As Australia moves through the first quarter of the 21st century, the need to find new ways to fund essential transport infrastructure and services is becoming increasingly urgent.
This is attributable to the collision of several important elements:
- expectations of a good level of service on both roads and public transport continue to increase, as does demand for new capacity
- rapidly increasing costs to provide and maintain services and infrastructure in Australia, far exceeding the rate of increase in CPI and in taxation revenues
- the call on government funds for law and order, welfare, health and educational services continues to increase, reducing the proportion of funds available for transport infrastructure and services
- user pays pricing reforms have proved difficult to introduce in the transport sector. This means roads remain free to use, revenue from traditional tax payer sources has been increasingly stretched, and traffic demand growth continues unabated.
It could simply be that the Australian community has reached an inevitable point in its development where decisions need to be debated about:
- whether the present levels of transport service should be maintained, by raising new revenues, or
- whether other forms of adaptation, such as massively increasing the use of virtual travel, need to be explored.
We are not much disposed in Australia to debating the first point. There is simply no appetite for considering whether to raise taxes. Perhaps we are still in denial, or perhaps this approach is no longer politically feasible.
As revenue pools reduce and transport professionals learn to work in a highly constrained fiscal environment, the focus will continue to be on what will make a bigger impact for a lower cost, and achieve greater value for money.
But are there realistic options for doing more with less, or have these already been found in the considerable productivity improvements over the past two decades?
A framework for doing more transport with less money
Assessment of productivity reform options in transport could be undertaken through the following framework:
- Finding new approaches to funding: Considering all realistic funding sources, and financing options to spread the available funding further; Almost certainly, there is a broader ability for government to utilise ‘availability’ PPPs to boost the pool of capital for transport investment, although of course this is simply a means of bringing forward government investment, rather than finding a substitute for it; Eventually, the debate will surely also have to turn to user pays road pricing. Not as the over-simplified congestion tax so often portrayed as the purpose of user charging, but as an equitable means of charging users, rather than taxpayers, for the strategic road upgrades they demand
- Improved asset and demand management: reducing life cycle costs, promoting realistic changes to travel behavior, better use of technology to reduce the need to travel, and more use of active transport
- Getting more out of transport assets for moving people: fixing pinch points, establishing road user hierarchies, intelligent transport systems to move traffic better, enhanced rail infrastructure and signals, changing the configuration of rollingstock and using bigger buses, using measures like prepaid boarding on buses to reduce dwell times
- Getting more out of transport assets for moving freight: enhanced road freight logistics, asset management, intelligent transport systems, more long distance rail freight, last mile enhancement
- Optimising urban growth management and transport investments: land use planning that reduces the need for new transport assets and supports efficient network operations.
When we examine this framework, we can see there is still much more room for innovation and for improving the productivity of our investments. Almost certainly, we will be able to make better use of technology in many areas to help better utilise our assets.
In the key area of urban growth management, all the major capitals, and most of the emerging regional cities, suffer from a very major and widening disconnect between residential growth and employment locations.
With a continued push for developer led greenfield communities aimed at improving housing affordability, our need for new transport infrastructure to support these long distance transport movements appears very entrenched. And even if we were willing and able to reverse this situation, we would need decades to have any effect.
However the rest of the options listed above show much promise, and should be embraced by transport professionals.