Thursday 31 May 2018

Australia's National Heavy Vehicle Charging Pilot: Part One - Location-based trials

Australia's (Federal) Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities announced in his speech to the Roads Australia Annual Luncheon on 15 December 2017 that Australia will be launching a National Heavy Vehicle Charging Pilot.

The main part of the pilot is a program to investigate and design an on-road pilot for heavy vehicles across Australia, to trial replacing the existing registration/fuel tax based system of charging heavy vehicles for road use.  It has distinct stages starting with a desktop modelling simulation through to a phased transition away from the current charging system.

In parallel, the Minister also announced funding for a business case program for location based trials (the so-called "Business Case Program"). Under this program, state and territory governments will be eligible to apply for Commonwealth Government funding support to develop business cases to undertake their own trials of heavy vehicle charging, to generate additional revenue for infrastructure improvements that specifically benefit heavy vehicle users.

The Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and the Cities released this Information Sheet about the Business Case Program (PDF)

The focus is on:

- Trials for heavy vehicle charging in specific locations, to pay (on a per kilometre basis) additionally to support road improvements that could deliver productivity benefits to heavy vehicle users;
- The additional revenue that it could raise would be specifically for such road improvements, and would not be about replacing the current registration/fuel tax based charging system;
- Funding support would be to support business case development not the trials themselves (it is presumably thought that the trials, being revenue generators, should be able to self-fund, although I am not sure that this support would necessarily be seen as sufficient incentive for interest from states and territories).

The Minister said in his speech:

The benefit might be using high productivity vehicles on routes where they cannot presently be used. Or the benefit might be a targeted program of investments to upgrade roads in a particular area which is of benefit to heavy vehicle operators—for example, livestock or grain transporters in a particular rural area.

Whatever the benefit—be it improved access, faster travel times or more flexible operating arrangements—it would clearly need to outweigh the costs of the additional charge so that heavy vehicle operators would find it worth their while to participate.

These trials could allow us to test such matters as particular technologies to record distance and location travelled; or the willingness to pay of operators; or the development of service level standards.

Again, we will be keen to work with the heavy vehicle industry—as well as state and territory governments—to see if we can work up such trials in different locations around the country. Through funding the development of business cases for trials we hope to catalyse a number of such trials over the next few years.

It should be possible for states and territories to identify gaps in their freight corridors that could be supported, over a forward-looking lifecycle cost basis, by infrastructure improvements paid for by the vehicles that benefit from them.  

Additionally, actual on-road trials could complement the proposed National pilot, by having trucks actually paying for road use, on a distance, location (and presumably some vehicle configuration and mass basis).  It also encourages road managers to take a more commercial, user-oriented approach to infrastructure development for heavy vehicles.

Which states and territories might be interested?

Thursday 24 May 2018

Australia's Heavy Vehicle Road Reform programme: An integrated, sound approach to road charging and funding

Although much attention is often given to toll roads in Australia, almost all road distance in Australia does not involve toll roads. As an economy dominated by extraction industries primarily around mining, but with agriculture also important, heavy vehicle use of a large and in many cases, sparsely used road network, is critical to the country's economic progress.  Australia is, after all, a continent, the sixth largest country by area (Russia, Canada, China, USA and Brazil are only bigger), but for its size it is the third least densely populated country (only Namibia and Mongolia have fewer people per square km).  That sparse population explains little when you note that over two thirds of the population live in the eight state and territory capitals, and another 22% live in the remaining urban areas, most of which are located along the coast in the eastern states.  Australia also has some of the largest trucks ever seen in regular use on public roads, with vehicles up to 60 metres long allowed on some routes, and total vehicle mass configurations of well over 100 tonnes. 

So Australia has taken heavy vehicle use of the road network seriously, because the productivity of both heavy vehicle use and the provision of the roads they use, has a direct impact on the economy.

Today, Australia charges heavy vehicles (excluding toll roads) through two means:

- Registration fees collected at the state and territory level (excluding some registered for interstate only traffic);

- Fuel excise duty known as the Road User Charge (which is fuel excise duty minus a refund to reduce it the "Road User Charge" rate), collected by the Commonwealth.  Currently at A$0.258 per litre (US$0.74/US gallon) of diesel.

The National Transport Commission annually reviews the levels of these, based on its cost allocation model, which uses data on recent spending on roads, allocates a proportion of those costs to heavy vehicles, which informs the

A Cost Allocation Model is used, based on historic spending on roads, to inform the setting of both registration fees (which escalate based on the mass/configuration of the vehicles) and the amount of the refund on fuel duty to set the road user charge rate.

For some years it has been acknowledged that this system is far from optimal.  Multiple reports have proposed a shift away from registration and fuel taxes towards direct user charging.

There is a relatively poor relationship between what is paid and the costs that heavy vehicles impose on the roads that they use. Most of the revenue collected through this system is treated as general revenue at the Commonwealth, state/territory levels, so is not dedicated for spending on roads. Numerous studies have noted the scope for reform, and a major reform programme was embarked upon, called the Heavy Vehicle Charging and Investment (HVCI) project, that sought to introduce heavy vehicle road charging. It was abandoned for several reasons, not least the complexity of the proposed programme, and the sequence of reforms, which effectively sought to reform charging before reforming the funding and governance structures for roads.  It also struggled to gain sufficient heavy vehicle user support.

Heavy Vehicle Road Reform

The current Commonwealth Government, under Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities, Paul Fletcher, has embarked on a new reform programme that is more holistic and integrated than HVCI.  It is notable in that it seeks to reform funding and management of roads, and how existing charges are set and used first, before replacing the current charging system with direct user charges.

Heavy Vehicle Road Reform seeks to not only reform how heavy vehicles pay for road use, but also to reform the funding and management of roads.

The current system is very much a political command and control model, and is depicted in the image below. Funding for roads is traded off with public spending for other activities, and decisions on priorities for road spending although informed by benefit/cost appraisal, is fundamentally a political call. Road managers primarily operate as engineering bodies, building and maintaining roads, with limited relationship with road users. The money that is spent on the roads is used to inform the charges that heavy vehicles pay, as the National Transport Commission uses data on previous spending (and forecasts of heavy vehicle demand) to inform rate setting of registration and the fuel excise "road user charge". 

The image below from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities is a fair summary of the current situation.

Australia's current system of charging and supplying roads for heavy vehicles

It shows a very limited relationship between road managers and road users, and in the use of revenue collected from road charges and money spent on roads.

The reform steps

The reform agenda comprises four key stages as seen below:

Heavy Vehicle Road Reform stages