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Shifting the debate on the politics of road transport reform

5 September 2018: Traffic congestion, transport infrastructure provision and an eroding revenue base are some of the public policy challenges that road pricing reform may help to solve, according to University of Canberra political scientist Dr Michael de Percy.

His new co-edited book, Road Pricing and Provision: Changed Traffic Conditions Ahead, seeks to advance the road reform agenda by presenting some of the latest thinking on road pricing and provision. In doing so, the book includes a variety of disciplinary approaches—researchers, economists and public sector leaders.

“Transport infrastructure is highly political in Australia and is the last major sector to be reformed since the 1980s,” Dr de Percy said.

“It is not keeping pace with population growth and there seems to be little motivation to change commuting behaviour with few intermodal alternatives to reduce the reliance on cars.

“Road-user pricing, as part of broader tax reform, has not been taken seriously. In the book, we stress the need for reform to ensure Australians can enjoy the benefits of efficient and sustainable transport infrastructure as population and major metropolitan cities continue to grow.

“There is a reluctance to reform this sector, yet there is acceptance in other areas such as water, electricity, mobile telephone networks and communication. The only impediment to reform is the political ability to work through the issues.”

Dr de Percy pointed out that the fuel excise as contributory to road funding is not hypothecated and is collected as part of general revenue.

“Motorists are typically unaware that the fuel excise is not exclusively used for roads, despite consumer expectation that it is,” he said.

“Fuel excise and fairness along with rebalancing the distribution between road and rail will have to be addressed as the revenue base is shrinking. But the need to address issues such as traffic congestion and new infrastructure provision, amongst others, should also be highlighted.

“The expertise and technology are available, and various reform options have been mapped out in some detail.”

The book argues that there is no winner or loser in the transport infrastructure debate.

“To do nothing would result in a reduction in productivity and the impact of traffic congestion on voter satisfaction would mean that all parties, including government, are effectively policy losers,” Dr de Percy said.

One thought that has emerged is the establishment of an independent roads regulator based on the Reserve Bank model.

“This model will ensure fairness and equity for all. An independent regulator will guarantee the use of several models that can be adapted to local circumstances and encourage competition as opposed to a national, one-size-fits-all model,” Dr de Percy highlighted.

The book highlights several scenarios that could fairly address road pricing and funding, stimulate debate and address the potential for policy reform.

“Essentially, the approach requires changed behaviours, adoption of new and intermodal forms of commuting and a willingness to accept reform that will simply become part of life as we know it,” concluded Dr de Percy.

The book, edited by Michael de Percy and John Wanna, is available as an e-book or in print here.

About the author: Dr Michael de Percy is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Canberra, Academic Fellow of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, a chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.