REGO INCREASE PRESSURE: Could increasing costs mean road services to rural and remote Australia become unsustainable for transporters to maintain?
REGO INCREASE PRESSURE: Could increasing costs mean road services to rural and remote Australia become unsustainable for transporters to maintain? Contributed

National road reform rollout

JULY 1 saw the road transport industry cop an increase of almost 10 per cent for the registration cost of an average B-double configuration truck, and a 12.7per cent increase for a triple road train.

This means operators will have to find registration costs of about $16,169 for a B-double and $18,669 for a triple road train.

These cost increases come as part of the rollout of the National Heavy Vehicle Road Reform package.

Big Rigs figures are sourced from the Heavy Vehicle Charges published by the National Transport Commission.

This year's increases in registration costs come from the recommendations of the Transport and Infrastructure Council, a get-together of transport ministers from all states, territories and the Federal Government.

The entire reform is based on the rather nefarious concept that all utilities in Australia need to be paid for by the users - or beneficiaries. So who are the beneficiaries of road transport?

Road transport operators don't drive trucks up and down the highways for their own pleasure. They fit within an overall infrastructure chain essential to the running and survival of the nation.

Yet the TIC, in a paper on the demand for Heavy Vehicle Road Reform, suggests that: "Road infrastructure in Australia is at a historic tipping point”.

"Demand for significant new and upgraded infrastructure is growing,” the paper states.

"But it is getting harder for governments to fund the expectations and demands of road users from general taxation revenue”.

What will the impact of these increases be?
What will the impact of these increases be? Contributed

With across-the-board push for privatisation and users-pay, the states and territories see road transport as something like the supply of electricity or other utilities we all use individually.

The TIC paper goes on to describe road transport as the last unpriced utility.

"To date roads have largely escaped the microeconomic reforms that have transformed other public infrastructure sectors such as water and electricity into customer-focused utility markets,” it states.

This is part of a generational change where government bean counters have attempted to change the acceptance of a national responsibility for big-ticket items such as defence, police and road infrastructure to identifying users and milking them dry.

Road transport can be seen as being more akin to defence than the personal use of electricity. Road infrastructure has been underwritten by general taxation hand in hand with registration and fuel revenue, at least until the past decade.

In arguing for registration reform, the TIC paper cites: "In the US, estimates by some industry experts suggest there will be a 50per cent increase in fuel efficiency over the next 15 years. If this trend was to be replicated in Australia, there would be a significant decline in the revenue collected from fuel excise taxes”.

Yes that is right, the Australian governments are considering increasing the cost of registration because of an industry becoming more efficient, and striving towards greenhouse sustainability.

The reduction in fuel refers to the second thrust of cost recovery in the road transport industry, the taxing of fuel used.

The debate over who is responsible for road and infrastructure capital expenditure and maintenance has been going on since year dot.

In a country without the population density to support alternate transport infrastructure such as rail, most goods are carried by road.

The Harper Competition Review was handed down in 2014 with a government response a year later.

Coming out of that response, the Heavy Vehicle Road Reform initiative was established and the TIC inaugurated.

The government claims that under 'improved' competition policy, there will be savings of between $8billion and $22billion to the national purse over 20years, depending on what user-pays system is introduced.

No guesses where that's coming from - straight out of the pocket of the road transport industry.

The proposed road reform has a long way to run with nothing but an increased burden on transport operators with ongoing debate, and the proposed shift towards a user-pays system for road infrastructure is creating concern among rural and remote transport operators.

Many operators are anxious, believing that if the decisions go the wrong way, road services to remote and rural Australia may not be sustainable over the long term.

Those in the transport industry know only too well of the millions upon millions of dollars paid by industry into internal revenue supposedly for the upkeep and construction of roads, yet these funds are lost in the maze of demands from Canberra and through the tortuous conduits to state and local government jurisdictions.

The Heavy Vehicle Road Reform has promoted the notion that increasingly, road managers will not be able to deliver the quality of road services necessary to meet the growing national freight task under the current system.

David Smith is president of the Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of South Australia and runs a regional and linehaul operation out of Tumby Bay on the Eyre Peninsula.

He poses what he considers an anomaly in the proposed reform.

"For regional and rural transporters, we currently pay a fixed fee for our registration but a lot of local carriers don't do the kilometres that eastern seaboard runners do,” he said.

"If you divide your registration by kilometres- per-tonne driven, look at the costs at the moment to register a road train prime mover, say around $17,000 per year. If you're only doing 150,000km per year, the cost per kilometre (could be nearly double) compared to a prime mover that is doing more than 300,000km per year on a more regular freight route.”

Mr Smith said there were inconsistencies in the current registration system and these could become worse under some of the proposed models.

He reckons nobody is trying to dodge their responsibility.

Maintaining and supporting the sparse population and huge area of Australia comes at a price.

Is our wealthy nation of Australia prepared to pay that price? Subsidise essential infrastructure?

Or do we take a bean-counter's vision that doesn't extend beyond the top of a spreadsheet and continue to gut the bush.

We have seen another slug on the road transport industry with the turning of the financial year, but there could be more draconian measures in the pipeline.

The answer could well lie in the notion that road transport is essential to the running of the national economy and infrastructure charges need to be embraced by all Australians.

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