Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Brisbane's other unprofitable toll road

The bankruptcy of the privately owned Clem 7 tunnel has already been noted on this blog, a victim of a combination of overly-optimistic traffic forecasts and the delays in completing a key connecting highway (Airport Link). However, despite all of that, the tunnel remains in operation and is an asset for the city, even though it is operating in administration. After all, there is nothing else to do with the tunnel, but operate it as a toll road!

Brisbane’s other less than financially stellar toll road is owned by Brisbane City Council. The Go Between Bridge in downtown Brisbane, Australia is unusual as far as toll bridges are concerned. It isn’t typical to find a central city river crossing tolled when other crossings are not. While the bridge undoubtedly is a shortcut for many, the toll is also a deterrent that reduces the optimal use of the bridge compared with others. The Go Between Bridge is, to be fair, a link to the Brisbane Inner City Bypass, so has convenience in that sense, and it apparently saves up to 15 minutes. Yet it is 250m away from a parallel untolled road bridge. 

Go Between Bridge in blue, nearest untolled road bridge in yellow

The toll is A$2.42 for cars (A$2.48), half price for motorcycles, A$3.63 (US$3.72) for light commercial vehicles and A$6.41 (US$6.58) for vehicles over 4.5 tonnes.  Payment is by DSRC based account (it is fully electronic free flow) which requires a A$25 (US$25.65) prepay balance.  Those without a tag pay a A$0.25 (US$0.26) surcharge for automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).  There is a A$5 (US$5.13) fee if payment is not made within 3 days, with it rising to A$10 (US$10.26) for a reminder notice and A$15 (US$15.39) for a demand notice before it goes to debt collection.

It cost A$338 million to build and gets an average 14,000 motorists a day. Brisbane City Council expects it to be over 21,000 by 2016 and will be hoping for that figure – yes a city council hoping for more downtown traffic – so it can pay its way. Not something environmentalists would be thrilled with, but the hope is that the increase is a diversion from other routes. According to the Brisbane Times the bridge costs A$30 million a year just to maintain and operate, but is only collecting A$8.18 million in tolls. A yawning gap in revenue, that reminds me of the far smaller, but equally dismal (financially) Route K in New Zealand.

One solution for Brisbane is some form of congestion charging, which could then be used to help pay for the bridge (which could form part of a boundary to a charging zone as it follows the Inner City Bypass, as could Clem 7). However, the politics behind that are complicated and are likely to require thought of how to reduce other taxes to, at least partly, offset such a charge. Given the RACQ’s interest in discussion on it, maybe it is time for an intelligent discussion to be had – which gives motorists something back in exchange for pricing use of Brisbane’s city centre roads?  

Of course an even simpler idea would be to toll the parallel bridge on the basis that it must be getting some relief from the Go Between Bridge, so its users should pay perhaps a toll of 50% the price of the new bridge?

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