Traffic congestion banked up in Melbourne along a tram line

Congestion charging is a smart way to make our cities work better

by Marion Terrill

Published by the Herald Sun, Friday, 25 October

It’s time for a new approach to busting congestion in Melbourne. For too long the government has reached for expensive roads and more public transport as the answer. But it hasn’t worked. Just look around – we’re still stuck in traffic.

There’s really only one way to get congestion under control, and that’s congestion charging. We should pay to use our busiest roads at peak times.

Grattan Institute’s latest report shows how a congestion charge could work in Melbourne. We recommend the state government throw a ‘cordon’ around the inner city, taking in the Hoddle Grid and the high-rise areas of Docklands and Southbank. Drivers would pay $5 to enter the cordon during the weekday morning peak, or $3 in the periods either side of the peak, and the same on their way out during the afternoon peak or shoulder period.

Large trucks would pay a higher charge because they take up more space. Tradies and delivery drivers coming into the city would all be equally affected, and so could pass the cost on to their customers. And there would be no charge outside of the weekday peak and shoulder periods.

There’d also be minimum hassle for drivers, with the charge enforced by automatic number plate recognition technology. This means no paper tickets or e-tags.

Modelling by Veitch Lister Consulting for our report shows the charge could be expected to take about 5,000 cars off Melbourne’s roads at peak times, with 40 per cent fewer cars entering the CBD in the morning peak. That would make a real difference to traffic, with increases in speed in the morning peak of 16 per cent in the CBD and up to 20 per cent on sections of the major roads leading to it. Tram passengers would benefit too, with major north-south tram corridors, such as Sydney Road and Brunswick Street, becoming less congested.

Across the whole city, the charge would improve speed at peak times by about 1 per cent – not much of a change, but it’s a bargain compared the $16 billion North East Link project that will also improve speeds across the whole city by about 1 per cent.

But isn’t this just revenue raising in disguise? Aren’t we already paying enough in tolls, rego and fuel tax? Is this fair on poor people? What pollie would be crazy enough to introduce this? The criticisms of congestion charging will come thick and fast.

But all these fears are overblown – here’s why.

A congestion charge is not about raising revenue – in fact, the CBD cordon charge we recommend would add only a modest amount to the state’s coffers.

Yes, many of us pay quite a bit of money to be on the road. But we also pay with something else valuable – our time. Congestion charging will help us get some of that time back. And, further down the track, we might able use congestion charging to replace the blunt and unfair charges we pay today, such as rego and fuel tax.

People on lower incomes won’t be unfairly burdened. Most people who commute to the CBD already take public transport. Those who do drive tend to be wealthier not poorer:  close to half of them earn a six-figure salary.

Most people will have options to avoid the charge, by driving at a different time or by a different route, or leaving the car at home or at the station and taking public transport. And congestion charging should come with a safety net: there should be discounts for low-income people with impaired mobility who need to get to the CBD in peak periods.

So that leaves the million-dollar question: would our politicians ever go for this? It’s pretty easy to imagine the responses from some: ‘No new taxes on my watch!’ But how can they keep a straight face saying that when their usual response to congestion is to build a new road with a toll on it? Or spend our taxpayer dollars on infrastructure that might not have been needed if we were smarter in using what we already have?

The same old attempts at busting congestion aren’t working. It’s time for a new approach. Congestion charging might be a bitter pill to swallow for some. But without it, we may as well get used to being stuck in traffic.