NatRoad CEO Warren Clark appeared before a NSW Parliamentary inquiry into tolling regimes and has taken aim at toll road operators over the rapidly rising price for truck operators to use toll roads.
Clark was joined at the inquiry by one of NatRoad’s longstanding members and past president, Allan Thornley, from Shaws Darwin Transport, which operates out of depot in Wetherill Park in western Sydney.
Clark said that NatRoad members are deeply concerned about the impact the NSW tolling regime is having on the viability of the transport industry.
“With the exception of the Harbour Bridge, every Sydney toll road is run by private companies, and all but two are operated by Transurban,” said Clark as he levelled his aim at the tollroad operator and its near stranglehold on NSW tollroads.
“Transurban CEO Scott Charlton was quoted in the Australian Financial Review on September 20, saying his company was powerless to change its NSW tolls or their annual rate of increase,” Clark said.
“Mr Charlton said the government sets both so they are effectively not his problem but even if that were true, nothing stops Transurban and government giving rebates or multi-use discounts to truck operators to encourage them to use its roads,” the NatRoad boss said.
“The Financial Review reports that Transurban made an 80 per cent return on its investment on Westconnex in the last year alone, this would tell me that Transurban can afford to give its truck industry customers a break.” Clark told the inquiry.
Clark pointed out that Transurban in its submission to the NSW Government Inquiry, put forward a case study, which he said, tried to make out that there was a cost benefit if a mythical trucking company used the M5 South West and East Motorways.
Clark also said that, as background, the transport industry is extremely competitive, with a large number of small operators experiencing poor profitability and that the sector has been severely impacted by increased regulation, compliance, testing and operating costs during the pandemic.
Despite this Clark said the industry has kept New South Wales running and made sure supermarket and pharmacy shelves have remained stocked with essential needs.
“The average net profit margin of most of my members has fallen to about 2.5 per cent, putting extreme pressure on people trying to feed their families and modernise their equipment,” Clark said.
The NatRoad boss told the inquiry that Tollways are, as a rule, the shortest point from A to B and they generally save time.
“That’s good for customer productivity and emissions, they take heavy vehicles off suburban streets – which makes life quieter for residents and improves safety for all road users,” he said.
However Clark’s counterpoint was that trucks tolls are generally three times greater than those for cars, and up to 11 times more for registration charges.
“Annual toll bills of up to $100,000 are not unknown in Sydney and we have members who refuse point-blank to use tollways, simply because they can’t afford to,” Clark said.
The inquiry heard that Allan Thornley’s own company, Shaw’s, is in the situation where it costs more in tolls for a four-hour round trip from Sydney’s Western Suburbs to the Northern Beaches than it pays a driver in wages.
“Tolls are one cost over which my members have no control,” Clark implored.
“On WestConnex, for example, they increase by 4 per cent or the CPI – whichever is higher – we believe this increase has no relation to the actual cost of road repair and upkeep as the details are confidential,” he said.
“At most the increase should be CPI,” Clark emphasised
Clark said the fact is that truck operators already pay more than car drivers for road maintenance through registration charges and fuel tax and that toll increases come around like clockwork, without the operators showing any evidence that promised efficiencies and improvements have been delivered.
“If you work in Northern Sydney, the cost burden is impossible to avoid particular given the NSW Government forces heavy vehicles to use the NorthConnex tunnel at $24.59 each-way, or else drivers face a $194 fine,” Clark said.
NatRoad says it fears that the State Government will mandate a similar situation with its review of the operations of the M8 in southern Sydney, now underway and added that better results are delivered with a carrot as opposed to as stick.
“Most truck operators are unable to pass toll costs on to large customers due to contractual conditions that hold them responsible for these charges and even for unavoidable delays,” Clark told the inquiry.
“If you’re a small courier undertaking scores of jobs a day, it’s just too complex to defer toll costs to individual customers”.
Clark went on to point out the lack of competition in private toll operators.
“Transurban just paid $11.1 billion for the purchase of the State Government’s remaining stake in WestConnex and that brought its national portfolio of toll roads to 22.
NatRoad believes that a solution to the current inequitable regime could be two-fold, possibly involve introducing a variable toll rate that incentivises off-peak journeys, or gives discounts for multiple journeys, and would also see the creation of an independent regulator to oversee and manage fair and transparent toll pricing.
“Variable truck toll rates for off-peak journeys, or discounts for multiple journeys are a very practical way of keeping trucks off suburban streets, improving environmental outcomes and making travel less congested and safer,” Clark said..
“We believe an independent tolling authority with the power to agree consistent pricing rules with the State Government and apply them to each toll road would make life fairer to truck drivers and motorists alike,” he added.
Clark concluded by saying that the proposed independent tolling authority should have the power to examine commercial in confidence contracts for fairness, and that tolling companies would only be able to apply higher charges for better quality tollways if they can show they are delivering improvements.