Payments Taking Their Toll: A Love Letter to Transurban & Sydney’s Road Fetishism

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Words || Navishkar Ram 

Our unique complication

Western Sydney has been hard-done by. It’s a vast region that covers more than half of Greater Sydney’s total area, and houses approximately the same proportion of the city’s population. 

Yet, in all its vastness, one would likely expect the region would benefit from a robust and well-rounded road infrastructure, linking the suburbs to the job hubs of the east, the CBD and the northern business districts. 

Current infrastructure linkages exist in the form of motorways; motorways that it should be noted were partially paid for with public funds. 

The vast majority of linking infrastructure that connects the regions of the west to the east and north are anchored by these motorways; namely the M7, the M4, the M5 and other arterial roads which are often clogged on the best of days. 

What’s with tolls?

Tolls aren’t a new phenomenon. They have been in regular use for at least a century and the prevailing logic behind their use remains largely unchanged. That commuters pay a toll for the passage of a road which enables them fast and unhindered travel to their destination. 

This logic is sound when applied to the majority of cases. But in Sydney there is an exception. 

Most Sydneysiders wouldn’t have a problem paying tolls, if only the roads they’re applied to actually improved travel times. Sadly, using toll roads only increases travel time by a measly five minutes on average according to the ABC. 

What often goes unheard of however is the impact of toll roads on the residents of Western Sydney. 

Western Sydney misses out. Again.

Toll roads remain the primary mode of transport for Western Sydney commuters around the metropolitan region. Ideally, if you’re a ‘westie’ you have four choices to get to the city for work:

  1. The M4: which is a parking lot on the best of days. No toll as yet west of Church Street, Parramatta. A toll is incoming however, and billions of public dollars have gone into expanding the existing network 
  2. The M7: which eventually leads onto the M2, with a combined toll charge of over $15 for a trip
  3. The M5: the cheapest option, and with a cash-back scheme.  
  4. Public roads; Parramatta Road or the Great Western Highway: all roads notorious for their congestion, inaccessibility and which are difficult to navigate for new drivers.

The overarching theme here is that if you reside in Western Sydney, your only option for getting into the city are through toll roads, or you risk sitting in traffic for hours on end just to reach your destination using public roads. You can use the train or bus network, but any Sydneysider can tell you just how unreliable they are.

Sydney’s toll-road fetish

Sydney has the dubious distinction of being the most tolled city on the planet, and for a city with barely over 5 million people, this isn’t exactly something we should be proud of. Transurban, the operator for the majority of Sydney’s tolled roads, generated more than $2 billion in profit in the last financial year, and expects, despite a downturn in commuter activity due to COVID-19, roughly similar profits to its 2019 figures. 

In all fairness, Transurban is a company and companies largely seek profit. By having tolled roads we are at least alleviating some of the pressure from public arteries. However one could, and indeed will argue, that where majority public funds were spent on any infrastructure works, the majority of those works should remain in public hands. 

Transurban gets away with their set up – they use public enforcement in the form of police to monitor road safety on the motorways, the state revenue service which enforce penalties and attack the public purse by hiking toll fees every quarter. 

Time for change

Western Sydney residents are tired of this. In order to sustain fulfilling lives and gain meaningful employment in hubs closer to the CBD, most ‘westies’ spend a greater share of their disposable income on travel than residents in the North, South and East of the metropolitan region. 

This is unfair and unethical and slaps yet another barrier to engagement with higher paid jobs and opportunities afforded to residents who reside closer to the same opportunities. 

Transurban is perhaps the one company most capitalists and socialists alike wouldn’t mind seeing hit in the pocket, nor would they mind it so much if Transurban cries poor each time commuters turn away from ‘their’ toll roads. 

It’s time to re-think the way infrastructure is developed in Sydney. Movement is a right for people, and impositions in the form of unfair, unreasonable and malignant tolls shouldn’t impede participation. 

Especially not when our taxes already contributed to motorway construction. 

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