Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why Increased Tolls Will Not Make a Difference

I don’t know how serious this plan is, but it seems users of the Westgate, Citylink and Eastlink are to face increased tolls. This, apart from nailing people who do not really have a choice, and making Citylink (Transurban) shareholders very rich, will do nothing to alleviate the traffic problems Melbourne faces.

Firstly, there is not a real choice for most commuters and increasing tolls will not alter their behaviour, because they cannot behave differently. Plenty of people simply do not live near viable public transport. For these people, the increased cost is just something that will have to be sucked up. For the average Westgate user, for example, who, let us assume, cannot ride their bicycle to work, and who doesn’t live near a train line, there is no other option to get to work.

Likewise, for businesses that require the Westgate to transport goods and services, there is simply no choice but to use the bridge. I can’t see a delivery guy taking a fridge on the train. Therefore, for these two categories of user, increasing the toll simply increases the revenue of the operator and does little to actually change behaviour.

At the very least, we will go back to clogged secondary roads, a problem the freeways were designed to avoid in the first place.

Secondly, for lots of users who DO have alternatives, that alternative is so unattractive as to be useless. For example, I have a friend who lives in Hoppers Crossing, which I understand is the second last stop on the Werribee train line (I could be wrong.) He says the trains are so infrequent that even by their second stop, it is difficult to get a seat. Now, I am not one to shirk standing up on the train, but it must be a very unattractive option to pay about the same as the toll for a train ticket, yet have to stand toe to toe with a whole lot of people with coughs for an hour or so each way. Why not pay the same amount and spend the time with Matt and Jo on FoxFM?

So, increasing tolls will only assist in the traffic problem when there is a more attractive option. In Melbourne’s case, that means the toll has to become so expensive that people are willing to pay to catch an unreliable, overcrowded train. Otherwise, there MUST be something done on the public transport side to increase the attractiveness of the option, even holding the tolls level. If I were given to pushing my own little bandwagon, I would say free PT is the way to go.

I do understand and acknowledge that trains are to upgraded. However, that is something I will just have to see to believe. If, for example, a train went through Box Hill station every five minutes, like in lots of European capitals, all of a sudden you have a better case for ‘the better alternative’ I am after. I just don’t think it will happen like that unless the government changes its service standards in the train operators’ contracts. And that ain’t gonna happen.

Without a severe tip in that balance either on the (+ tolls) side or the (+ better public transport) side, there is no way tolls will do anything to change the way people behave.

Go on, economisty people, I am sure I am wrong somewhere, so go ahead and nail me. I will stand by the assertion that ‘its all about the shareholders’. Of tollway operators, that is.


Blogger Blogic said...

I'm no economist, but isn't it an interesting coincidence that the news was reporting big business and the ACF commissioned a report on the adverse effects of climate change on the economy, especially given much of Australia's export market is is crops etc and not, e.g., computer software.

So, surely there is an argument based on preventing DOOM in thirty years' time by encouraging people to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - free public transport might just tip the balance. God knows the cost of hurricanes and floods and having to write-off crops is far more costly than a few million a year, and will only get worse.

The State Government should have a trial run. See whether public transport use does increase over a set period of free travel.

In any case, the doubling of petrol in the last eight years or so hasn't put people off using cars - not just for commuting, but completely trivial reasons - so I fail to see how increased tolls will actually put anyone off. Unless they're really steep, a la the London congestion charge, which has worked really well.

I can dream, anyway. It's clear neither State nor Federal governments give a damn about planning for the future.

2:57 pm  

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