Prior to the 2011 NSW state election, the current Liberal Government promised to build either the M4 East or F3 to M2 Link, or to duplicate the M5 East. To decide which one of the 3 would be built, Infrastructure NSW has been tasked with determining which was most appropriate. That report is to be finalised in September.
Current rumours are that Infrastructure NSW will recommend the construction of the M5 East duplication, as its $5 billion price tag is considered more affordable than the larger, but bigger impact, M4 East at $10 billion. Roads minister Duncan Gay has ruled new tolls, but has made an exception for tolls that would be used for the construction of new roads:
“We would only consider tolls as part of the package of improvements and provision of new roads.” – Duncan Gay, Roads Minister
As a result, it is speculated that tolls will return to the M4, and be introduced onto the M5 East in order to fund the construction of new roads. Such tolls would raise $250m per year and, together with $2.4 billion raised from electricity privatisation, would pay for the duplication.
Further North, it is speculated that a new freeway linking the F3 to the M2 would be privately built and operated. The government has been in talks with Transurban, the owner of the M2 and Lane Cover Tunnel and also part owner of the M7, M5 and Eastern Distributor, over the possibility of building such a freeway.
This raises the question over the role of tolls. On one hand, they serve as an excellent form of user pays funding – those that use the freeway are those who pay for its use. And lets not forget that making road usage free while charging for public transport only discourages people from taking the train or bus while encouraging car use. While people should be free to drive, it is also not something that should be encouraged by subsidising it via toll free freeways.
At the same time, a large portion of the community benefit from the existence of a freeway, as it removes cars, traffic and congestion from local streets. Look at the Lane Cove portion of Epping Road, which has seen a big drop in traffic and a reduction in speeds following the opening of the Lane Cove Tunnel.
Ultimately the question therefore becomes not one of “Should there be a toll?” but rather “How much should the toll be?”. And it is here where the problem emerges – many of Sydney’s freeways are privately owned (M2, Lane Cove Tunnel, M5, M7, Cross City Tunnel, Eastern Distributor and Harbour Tunnel), with tolls set based on contractual agreements entered into at the time of construction. Some of these are set to revert to public ownership in the next 10-15 years, but others still have decades left before that happens. In the past this has meant the M4 and M5 have been free (or had a cash back system in place), while freeways North of the Harbour (M2, Lane Cove Tunnel and the Harbour Bridge/Harbour Tunnel) were all tolled.
Any government that can untangle this mess of contracts, tolls and financing, and come away with a city-wide tolling system that will fund the construction of future roads will have done what is generally considered impossible. For that reason, don’t expect it to happen.