Australia’s road network is one of the nation’s most important infrastructure assets.
Yet it’s something most of us take for granted and often unfairly blame for problems like congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
“As a community we forget that a road is simply a piece of infrastructure. We shouldn’t confuse the asset with the way we manage and use it,” says David Stuart-Watt, President of Australia’s peak road stakeholder group, Roads Australia.
“Congestion is a product of demand – who uses the road, when they use it, and for how long. We’ll always need roads for access and to support our economy, but our challenge is to keep improving the way we manage their use.”
Roads Australia has emerged over the last decade as one of the significant players in the transport infrastructure space. In that time its membership has grown to over 70 organisations – the ‘who’s who’ of the Australian road industry.
Those members include state road agencies and private road operators, constructors, consultants, materials and equipment suppliers and representatives of the union, freight and motoring sectors.
“One of our most important roles is to create high-level networking opportunities for our members,” Mr Stuart-Watt says.
“Across Australia we hold a range of events that bring together leaders from industry, department heads and ministers.”
Outside of industry and government circles, Roads Australia has a relatively low public profile.
“We’re not an advocacy group in the traditional sense, so you won’t often see us in the media,” Mr Stuart-Watt says.
“Our model is based on building partnerships between government and industry. We have a unique membership base that covers both the public and private sectors, and our strength is bringing both sides to the table to discuss issues that affect our roads and the road industry.”
In the past two to three years Roads Australia has established four Policy Chapters, each with a specific focus – funding and financing, sustainability, industry capacity and planning, and congestion.
These chapters employ the ‘partnership model’ to work through issues and challenges and generate practical solutions.
“A good example is the way in which road agencies and contractors engage as client and supplier,” Mr Stuart-Watt says.
“We provide a forum for both sides to raise issues that are perceived as affecting the efficiency and value of road outcomes, and in so doing we’ve been able to facilitate practical solutions that improve both the outcomes and the relationships that drive them.
“It’s not about creating cosy, behind-closed-door arrangements. It’s about forums to faciliate open dialogue and build better relationships to deliver the best outcomes for the community.”
Australia has one of the largest road networks in the world, covering more than 815,000 kilometres – 657,000 of which is owned by local government. Across the national network there are more than 37,000 bridges.
Collectively, this national road asset is valued at a conservative $280 billion.
“Roads are fundamentally important to the Australian economy and just about everything we do. They provide the critical linkages to our jobs, our schools, hospitals and supermarkets,” Mr Stuart-Watt says.
“But the task of adequately maintaining our roads – not to mention adding new capacity where it’s necessary – has become increasing difficult for governments of all persuasions and jurisdictions.
“There are a number of significant, unfunded road projects across the country that have long been recognised as vital economic assets – projects like the M4 extension in Sydney, Melbourne’s outer metro ring/E6 transport corridor, and various corridor upgrades along Queensland’s Bruce Highway.
“Federal, state and local governments have competing priorities and clearly don’t have all the dollars required to invest in these and other critical transport infrastructure projects – both road and rail – and, in the wake of the GFC and recent high profile private toll road failures, Australia will need to be innovative if we are to attract private investment.”
Mr Stuart-Watt says one of the challenges for industry and government is to identify new and innovative financing models that are attractive to institutional investors, like the availability model that’s being used to deliver Melbourne’s Peninsula Link project. The model itself isn’t new, but it’s the first time it’s been used on a major road project in Australia.
Another solution to the infrastructure funding crisis might be unlocked through road pricing reform. Both here and overseas, key stakeholders are asking questions about how road users fairly and sensibly ‘pay’ for the use and benefit of our roads.
Understandably, it’s a politically sensitive issue. Any talk of imposing a London-style congestion charge, or distance or time-based charging, is an anathema to tax-weary motorists.
All the more reason to have an open, informed debate, says Mr Stuart-Watt.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the public arena about how we fund our roads,” he says.
“Most road users mistakenly believe they ‘pay’ through fuel tax and registration charges. The reality is that only a percentage of the fuel tax we pay at the pump goes back into the road network – nowhere near the amount required to adequately maintain existing roads and meet new capacity requirements.
“The advocates of road pricing reform argue that a ‘user pays’ approach, where indirect taxes and charges such as fuel excise and registration are replaced by some form of direct charging, is a much fairer and accountable approach.
“On what basis such a charge might be levied – be it distance travelled, time of day, the
environmental impact of the vehicle and/or its physical impact on the road surface – needs to be intensely scrutinized, particularly in the context of social equity issues.
“The question also arises as to how the revenue raised might be hypothecated – to road use and operations (including public transport) and construction and maintenance.
“What is not in question is that efficient and effective land transport development requires long-term planning and assured long-term funding – and from that perspective, we will help facilitate and encourage the road pricing debate.”
Recently Roads Australia has hosted a number of industry forums on road pricing to inform its members and the industry on developments and key stakeholder policy positions.
“We think we have an important role to play, not in advocating a position one way or the other, but in ensuring industry, government and the community have all the facts and a platform to discuss and debate the issues,” Mr Stuart-Watt says.
For more information about Roads Australia, visit www.roads.org.au