Saturday, 25 February 2012

Two gazillion dollars

On a particularly slow news day, the local newspaper is helped when a media release is dropped on its doorstep. The local newspaper, the Advertiser, received one recently about roads. It wasn't published on the website so I scanned it:

The words at the bottom are from an advertisement telling us there is a "massive pool sale". I think what is left is fitting.

We are told that every month, 2334 additional cars hit the roads in South Australia (their growth is twice the population rate). No analysis is made of how many leave the roads, nor is there any analysis about whether this is a good or bad thing or what it might mean. The RAA tells us though that we need more roads to fit all these cars on to and that the Government should do something about it. It says the Government should spend more of the "$2.4 billion tax slug from SA motorists on transport infrastructure" - roads in other words.

How that figure is arrived at is not made clear. It cannot include revenue from speeding and other traffic fines. Ther're not taxes. They're entirely voluntary.

Is it car registration? Well no. In South Australia, registration for three months a 4-cylinder car is calculated as follows:

Registration: $28
CTP Insurance Premium $127
GST Component of CTP Insurance $10.40
Stamp Duty on Insurance $15
Emergency Services Levy $6
Administration $22

Making a total of $198

So the actual registration is just a little more than the administration cost. The bulk of it is an insurance premium and part of it pays for ambulances and fire engines.

$28. Paying for the roads? Hardly.

Is it petrol tax? Well no. 38 cents is paid on each litre of unleaded. That was reduced when the GST was introduced to avoid claims of "double-dipping". It also has not increased with inflation since 2001 so has been decreasing in real terms since then. The RAA is correct that about 75% goes to general revenue. The rest is spent on national road infrastructure. However, it would be an error to conclude that that is the only money spent on roads.

The $2.4 billion apparently stolen from motorists is a common figure that is bandied about. It amounts to about $200 per motorist. When you consider the cost of running a car each year, and the cost of just maintaining all of the roads we have, how far do you think that $200 goes? When a car yet again mows down a street sign, will $200 cover the damage? How many potholes created by all those cars can be fixed for $200? What about the opportunity cost of all that space set aside for free or subsidised parking? What about the cost of all of that oil, grease and brake dust running into our waterways? $200 doesn't come close to covering all of that.

The fact is we all pay for cars to use our roads. Not just in money but in the noise, pollution, inconvenience, illness and injury that they cause. The suggestion that motorists somehow pay to use the roads is, as the article says, "massive poo". It is astounding that the assertion is so rarely challenged (if ever) either by our politicians or journalists.

The subject has been covered in detail by the PTUA.

But let's get back to the point of the article: we have to build more roads to make space for all of these additional cars. Anyone who has driven on the M25 in London would know that it is generally full of cars. During rush hours in places it is practically at a standstill. When it was finished it had three lanes on each side right around London. In places it has now been expanded to five. It has made no difference to congestion. It is not hard to find pictures of highways in and around cities like Los Angeles with anything up to nine lanes of traffic on each side - close to stationary. The number of lanes makes no difference. They just fill up.

I often hear that one of Adelaide's plus points is it wide roads. Their width is an accident of history. The main ones through the city are generally either 4 or 2 lanes wide (with space for parking). Some, like North Terrace, are up to six lanes wide. They weren't built like that to accommodate hundreds or cars years later. It was because Colonel Light wanted wide boulevards. If you've got the space, why not use it?

But what day was it when we no longer had enough road space and more had to be built? And how much extra asphalt is required?

The amount of road space we have is entirely arbitrary. The city is divided into a grid as we know:

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

But imagine if say North Terrace was not there (that's the one at the top of the grid next to the railway station). Imagine that when Adelaide was settled, instead of as a six lane street as it is now, that space was designed from the outset as a public park and it was grassed over with trees planted the whole way down. If it still existed like that, what difference would it make to today's traffic?

None whatsoever. It would just be the shape of the city and traffic would adjust. It's the same as all those cities with rivers running through them. London could have had one extra road bridge or one less. It would make no difference to the traffic at all. The same applies here. Just adding lanes and roads won't help congestion. It will do the opposite. That is not to say that work should not be done to eliminate bottlenecks and change dangerous intersections but continually building more roads is old school. We've done that and it doesn't work.

To be fair, in its submission to the recent Henry Tax Review, the RAA argued for the abolition of fuel excise and instead for a user pays road pricing scheme with prices changing depending on the time of day. Now that sounds more like it. If it was a genuine user pays system, I would be all for it.

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