Financial light dims for Brisbane’s road tunnel

May 8, 2010

The number of cars using Brisbane’s first road tunnel, which opened on March 18, has remained far below the target projected by the Brisbane City Council. After an initial toll-free period, when 65,000 vehicles used the tunnel daily, the usage plunged to a daily average of only 21,178 vehicles after a discounted toll was introduced.

The drop in patronage has forced the tunnel operators, River City Motorways, to extend the discounted toll period by another seven weeks in an attempt to boost vehicle numbers.

The failure to meet projected usage targets means that the current tolls are delivering just $62,000 a day to the operators, instead of the $256,800 a day the tunnel would have earned under the full toll and traffic projections of 60,000 cars a day. The operators have debts of more than $1.3 billion that must be serviced out of toll revenue once its current cash reserves are exhausted.

The controversial Clem 7 tunnel is part of Liberal Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s plan for a network of five tolled tunnels and bridges to fix traffic congestion in Brisbane’s inner suburbs.

Residents and community transport activists have long predicted that the new roads would not solve the city’s transport problems, but encourage even greater car use.

The gloomy outlook for the tunnel follows the financial failures of Sydney’s Lane Cove tunnel in January and Cross City tunnel in 2006. Both operators went into receivership after failing to meet forecast usage projections.

The failure of these unsustainable projects ought to cause governments to reconsider the viability of tolled road infrastructure projects based on public-private partnerships.

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