Toll road turmoil – inside the NSW toll road problem

On July 1 NSW toll road prices will rise while the state government offers rebates to certain drivers. But is this only going to exacerbate the state’s toll road issue?

Toll road turmoil – inside the NSW toll road problem
Tolls on roads such as the M7 are causing headaches for operators and residents in NSW

Angelo Elliott isn’t the only local community member to stand up and talk about tolls, but when he reaches the microphone he issues a plea.

"We hope they do something about it because it will probably kill us eventually," Elliott says.

Elliott is a resident of the Sydney suburb of Bexley and has owned the nearby Forest Inn for 44 years. After running the pub for more than four decades, he’s now had to reconfigure the hotel due to the traffic noise and air pollution caused by trucks passing on nearby roads.

But more Bexley residents joined Elliott at the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the state’s toll road network in late May.

Bexley chamber of commerce president Jeffrey Tullock soon follows Elliott. He talks about the heavier presence of trucks on local Bexley roads and the noise issue it creates. Tullock also throws in parking issues caused by clearways that have been put in place to slash street parking, and the dismay Bexley locals are expressing at the state’s toll road system.

"The real solution is to have a close look at the tolls – I’ve already suggested a variable toll structure," Tullock says.

"Perhaps consider having them abolished at the weekend or maybe late at night so people can have a good night’s sleep."

In further evidence that’s tabled in the parliamentary inquiry, the presence of trucks travelling through Bexley is rising. Evidence presented from Bexley residents to the hearing says in 2015 local Bexley roads saw 610 trucks per day. Last year, the roads saw 2695 heavy vehicles daily. And locals say it’s all because of the state’s toll structure.

In Bexley, two toll roads in the M5 and M8 neighbour the suburb. When the M8 motorway opened in 2020, the NSW government also introduced tolls on the M5. With toll prices only set to increase from July this year, trucking companies no longer had the money to continue using these toll roads daily, instead diverting off through local roads.

It caused these Bexley locals to front at the parliamentary inquiry into the toll system and ask for the previously free M5 tunnel to have its tolls removed before heavy vehicle movements through Bexley’s local area ruined industry in the town.

For truck drivers in Sydney’s north-west, they are either forced into using the Northconnex tunnel or risk being fined if they try to avoid the M5 toll.

Yet it isn’t just Bexley locals who are leading the charge against the state government. The NSW opposition has been critical of the toll system ever since the inquiry was launched in late April.

The initial inquiry came when many drivers reported e-toll account mistakes where they were charged incorrectly or overcharged for trips. The NSW Treasury document on the review says the toll pricing structure was created on a case-by-case basis, causing inconsistencies and customer confusion.

NSW shadow roads minister John Graham is one politician who has spoken against the inconsistencies in the current system.

"The government has finally realised what every driver knows – that the cost of tolls are going through the roof," Graham says.

"Sydney is the most tolled city in the world and is home to more than half of this country’s tollways. Households in Sydney’s west are being burdened with the highest tolls with the costs only continuing to increase."

Graham says 17 of the 20 top toll-paying suburbs are in Sydney’s west, with some people paying up to $6000 per year in toll fees. He wants signs informing drivers of how much a trip will cost to be installed so operators can avoid these expensive trips.

But avoiding the toll roads has only caused the turmoil seen in Bexley. In early June, it caused the NSW government to act.

On June 7 the state government announced that around half a million road users will be eligible for toll bill rebates to alleviate the rising costs for many major Sydney roads. The government committed $520 million over the next two years in its state budget to provide quarterly rebates for drivers spending at least $375 a year on toll roads.

If operators using toll roads spent over that threshold in toll bills, the NSW government said it would give up to $750 back from July 1.

But it didn’t please Graham, who says operators still aren’t benefited by the overall toll system.

"The problem is this offers extra assistance of $130 million per year but the government has already signed drivers over a life of these toll contracts to paying $115 billion in tolls," Graham says.

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"It really is like the government turning up and robbing your safe but just leaving the loose change."

The National Road Transport Association (NatRoad) agrees with Graham, saying that small businesses with heavy vehicles were excluded from the toll rebate scheme, meaning these households will only pay more toll tax.

"Making rebates available to some owners of two light commercial vehicles but not operators of larger trucks is farcical, and the cost will inevitably flow through," NatRoad chairman Scott Davidson says.

"The vast majority of truck operators are small business people and they are already buckling under the pressure of losing their fuel tax credit in the last federal budget."

The neglect on the rebate scheme is set to get worse according to the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) NSW branch.

"On July 1, the tolls on seven motorways across Sydney will go up by more than two per cent," TWU NSW state secretary Richard Olsen told ATN.

"At a time when owner-drivers and small fleet operators are already crippled by record-high fuel prices, they simply can’t afford these forever-increasing tolls.

"NSW premier Dominic Perrottet will try to convince people it’s not a problem because of the toll-relief announcement in the budget, but what he won’t tell you is that he deliberately excluded every owner-driver from that scheme."

Olsen says the TWU NSW branch will be advocating to both sides of politics in the lead-up to the upcoming state election on behalf of owner-drivers and operators to push for meaningful relief from out-of-control toll costs.

Both Olsen and Davidson say the only way to fix the issue for all parties involved is to make discounts on toll roads before it’s too late.

"This madness can’t go on any longer – we need to be getting serious about fixing the toll road crisis, including options like daily or weekly caps similar to Opal fares on public transport," Olsen says.

Davidson says: "We proposed variable toll rates for off-peak journeys or discounts for multiple journeys to keep trucks off suburban streets and make travel less congested and safer."

"There are reasonable and constructive ideas that the NSW government and its toll roads partner Transurban have chosen to ignore."

The office of NSW’s metropolitan roads minister Natalie Ward was contacted for comment but didn’t respond prior to deadline.

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