Thursday, February 08, 2007

Did the Cross City tunnel put the cart before the horse?

Large cities throughout the world have problems with congestion in the city centre, resulting in lost time, lower productivity, higher costs to individuals and businesses, and more air pollution.

There are two ways to address this problem: you can introduce measures to discourage driving in the city or you can provide or improve alternatives to driving in the city. Preferably, you’d do both. Measures to discourage driving could be indirect, such as parking restrictions or fees or bus lanes (which means fewer car lanes). Direct discouragement, in the form of a fee for driving in the city centre (the most well-known is probably the London congestion charge) is more effective. Providing alternatives includes better public transport, infrastructure for cycling or, as Sydney has done, a tunnel under the city so that people can cross from one side to the other without going through the congested city streets.

Australian readers would be aware of the financial problems that the Cross-City Tunnel has had since its inception last year. Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports that the tunnel, which cost more than $900 million to build, is now worth little more than a third of that.

The main reason for this is that the current usage of the tunnel - 30,000 vehicles per day – is less than a third of the forecast usage of 97,000 vehicles per day.

The tunnel and its associated toll always seemed to me to be the wrong way around. I've always thought there should be a toll for not using the tunnel – for driving through the city instead.
Tunnel users get charge a toll of $3.50 ($7.00 for trucks) for avoiding city traffic. Now, clearly tunnel users get a benefit from avoiding the city congestion, but by taking the tunnel rather than driving through the city, they’re also avoiding contributing to the congestion in the city. So both city drivers and tunnel users benefit from the tunnel, but it’s only the tunnel users who pay for that benefit. If you really want to encourage drivers to avoid the city, why make it free to drive through the city but expensive to use the alternative?

The Sydney CBD is a relatively small area with only a few entry points. If the State government is serious about reducing congestion and making an adequate return from its tunnel, why not introduce a congestion charge that makes it as expensive to use the city streets as to use the tunnel?


Miss Krin said...

Interesting, I'd never thought of it that way, but it's a very good point. This of course is assuming that the proposed outcome of the cross city tunnel was for reduced air pollution and CBD congestion, rather than the increased flow of traffic from north to south and the connection of all the highways that have been built recently. Which is similar to reducing congestion, but not quite the same. It's about reducing travel times rather than numbers of cars on the road.

However, if reduced air pollution was one of the proposed outcomes, and given that the cross city tunnel came out of the RTA and Planning rather than the DEC who holds the policy for air quality initiatives, this is unlikely, then perhaps we could also talk about a two pronged approach, as your article originally suggests. We charge motorists for going into the city so they pay for the pollution they create and we then use that money to subsidise an inexpensive light rail system from Central to Circular Quay and back which might eventually extend down to some of the major satellite centres of the CBD e.g. Newtown, Glebe, Annandale, Paddington and Darlinghurst. With reduced traffic in teh CBD as a result of tolls we can afford the space to run a light rail system. This is not a new idea by any means, but I sometimes wonder why it got discredited so quickly.

Again this presupposes that the policy outcome of the cross city tunnel was for reduced congestion and air pollution, of which I am quite sceptical.

Oz said...

I agree with what you're saying and had similar thoughts but I don't think it goes far enough.

A congestion charge may help for the Sydney CBD but won't deal with a bigger problem facing the metropolitan region.

The problem is that as centres of employment are decentralising, moving out to cheaper areas like industrial and business parks out west or the outer hubs like Parramatta or Liverpool, people are totally reliant on cars as a means of transport as there aren't any alternatives.

Congestion isn't just a problem for the CBD, its a problem affecting many main arterial roads.

Rob Dawg said...

Lower the price until it reaches capacity. Trust me, price sensitivity is a powerful mechanism. $2.00 would triple useage after which introduce auto debiting and a policy of gradual price increases. THe biggest benefits of bypasses are the congestion relief on surface streets thus high capacity toll roads do not internalize congestion costs. Quite the contrary. Congestion already imposes user costs; time and money. Congestion surcharges are social engineering not transportation economics.

pedaller said...

Ofcourse I have to agree with you that if you want to reduce CBD congestion short-term then the Cross City Tunnel should be free and all CBD road users should pay. Ofcourse this will just move the traffic congestion further out into the feeder roads.

In the long term, however, building new roads (including tunnels) only encourages more cars onto the roads, increasing traffic congestion, and neccessitating the building of even more roads.

I strongly suspect the key to reducing traffic congestion is to close roads and force people to rethink their transport options, which may also have to include them re-assessing their housing options.

David Jeffery said...

Pedaller, I don't think the CCT should be free, just that it shouldn't be $3.50 more than travelling through the city.

I agree with you all that it's not just the CBD which is a problem, but the CBD seems to me to be the biggest problem and the one for which there is a reasonably simple solution.