OUR SAY: Ending the endless road pricing debate

The merry-go-round that is the road pricing debate is spinning again in earnest. We're feeling dizzy and reckon it’s time to step off

By Jason Whittaker

And here we go again…

Proposals from government and bureaucrats to hike road user prices; campaigns against the increases from the political opposition and lobby groups; with operators caught in the middle and uncertain how much more cost they’ll have to put into their businesses in a matter of months. Sound familiar?

The merry-go-round that is the road pricing debate does nothing but make everyone dizzy with that nagging sense of déjà vu. As that annoying car loans TV ad says, there has to be a better way.

There is, in fact, except the people who represent the trucking industry remain ideologically opposed to it.

Everyone agrees the current PAYGO model is flawed. It is little more than guesstimates on road use and rubbery maths to apportion the cost and charge it via state and territory-collected registration fees and the Commonwealth’s diesel fuel excise.

Registration fees will rise by 3.2 percent in July, with big increases for B-double operators (a hike of almost $3,000 per year) and other multi-combination vehicles. Despite the justification (both increased infrastructure spending and rebalancing charges between light and heavy vehicles), it remains a penalty for productivity, when operators – and the line haul freight task generally – needs all the payload it can get.

Now Kevin Rudd’s Federal Government wants to hike the tax it skims from each litre of diesel. The tax proposal would cut the diesel rebate from 17.1 cents per litre to 16.4 cents. That is a significant cost for a tank of fuel across even a mid-sized fleet.

Why? Well, we’re expected to believe the Commonwealth is spending more on road infrastructure and trucks must pay their share. Though just how much they will spend on roads (or, importantly, rest areas for that matter), and how much of that they apportion to the trucking fleet, is entirely unclear.

And so the debate begins again in earnest. Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has asked the National Transport Commission (NTC) to consult on the increase — even though Albanese can put up the charges to any extent he likes (with the support of parliament) no matter what comes back from the consultation. It’s about as transparent as a dirty window.

The Opposition vows to be on the lookout for "mischievous" tax grabbing (though it was hardly averse to hiking truck charges when it was in office). And industry lobby groups hunker down for lengthy negotiations to try and win the best outcome while maintaining its ‘we will pay our way’ stance.

Try explaining all that to a customer who wants to know why his rate may rise in a couple of months. And by how much nobody will know virtually until the increases hit.

These figures aren’t worth fighting for (or against). They’re rubbery figures. Politicised figures. Based on nothing, spent on nothing; whims of politicians and bureaucrats and an industry that, on some issues, keeps fighting even after it forgets what it is fighting for.

There are proposals on the table for a new model. Incremental pricing would attribute charges much more directly based on the real kilometres and the real tonnage carried per truck. It would depoliticise the process and finally end the monotonous debate over the allocation of cost.

Maybe it’s not a better system. Maybe operators won’t like the charges it spits out. But it’s worth a look, surely.

Industry groups owe their members a rigorous examination of a model that at least promises to remove the perennial uncertainty and disruption that comes with the complicated PAYGO model. They certainly, as some have done, owe the industry more than simply dismissing the idea out of hand.

Operators just want to get on with business, with as much certainty over costs as is ever possible in the transport game, not constantly be on war footing to defend itself against higher charges.

The skepticism over a more direct charging model, particularly if it is linked to compulsory vehicle tracking, is justified. But the current model just isn’t worth fighting for.

What do you think? Leave your comments below or e-mail us.

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