Build a Better Road and the People Will Come: Article by Tony Shepherd

This opinion article by BCA President Tony Shepherd was published in The Daily Telegraph on 5 March 2013 under the title ‘Build a Better Road and They Will Come’.

Bipartisan support for the WestConnex M4 and M5 with connections to Mascot and Port Botany, and easier access to the CBD, is essential.

It should mean governments can get on with ensuring the timely construction of these long-overdue projects within an acceptable budget.

We cannot have these vital transport connections caught up in drawn-out approval processes or intergovernmental bickering over funding shares and design.

For a very large and complex infrastructure project like WestConnex, locking in funding is critical to making the business case work, whether it’s funding from government grants, tolling of users or a mix of the two.

The Commonwealth’s offer of funding support for the project is welcome and necessary. The level and timing of Commonwealth funding should be firmed up as soon as possible. All states are struggling to raise the revenues needed to cover the increasing demands on their services.

They do not have the capacity to fill the essential infrastructure backlog which is estimated at over $700 billion.

Insisting the M4 is toll free is the wrong approach. Tolling will be essential if the project is to be undertaken in a fiscally responsible way. The fact is, Sydney has other infrastructure needs that are also deserving of the limited available government infrastructure support, including public transport investments in the western corridor.

Infrastructure Australia has recognised the necessity for tolling new projects.

My experience on the Sydney Harbour Tunnel Project and the Melbourne City Link demonstrated that, while there will be some pushback on tolling or increasing the tolls on existing routes, the community will understand that a greatly improved road network and connectivity comes at a price.

There is no magic pudding when it comes to government funding. At the same time, it’s good to maintain toll-free alternatives so the consumer can choose.

The Commonwealth should work constructively with the state government on the shape, size and timing of what will have to be a staged project.

A “father knows best’’ approach is not conducive to co-operative federalism.

Another lesson from the Melbourne City Link is that, while enhancing access to the CBD, the overwhelming economic benefit comes from providing a bypass to the bulk of traffic that doesn’t actually want to go to the city but is forced there because of the old hub-and-spoke road network.

We found the same thing on the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. The bulk of the traffic wished to bypass the CBD to the east and the west. That is why the Eastern and Western Distributors were so important.

Of course, the design should be flexible enough to facilitate future enhancement and connections as demand increases over time.