Do toll roads give us what we pay for?

Some toll roads in Sydney are so congested during peak hours that travelling times are much lower than forecast. Even so, drivers are paying the same tolls on each trip. Is it fair that we pay tolls whether or not we have a fast or predictable journey?

Toll roads are not giving us what we pay for.

Reducing congestion?

According to toll operators and government sources, building toll roads reduces congestion and makes your journeys faster.

Governments assess the economic contribution of toll roads by considering direct and indirect benefits to the toll operator and road user. Infrastructure Australia says expected direct benefits to users, such as travel time savings and vehicle operating cost savings, are due to “improved flow and reductions in road congestion”. In 2016, Ernst and Young, commissioned by Transurban, estimated direct road user benefits at $30.8billion – 80% were travel time savings.

Are we saving time?

Ironically, some of the slowest moving traffic since 2013 has been on Sydney’s toll roads: M5, Eastern Distributor, M7 and M2. During road work (as now on the M2), speed limits are lowered on purpose and drivers are forced to take more time while paying the same toll.

Roads and Maritime Services issues weekly Road Reports detailing, among other data, average speeds on over 100 routes across Sydney. These are useful indicators, but computer generated and may not always agree with the daily experiences of drivers.

Real speeds

Google Maps also provides estimated travel time on a particular route and the length of the route. This means you can calculate the average speed on that route at any time. For example:

  • Casula to Mascot via M5 at 8am, takes 49 mins to travel 29.5kms. Average speed is 36.1kmh, but masks much slower sections. All for a toll of $4.57.
  • Mascot to Casula via M5, at 5.30pm, takes 45 mins to travel 30.6kms. Average speed is 40.8kmh for a toll of $4.57.

How many drivers would be happy to keep paying these tolls if they knew just how slowly they are going? Is this a matter of goods or services not being of merchantable quality? Are toll roads giving the much-touted economic benefits they promised?

Is it fair?

NRMA in 2015 called for tolls across Sydney to be capped and for proportional repayment of tolls due to traffic congestion or “poor motorway performance”. Its advisers, HoustonKemp, also suggested there should be published weekly a simple index of journey times across representative journeys.

If trains, buses and ferries are subject to independent price and performance oversight, why not toll roads, which carry so many people and freight every day?

If you think these roads are congested now, what about in 20 years when a further 1.6 million people will be living in Sydney?

Speak up for roads that actually do what they are supposed to – with your money.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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