Transport systems in Australia are failing amid massive levels of under-investment and ‘ineffective’ means by which to fund major upgrades, a leader in the country’s engineering sector says.

In a recent interview, Alan Thompson, president of the Canberra division of Engineers Australia and national executive member of the Transport Australia Society, said transport systems in Australia are already under massive strain, and that the nation does not have the systems in place needed to fund the volume of road and rail infrastructure needed to meet our needs over the coming decades.

“The starting point is that in our big cities – Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and increasingly, Perth, transport systems are only just working,” Thompson said. “There is lots of congestion on the roads, lots of delays, overcrowded trains, busses and trams. And then out in the urban fringe in all of those places, there just isn’t enough public transport and a huge number of families have to be two and three car families just to survive because there is no bus and there is no train.

“That’s right now. Given that all of those cities are going to grow dramatically in the next 40 years, it’s going to get much, much worse.”

According to Thompson, the problem stems from a combination of inadequate investment over recent decades and a failure to implement effective systems to raise sufficient levels of funding in order to deliver upgrades of the magnitude needed going forward.

Regarding the lack of investment, he says both governments and the community at large had failed to recognise that we had progressively been using up our spare capacity on key road and rail networks.

In terms of funding, meanwhile, Thompson said Australia had failed to implement effective systems in relation to user funded charging systems and value capture.

Thompson’s comments come as the federal government is conducting an inquiry into ways in which value capture mechanisms could be used as part of a strategy to raise capital in order to help fund major transport upgrades. This would entail capturing part of the uplift in property values which occurs when major roads or rail lines are run nearby or through the vicinity of given areas.

Such schemes are often achieved through the imposition of higher rates or a special levy applied to the unimproved value of land within a given ‘catchment area’ within which land owners are thought to be direct beneficiaries of the uplift in property values associated with the infrastructure in question.

Thompson’s comments also follow growing calls for the nation to adopt a user charge system for road funding.

In its 15-year plan for infrastructure announced in February, Infrastructure Australia said current charges of registration fees and fuel excise charges were unfair, unsustainable and inefficient, and called for a public inquiry to look at ways in which user charges could be levied on roads, saying current charges of registration fees and fuel excise charges was unfair, unsustainable and inefficient.

In January, meanwhile, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia urged Canberra to offer itself up as a location for different approaches to be trialed.

Thompson says there is an urgent need for swift action.

“Everybody now expects that by the year 2060, both Sydney and Melbourne will have a population of greater than eight million (each),” he said. “If you are going to do that, you’ve got to have much better roads, you’ve got to have much better trains, trams and so on.

“You’ve got to raise money to pay for that one way or another.

“Our current systems are just not effective.”