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If the State Government wants to encourage people to use the new wider M4, not Parramatta Road, why not place a toll on Parramatta Road, and use the proceeds to pay for the M4? That idea suggests itself as Sydney witnesses, yet again, motorists behaving rationally in the face of irrational transport policies. On the first day tolls were reimposed on the M4, motorists abandoned it for the dubious but untolled charms of choked and poisonous Parramatta Road. The result: four-kilometre traffic jams and travel times up by 20 per cent.
The same idea (tax the problem, not the solution) was raised after the Cross-City Tunnel first opened and motorists, not surprisingly given the cost, refused to use it. If the point of the tunnel was to reduce congestion in Sydney's CBD, then why not tax those who contribute to the congestion, not those who reduce it by using the tunnel?
Road tolls, rightly targeted, are necessary. People choose to drive because they see it as more convenient, but their convenience imposes a heavy cost on others, in the form of the pollution, noise, congestion and general lowering of health and amenity that road traffic brings. (Anyone who doubts that should walk 100 metres along the Parramatta Road footpath.) Tolls are one way to make motorists compensate the community, however indirectly, for that cost. If they induce the motoring public to reassess their transport choices, so much the better.
As things stand, though, such a reassessment is difficult. The Government and its roads bureaucrats appear to believe the only way to induce motorists to use new tolled motorways is to make traffic so bad elsewhere that they will accept paying the toll. If that is good planning practice, there is something wrong with planning.
Of even greater benefit here, though, would be a systems view of transport – one which did not favour, as the State Government does for what appear to be ideological reasons, roads over all other modes of transport. Sydney's residents have long experience of transport promises. They know that when road and rail projects are announced, the roads will be built and the railways mostly shelved. They have heard so many fables about, for example, fast-train projects that these now resemble unicorns or flying pigs.
On Monday the Herald reported that when Cabinet considered whether to proceed with WestConnex, the briefings and recommendations had deliberately excluded any consideration of rail alternatives. We reported in April that advice about a possible F6 through southern Sydney to Wollongong was deliberately skewed in the same way against rail. This shows that the planning of transport in this State is fundamentally flawed.
How flawed? The answer can only be sketchy, because the Government, outrageously, keeps most of its analyses secret from the public it is elected to serve, and from the taxpayers whose money it spends. But in cost-benefit terms, the worst-performing of the four options for a rail link between Parramatta and the CBD matches the performance (a ratio of $1.70 in benefits to $1 of cost) of WestConnex, which parallels the route in part. The best rail option is far superior (2.5 to 1). In backing road over rail as NSW routinely does, we are thus backing the fourth place-getter. If there were a transport Olympics, that's not even a podium finish.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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