift to a broad user-pays system would have deep implications for Transurban’s business model, and the company is positioning itself to be a part of the switch.
“I think they’re having two bob each way; they’re trying to be good citizens but they also want to protect their bottom line,” Professor Hensher said.
As for how the rest of us will fit into a future, user-pays roads model, check the underside of your steering wheel – the plug-in point of that journey could be a lot closer than you know.