It has taken pretty much all of this year for Infrastructure Victoria to conduct in-depth community consultation and formulate a draft plan for the state’s roads, rail and other public assets over the next thirty years.
It took only hours for state premier Daniel Andrews to slap down one of the strategy’s most important recommendations for the state to implement a road congestion pricing scheme – Andrews telling reporters on October 4 that his Labour government had maintained a consistent policy about not tolling roads and that this would continue going forward.
To be fair, the government is right about one thing: Given that road congestion charging has already been ruled out, any discussion about it would be a waste of everyone’s time. As planning minister Richard Wynne put it in response to further questioning on the side of a Property Council function, “… I don’t think there was any point in kicking off a community conversation about a matter that we are so fundamentally opposed to.”
Furthermore, from a political perspective, it is understandable that anything which could be seen as a tax or form of road toll would be unpalatable for the government.
From a policy perspective, however, there are two reasons why that approach is wrong.
First, the notion of a congestion charge does have merit and warrants proper consideration. Along with new investment and spending initiatives, road congestion must also be tackled through mechanisms which alter road-use patterns and behaviour. According to Infrastructure Victoria chief executive officer Michel Mason, twenty percent of all car journeys on roads within the CBD and inner suburbs in Melbourne in the morning are unrelated to either work or education. Where possible, these trips should happen either via non-car means (i.e. cycling or public transport) or outside of peak hour. Any policies which can make this happen should be investigated. Taxing those trips within the CBD or inner suburbs which do need to occur, meanwhile, could represent a more equitable method by which to raise necessary financing for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades compared with the current system of fuel excise, sales tax, import duties and registration. It’s not as if the current system is all that good.
Granted, it must be acknowledged that a poorly designed system could see a disproportionate share of the burden being borne by low income families who tend to live further out and may thus have fewer options in terms of cycling or public transport alternative by which to access the inner city for employment. That, however, can be avoided through careful design of the system. It is no reason to rule out road congestion pricing altogether.
Moreover, this is a poor way to go about long-term decision making. Infrastructure Victoria took ten months and underwent extensive consultation in order to arrive at their draft strategy. All of its main recommendations should be taken seriously. Slapping down core ones on little more than what appears to be political expediency destroys confidence in the process.
Rightly so, the government ordered a 30-year plan for infrastructure from an independent and de-politicised body.
Wrongly so, it has slapped down a key recommendation without any form of consideration whatsoever.
This is not how planning should be done.