The warning bells have been ringing for quite some time, but the impending problems the trucking industry is going to come across in the future are not being addressed. It appears to be a perfect storm of issues which will lead to continuing inactivity on the decision making front. One of the major obstacles to a sensible infrastructure policy seems to be an inability to understand the problem.
This difficulty in getting our heads around the issue seems to be the main reason why no-one is willing to put their head above the parapet and push for some real radical change in the way we build roads and the way we pay for them. There also seems to be an attitude among some of the stakeholders to keep the technicalities surrounding the way we calculate road wear, capacity and charging as some kind of dark art beyond the ken of the average punter.
Another issue on this topic is the kind of time frames we need to talk about. Politicians are the final arbiters on when and where money should be spent. They are looking for something with plenty of bang for their buck and that bang needs to be within the political cycle to have any value for them. When we are talking about infrastructure spending we are dealing with decades and more. There is simply no good value in it for the shortsighted politician.
At the ALC Forum in Melbourne, Michael Deegan from Infrastructure Australia declared the recent reform in getting a National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) would not have got up if it hadn't been for the unwavering determination of current Federal Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese. ‘Albo’ also got a good rap from ATA Chairman, David Simon, during his Press Club speech.
Albanese may believe strongly national transport regulation is vital to improve productivity, but he also has no personal political interest in the issue. He is a left-wing Sydney city MP whose future depends on the concerns of the middle classes in Inner West Sydney suburbs like Leichhardt. In fact, he is likely to be sitting on the opposition benches when the NHVR finally gets up and going with any kind of effectiveness.
He may be an exception, but most politicians – especially State Ministers – are locked in to a very unstable short term cycle. The recent changes in the Victorian parliament illustrate the volatility at state level. Those entrusted with the job of looking after our infrastructure know this, and sometimes these short-term thinkers throw it into the too-hard basket.
The process of keeping our head in the sand about infrastructure issues is also helped by the mass media. A recent story beaten up by both Channel Ten and The Age about the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne shows the total confusion about the issues at stake. The stories managed to conflate so many issues about traffic and trucks that the essential problem was completely missed.
No funds have been available for proper engineering monitoring and maintenance of the 38-year old bridge and there are fears it may be deteriorating. The reports on TV and in the newspaper mentioned this fact but managed to completely confuse this issue by introducing the subject of a proposed second East/West link in the city, interviews with truckies about bridge congestion and the government extension of the use of B-triples and A-doubles.
Again, a major infrastructure issue got lost in the fog of anti-trucking hype. We are none the wiser about the capacity of the bridge and the general public are even more convinced the trucking industry is the problem.
We get into even deeper and murkier water when we try and talk about how to pay for any improvements that do get up. The thorny issue of road charging and registration costs goes around and around, no one is brave enough to touch it.
Massive infrastructure improvements have to happen, but the system can't even work out how to properly maintain the road network we already have. There is plenty of tinkering at the edges. We have two separate projects going on at the same time around future heavy vehicle charges, one short and the other long term. The short-term answer is going to leave no one happy and the long-term Heavy Vehicle Charging and Investment reform project is not expected to produce any real change any time soon.
It's time for thinking outside the square, creating a new paradigm and other clichés, to come to the fore. Some fresh thinking and brave decisions are needed before the Australian economic growth grinds to a halt, in long queues on the back of a truck.
Another speaker at the recent ALC Forum was willing to stick his neck out, and upset a few people in doing so. Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, brought up the subject of finding new sources of long term investment funding. He is calling for innovative thinking to get large funds like superannuation and others involved in a new way to fund infrastructure and break the federal/state impasse.
Although his comments caused arguments at the time, later speakers referred to his comments as being the way the transport industry is going to have to start thinking about infrastructure spending. It seems we can't rely on government to supply infrastructure on a platter, we are going to have to get out there, bang some heads together and get some real informed discussion going about a real solution to a problem which affects us all.