Tollbusters on the rampage

by Chris Griffith
Published 19 November 1994 in The Age (Melbourne)


my face


Tollways have so far produced debt, discord, and debate in the Sunshine state.

Placid sun-loving Queenslanders have turned into militant, jail flaunting "tollbusters", millions of dollars have disappeared in toll company interest payments, yet more pay-to-drive roads are planned.

All this has occurred amid calls to reduce private car travel and concentrate resources on developing public transport.

In 10 years, the state's south-east corner has changed from a no-toll situation to one where next century the entire bypass ring-road system around Brisbane will be user-pays.

Just this week the Brisbane City Council floated the option of placing tolls on existing roads and bridges leading to the city, to force commuters onto public transport.

While tollway plans abound, currently only three systems operate. All are operated by government-owned companies.

The most successful toll system so far has been the Gateway Bridge, on an arterial road linking the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. In 1993-94, the bridge carried 15.9m vehicles, up 7 per cent in one year, and collected $41.5m in toll revenue.

However, the Gateway Bridge Company has depended on taxpayer injections to remain afloat, with government borrowings blowing out to $289m in 1993- 94.

Alarmingly, its sister companies which administer the Logan and Sunshine motorways have earned far less.

In the Sunshine motorway's case, its $5 m of toll revenue last year did not meet even a third of the interest bill on its borrowings which have rocketed from $111m to $211m in just three years. Its accumulated losses are now $79m.

A spokesman for Transport Minister David Hamill said the increased borrowings were for upgrades for extra traffic.

The minister expects all three projects to be self-supporting within 30 years, which must be a wistful thought for the government-appointed motorway directors, most of whom are already over 70 years old.

The anti-tollway charge has been led by Tollbusters, an organisation of mums and dads who became incensed when ordinary council roads linking their suburbs were cut off and integrated into the Sunshine Motorway, a two- laned 35 km stretch of road on the trip between Brisbane and Noosa Heads.

Motorists currently pay for the pleasure of having their journeys punctuated three times at separate toll stations - 50c, 50c, and $1.50.

"The irony is that motorists can travel swiftly on good roads covering the same area without going anywhere near the tollway", according to Suzerlie Connelly, the president of Tollbusters, who has already cooled her heels overnight in prison after wrapping one of the toll plazas in black plastic.

"People go to enormous lengths to avoid the toll because they see it as double dipping.

"They're paying for their roads through registration and taxes, they're paying again through their council rates, and now once more through tolls. Further, councils are paying more to maintain local roads used by vehicles avoiding the toll routes."

With support from local businesses, Tollbusters in 1990 organised a two-year vigil on a bypass loop around one toll station. Because of their efforts, it is still possible to travel the motorway without paying, and Tollbusters' research estimates that 75 per cent of motorists avoid the Mooloolaba toll station.

"We distributed thousands of maps of these little loops. One of them involved going around two roundabouts. You exited the motorway, went around these loops, and went back on, avoiding the toll station. Motorists voted with their steering wheels."

Despite Tollbusters, the Goss Government has recently floated more tollway proposals in response to predictions that south-east Queensland's

population will grow by one million by 2010, and that without new infrastructure commuter times could double in the same period.

The government is proposing 14 road infrastructure projects costing $1,150 million, including two new tollways by 1997 - one of them is a toll alternative to the Pacific Highway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

However, there is concern too that motorists will shun the predicted charge of $6 and will travel the old route.

A leaked state government study by consultants Rankin and Hill into motorists' "toll sensitivity" warns that with a 6 cents per km toll, the new road might attract only 4,000 of a projected 92,000 vehicle journeys daily between Brisbane and the Gold Coast by 2006.

Their Australia-wide study also warns that motorists will avoid tollways when the charges are too high, even on roads where there seems to be no alternative route.

David Keogh, the chairman of V.E.T.O., an organisation opposed to the eastern tollway, said motorists were being "conned" into believing a tollway system is just about introducing the user-pay principle.

"It's also propagating a myth that people who don't use tollways don't pay for tollways This is clearly false in Queensland."

How receptive Brisbanites remain to digging into their pockets and parting with their hard-earned shrapnel when they venture out remains to be seen.

by Chris Griffith