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Road Tolls - A Very Bad Idea

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

At this silly season time of year, there is an emphasis in the media on the mundane. One of the most mundane (but still important topics) relates to all things motoring related. I don't want to go on about the road toll which measures how many motorists and pedestrians have been killed so far this festive season (but it's good to see that there has been only one fatality so far, even though it's one too many). I want to talk about another form of road toll - that of the dollars and cents variety.

Currently I am in Australia to both holiday and visit family (who have largely escaped low wage serfdom in New Zealand). This, being my first trip abroad (and to the land of Oz) has been an eye opener for me. One aspect that has truly been eye opening have been the proliferation of toll roads around Sydney.

Yes, I know, they exist in New Zealand too. Auckland, being our largest city, has just witnessed the opening of its first toll road in recent years. At the moment, that's where the toll road concept has been largely confined to. But wait for it, with a Tory Government in power, it won't be long before toll roads become common in this country.

Toll roads are viewed by free market advocates as being the best way to pay for road building and maintenance. Charging tolls helps defray the costs of roading for government and gives the private sector room to invest in this critical piece of infrastructure, in their view. It also is supposed to act as a means of lessening congestion and pollution on roading networks.

If it were all so simple.

From just my anecdotal observations, road tolls don't do anything of a sort (at least at the moment). Just about every motorist in Sydney goes out of their way to avoid them. For example, I was driven by my sister across the Darling Harbour underpass tunnel the other day and there was barely any traffic going through at the time. Granted it was midday and not rush hour but I couldn't see any motorists who were keen to get whacked through paying at the toll booth or through having their dashboard sensor automatically read.

End result? Huge amounts of traffic on the major non-tolled  thoroughfares creating congestion and chaos. I would have to say that the New South Wales state government or private roading operators wouldn't be turning over a massive profit on the tolls. Which makes me wonder - why on earth set them up in the first bloody place?

Well, if one thinks logically, there could be a nasty end result to all this. If people continue to shy away (correctly) from paying road tolls, then governments and private infrastructure corporates (on both sides of the Tasman) will only suggest one solution designed to capture every motorist - and that is to charge all traffic (through the compulsory installation of sensors in all vehicles which could be read by satellite) a flat rate for all trips made.

Think of all the blingy that the private roading operators and governments would make! Radical right wing greenies would argue that this would reduce pollution and congestion at a stroke and encourage people to take public transport or cycle. Right wing, market-driven politicians, bureaucrats and business people would not be thinking of ecological considerations at all - money would be the be all and end all consideration for them. But just for one moment, think of the marriage of convenience that could be consummated between environmentalists and big business to bring such a policy to fruition!

That's why I believe there should be no more toll roads erected in either Australia or New Zealand. For those that have already been established, tolls should be done away with. If you think it couldn't be done, just remember that Rob Muldoon was forced to scrap tolls on the Auckland Harbour Bridge at the time of the infamous East Coast Bays by-election in 1980.

I fundamentally believe in the need to retain public ownership of our roading network, whether it be through central government or local councils. That means no tolls or other charges should be imposed on any ordinary motorist. To tackle road congestion and pollution, I believe in the need for greater investment in accessible and affordable public transport as well as in cycling and pedestrian walkways. Tackling the negative environmental impacts that roads generate shouldn't justify toll charging at all.

Overall, it's time to stop road tolls before they become an accepted part of life. As any Sydney resident will tell you, they are a pain in the arse - literally in more ways than one!





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