Australia's toll road king, Transurban, warns congestion in Sydney will match the clogged streets of Mexico City within decades unless motorists are properly charged for their use of the road network.
The dire warning from Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton follows attempts in recent days by the federal Minister for Major Projects, Paul Fletcher, to kickstart debate about a national system of road pricing.
Mr Charlton said a shift to a user-pays model was the only way to ensure Australia's cities did not grind to a halt over the next two to three decades.
"Even factoring in committed projects such as WestConnex and NorthConnex, and all the currently committed rail projects, by 2035 Sydney motorists could face congestion levels on par with Mexico City and spend 110 hours a year in traffic," he told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia luncheon on Tuesday.
Without a move towards charging for usage, Mr Charlton said, motorists could spend up to two hours on some of Sydney's worst roads for what would otherwise be a 40-minute trip outside peak hours.
NSW Transport Secretary Tim Reardon said congestion charging was not government policy and he emphasised that "we have a long way to go in expanding our public transport system before we can contemplate such measures".
Although Sydney's extensive toll-road network showed motorists were willing to pay when they saw a direct benefit, Mr Reardon said a debate about road pricing needed to be "nationally led".
He told the business luncheon that there were big challenges to any moves toward road pricing, as evidenced in the "barbecue test" at weekends, when a common response to the subject was "not over my dead body".
In the wake of advice from Infrastructure Australia last month, the Turnbull government is set to commission a study into how a road-pricing scheme would work.
Mr Charlton said Australia could not "build its way out of congestion" and the funding model relied on for the past century would not generate anywhere near the revenue needed to meet the transport needs of the major cities.
He cited modelling from the CSIRO that showed revenue from fuel excise would drop by up to 45 per cent in real terms by 2050, despite Australia's cities doubling in population.
"This is a funding model well past its use-by date. It is literally running out of fuel," he said.
Transurban has a stranglehold on toll roads in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. In Sydney, it operates the M2, the M5, the M7, the Eastern Distributor, and the Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels.
Early feedback from a road-usage study of 1200 motorists in Melbourne showed that even providing them basic information helped to get people to think about changing behaviour. The study by Transurban will be completed by mid-year.
Taking aim at so-called innovative funding concepts, Mr Charlton said value-capture and developer fees had been hailed as the best way for governments to finance large infrastructure projects but were merely new names for old concepts.
"We had the betterment tax to help fund the Sydney Harbour Bridge," he said.
"The concept of value capture is a legitimate one for governments to consider. But we should recognise that it is not the panacea for all our revenue issues."
The Grattan Institute's director of transport and cities, Marion Terrill, said there had been some disregard for the public interest in how taxpayer funds were spent on transport projects in Australia.
"Governments both Commonwealth and state have spent money – very large amounts of money – over the past decade on transport infrastructure projects that did not focus on the economic powerhouses of the cities," she said.
This story was originally published on www.smh.com.au.