Highways to Hell: motorways are past their use-by date

Burrowing under the metropolis, winding through neighbourhoods and consuming green spaces, kilometres of bleak bitumen motorways provide the superstructure for the outdated combustion engine to travel further.

According to University of Technology Sydney, vehicles are traveling 25% further, which equates to 25% more pollutants and 25% more impact on communities and the environment. “Induced traffic” is the phenomenon that when roads are built people switch from public transport to roads and, in the age of climate change, roads congest, choke and gridlock Australian cities.

Yet, Australia continues to build roads that alter traffic flows. The latest is in Sydney, where a $45 billion plan is underway to construct the 33-kilometre WestConnex motorway.

Other mega-projects soon to appear on the radar include the Outer Sydney Orbital, Melbourne’s Outer Metropolitan Ring Road and Brisbane’s Western Orbital Motorway.

Their names sound impressively ultramodern, but many fear the roads will spaghetti out of control and change our cities into clones of Los Angeles.

Of course, this is all great news for Big Road. Every week, it seems toll operators, such as the behemoth Transurban, announce multi-billion dollar profits and increases in toll usage.

This is not an accident. Big Road shovels millions of dollars into political campaigns, while road operators notoriously supply former politicians with employment opportunities. Recently, just how cosy the “synergy” is between government and Big Road, was dramatically unearthed.

Public transport ignored

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media in April show incriminating evidence that the NSW government has been instructing transport officials to ignore public transport alternatives to motorway projects.

A memo prepared within Transport for NSW said a new rail tunnel and freight line could cut rail travel time from Wollongong to Central from 90 minutes to about 60 minutes for $10 billion less than the cost of the proposed F6 motorway from the WestConnex interchange at St Peters to Waterfall.

The memo said the decision not to benchmark the cost of the toll road against the cost of rail solutions "represents a serious and significant shortcoming of the F6 Extension Business Case".

"In the case of the F6 extension, a diverse range of design and location options were considered, but only in the context of a tolled and untolled road-based solution," the memo said. "The existence of a cabinet direction not to consider other options must not preclude the consideration of public transport."

The document also cites similar directives for studies of the proposed Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link, saying they "also did not incorporate public transport-based options".

The intention is clear: roads are to be built, not public transport.

Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC) is the entity that builds NSW tollroads. Curiously, SMC is a government-based corporation that acts as a public entity one day and a private business the next day. Remarkably, both major parties are requesting that NSW ministers have share arrangements in SMC to gain — as Labor puts it — “control over the Sydney Motorway Corporation”.

Sydney City Council found SMC favoured toll roads even while the cost of building the roads spiralled from $16 billion to $45 billion. Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said: "Every extension of the toll network, every exit and every entrance associated with WestConnex generates hundreds of millions of dollars of publicly funded road upgrades required to funnel traffic to the tollway, and to take traffic from it."

The burgeoning NSW scandal is by far the most pressing substantiation that conflicts of interests alter road flows, induce tolls and impede public transport.

In Victoria, Public Transport User Association’s Daniel Bowen said the NSW case is not anything new. “Back when Melbourne's [East West Link] was being planned, there was a similar effort to ignore public transport options.”

Public Private Partnerships

Indeed, historically Melbourne has been the Big Road business model for the country, with 20 years of dubious Public Private Partnerships (PPP) contracts.

Multilayered PPP road contracts seem like the roads themselves — texts and syntax suddenly snake and widen their way through complex clauses, sneak under dubious language and tunnel into the blackness of commercial in confidence.

Marxist transport academic, the late Paul Mees, and other critics in the 2000s, exposed the billion dollar contract competition clauses that have prevented public transport from extending beyond 1950s planning. Mees discovered that if governments or private companies were to build public transport near motorways — which would compete and divert revenue from Big Road companies — operators could claim compensation for lost revenue.

Although 60% people living in Australian cities have no trains or trams close to home, toll roads catchment areas cover half of the cities. In Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, if you travel on any major toll road, all the evidence points to a lack of public transport. It seems “induced traffic” does not induce planning for more buses, trains, light rail, or even bike lanes near toll roads.

Historically, as Big Road came to dominate transport policy, there were astonishing demolitions of existing public transport. Trams were removed from Sydney’s streets and even the Harbor Bridge. Tasmania’s tramlines were ripped up. Country train lines in northern NSW were abandoned. Sydney’s monorail was dismantled. And it is  little wonder the 50-year planning for a national high-speed rail network has never seen the light of day, nor that elusive rail link to Melbourne airport.

Fight back

In recent years, a collaborative fight back against Big Road has had councils, community groups, greens and socialists blocking motorway construction and government. The Roe 8 highway dominated the WA election campaign and was a big factor in the stunning landslide against the Liberal Party. Similarly, the Tunnel Picket groups’ fight against the Victorian Liberals’ East West Link swayed the election and stopped Big Road.

However, when a new state government is sworn in, the public pays millions for these road cancellations: $400 million was paid in Victoria and $40 million in WA.  

At the micro level, people who have access to public transport are filling trains and trams and buses and, by sheer patronage overload, forcing new extensions of rail lines and trams. Then there’s those rebel drivers who avoid the toll roads out of a good old fashioned stick-it-to-the-tollway attitude.

A combination of toll avoidance, public transport, cycling and protesting has sent road companies bankrupt. Dr Alan Davies, a Melbourne-based planning consultant, said although investors have positioned $40 billion in toll roads across Australia since 1994, bankruptcies have recently hit the Brisbane’s Clem7 Tunnel and RiverCity Motorway and Sydney's Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel. Given its $30 billion expenditure increase, Sydney’s WestConnex may follow suit and go bust.

Transurban's monopoly

These bankruptcies, combined with climate change, should have heralded the end of toll roads and the start of the end for Big Road. Not so. Transurban, who arrogantly call themselves the "natural custodian" of the nation's motorways, simply gobbled up the bankrupted toll roads.

Transurban's share price has surged nearly 20% in the past two years due to the buy-outs and because governments are looking to create a state-corporate monopoly on roads and tolls. State and federal governments recently ticked off Transurban’s $1.3 billion Tullamarine Freeway widening, the NSW $3 billion NorthConnex and the $450 million Queensland Logan Enhancement. Even the Grattan Institute is backing the idea of a centralised toll from one operator as an approach to congestion charging.

The shift to a Big Road monopoly may further infuriate workers, car drivers, train patrons and others who cannot afford the tolls. A direct signal was felt when two state governments fell over, in part, a voter backlash against tollways and Big Road. As the evidence builds against Big Road, there might just start to be a whole new meaning to the term “road rage”.

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