Road user pricing is circling us like a shark looking for new feeding grounds. Our roads are clogged beyond tolerance.
Our new suburbs are being designed in ways that make public transport provision impossible.
Roads, more roads, wider roads are in demand. But governments say they are broke.
Road user pricing is seen by powerful groups as the solution. Road user pricing can ease congestion, say its supporters.
And it can generate a healthy revenue stream to fund transport improvements.
Road user pricing can be a simple thing. In London, for example, motorists pay a hefty fee for driving through the city’s inner commercial zones; so most don’t.
Road user pricing is also used to encourage the private sector to build motorways.
You can dawdle along the taxpayer-owned Cowpasture Road through Sydney’s outer west for free, or pay a few dollars and zoom along Transurban’s M7 motorway.
Road user pricing will wrap these simple charges and tolls into a monthly billing package. Road user pricing will operate like a mobile phone contract.
Instead of having tolls on motorways with free access to arterial and suburban roads, road user pricing will charge drivers according to which roads they use and the time of day they use them.
A high-price plan will give a driver access to all roads, 24 hours a day. Budget-priced plans, however, will limit a driver’s access to a motorway or key arterial road during peak periods.
The road pricing scheme will therefore have two objectives: raising revenue and reducing congestion.
There is little doubt that the revenue objective would be achieved.
Once established, roader user pricing schemes would be rich feeding grounds for hungry government treasuries.
Monthly road user bills would be absorbed into household budgets, like phone, water and energy bills.
Minor adjustments to road user fees would deliver huge tax windfalls.
Little wonder the sharks are circling.
Paul Fletcher, the federal Minister for Urban Infrastructure, for instance, speaks often about urban traffic congestion and roads expenditure as key issues confronting his government.
In a recent speech the minister said that total government expenditure on roads in Australia has reached $25 billion annually.
A problem, he says, is that the petrol excise tax we pay at the bowser collects less and less revenue due to better fuel efficiency from the modern car.
One solution, says Mr Fletcher, is to impose road user charges.
The inner city business lobby group, the Committee for Sydney, is pressing hard for road user charging. So is Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, the private sector infrastructure lobby group.
Meanwhile Australia's motorway king, Transurban, is well advanced in developing GPS tracking devices for cars that can generate monthly bills according to a motorist’s road use.
But we should be wary of claims that congestion will be reduced by road user pricing, especially in western Sydney.
Western Sydney households are heavily reliant on cars. Our spread-out suburbs are difficult to link by public transport and in some new areas the infrastructure for such things is non-existent. The lack of jobs density in western Sydney’s major centres pushes all of us into our cars.
About three-quarters of resident workers in western Sydney use cars to get to work every day.
Very few have public transport options. There will be no choice for western Sydney workers except to cop the road user charge, drive in peak periods, and put up with congested traffic conditions.
The revenue targets will be met.
But we will be no better off.
Phillip O’Neill is the director of the Centre for Western Sydney which is based at the Western Sydney University