The mixture of farce and outrage
that has characterised the early days of Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel
shows no sign of abating – this week’s SMH report on the walls being too shiny for the laser tag readers to work is just the latest instalment.

And
the driving public is set to get another reminder of the whole sorry
business of governments privatising the right to levy tax this weekend
when the Eastern Distributor’s toll jumps from $4 to $4.50. The Cross
City Tunnel gang avoid that sort of embarrassment by nudging their toll
up every three months, via their compulsory electronic tolling system.

The Sydney media have tried to make something of the new and expensive tunnel’s lack of instant popularity, the SMH
even paying a firm to count cars. But it’s no surprise that not many
drivers are using it yet – it takes time to wear the drivers down by
way of the devil’s pact the State Government and the toll road
operators make. The toll road only works by the Government being a
party to making sure alternative roads remain congested and slow. This
is standard practice, written into the contracts to ensure the “private
enterprise” toll operation is pretty much guaranteed profit.

Time
and again, the stock market has judged toll road operators in Sydney
and Melbourne have played the State Governments for mugs. The value put
on the operator’s stocks show the Governments were cavalier in the
deals they did in selling the right to tax motorists.

The most
intelligent comment on Sin City’s cross-eyed tunnel came from a Crikey
reader in feedback: it would make much more sense to put a toll on
entering the congested city and making the tunnel free.

Yes – but that would assume the Government and operators are interested in reducing congestion. They’re not.

My
personal beef with the toll roads is over their non-performance. I
actually don’t mind paying several dollars to make Macquarie Bank and
friends even richer if the journey is markedly quicker. What a decent
Government should push for is a performance guarantee – reducing the
operators’ take if the toll road becomes congested and dirty.

The electronic tolling system should make just such a performance-related toll possible – but of course it won’t happen.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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