OUR SAY: Is it time for a congestion tax?

Three kilometres in 40 minutes. Welcome to peak-hour traffic in Brisbane. Will a congestion tax fix the problem?

OUR SAY: Is it time for a congestion tax?
OUR SAY: Is it time for a congestion tax?
By Brad Gardner | July 22, 2010

Three kilometres in 40 minutes. Welcome to peak-hour traffic in Brisbane. I wish I could call it an exception to the norm, but the area I travel from work to home each day is constantly plagued by traffic blockages.

Unless you time your trip right you’re bound to become part of the conga line of cars, bikes and trucks that stretches along the bridge connecting South Brisbane to the CBD and the routes leading onto it.

There’s not a lot you can do when sitting in the car waiting for the traffic clear. Sure, you can shake your head watching the impatient ones drive their vehicles over median strips or commit illegal manoeuvres to find alternative routes home.

But the delay got me thinking about the usefulness of a congestion tax. Have our cities reached the point where we need to really start considering charging motorists during peak hour?

Despite new transport infrastructure projects opening in and around Brisbane it seems congestion is growing. Other cities during peak hour are just as bad, if not worse (Sydney).

The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics estimates the cost of congestion will reach $20.4 billion by 2020. Charging people to use sections of the road network has gained traction as a means of resolving the problem.

Treasury Secretary Ken Henry listed a congestion tax as a core part of transport reform in his recent review of Australia’s taxation system, while Infrastructure Australia also supports it. And earlier this week Engineers Australia recommended NSW implement a road pricing model that addresses a vehicle’s damage to the road and environment and its effect on congestion.

The tax like is a carrots and sticks approach. The stick is obviously whacking someone with a fee for driving through an area during a certain time. The carrot is using the tax revenue to invest in public transport to encourage people to stop using their cars or motorbikes.

In turn, the road network will become less congested. If motorists need to pay they will only travel if it is really necessary, while an effective and efficient public transport system will get people away from private transport and onto a bus, train or ferry.

The Netherlands is planning to introduce congestion charging that varies based on the time of day. It will be brought in for trucks in 2012 and 2013 for cars, with the government planning to have it running nationwide by 2016.

During a six-month trial of the scheme, NXP Semiconductors and IBM found 70 percent of drivers changed their behaviour to avoid peak hour traffic. The drivers also cited a 16 percent improvement in the average cost per km.

Yes, I know tax is a dirty word and no-one likes to pay it. But the fee might be cheaper than having a vehicle stuck idling in traffic, wasting time and fuel. Less congestion will also improve vehicle efficiency and delivery times, thereby helping a company’s bottom line.

Congestion pricing is of course not the sole answer. The trucking industry has been involved in the debate for some time about more efficient use of the transport network. It wants governments to allow the use of larger trucks capable of carrying more freight per load.

Doing so will cut the number of vehicles needed for the freight task and help the industry cope with an expected rise in demand for its services over the coming years.

It’s a good idea, and the anti-truck brigade attempting to whip up fears about the larger vehicles is narrow-sighted and misguided.

But larger trucks can only do so much. They won’t suit all aspects of the freight task, especially the metropolitan operations running in and out of the CBD.

And relentlessly pouring more money into building new roads, bridges and overpasses is not the answer. Eventually you will run out of room. And an expanded road will soon become clogged because it will just encourage people to jump back into their cars.

That’s not to say we should stop building roads. It’s simply that there has to be more to road management than just spending money.

But if you watch the antics of our elected officials it is doubtful there will be a serious debate on the issue. Take the recent Budget Estimates hearing in Queensland involving Main Roads Minister Craig Wallace and the opposition spokeswoman on transport Fiona Simpson.

The hearing briefly descended into farce as Wallace and Simpson both accused the other of supporting a congestion charge. It amounted to a puerile child-like argument, with Wallace at one point warning voters to be "scared" of what the Opposition had in store for motorists.

Reading a transcript of Wallace's comments to the committee, you get the impresson the only roads plan a government should have is splurging as much money as possible on new projects. If that is what he thinks then he is kidding himself.

But Wallace – like most politicians – is too scared to even contemplate a congestion tax for fear of the response from the punters and tabloid media.
But people are just as angry about being stuck in traffic for hours on end.

Here’s an idea, why don’t our politicians educate the populace on what a congestion tax entails – its benefits, its shortfalls and what it aims to do?

Sure, not everyone will agree on the issue but at least they’ll be able to reach an informed conclusion and the matter will be subjected to serious debate. And it will certainly give motorists something to think about as they slowly inch forward in the traffic conga line.

What do you think? Should a congestion tax be introduced in Australian cities? Will it be effective? Are there other solutions? Leave your thoughts below

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