Whatever happened to the charging reforms?

Mass. Distance. Location. Three little words, fairly inoffensive in their own right, but when brought together capable of causing fierce debate and divide within the road transport industry.

In the name of charging reforms, the notion of the state charging operators for every heavy vehicle trip on the basis of the weight of the vehicle, its location, and how far it drove was one of the proposals put forward last year by the Heavy Vehicle Charging and Investment Reform (HVCI) project office.

The concept was far from new. In early 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) commissioned a feasibility study of introducing more direct pricing for heavy vehicles and to examine future funding arrangements for roads. At the time, this complemented the parallel initiative of the establishment of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. When the feasibility study final report was published in 2011 under COAG’s Road Reform Plan, mass, distance and location-based charging (MDL) featured prominently.

Throughout the course of the HVCI’s industry consultation and heavy vehicle reform development, it became apparent that MDL was the preferred solution, and would require some clever in-vehicle telemetry to function. Should the reform go ahead, every single heavy vehicle would require a black box which continuously monitored the vehicle’s weight, and where it had been.

And with that suggestion, battle lines were drawn. Stakeholders took sides, private consultants were engaged, meetings were held, and economic assessments were conducted. Assumptions were made, challenged, revised, and challenged again, and eventually thick reports with glossy covers were produced and distributed.

Amidst the heated debate, the Melbourne-based HVCI project office was closed, and the work programs shelved. But for what reason? We can only speculate. Was the proposed reform regarded as too much, too soon, and just all too hard? There were unanswered questions regarding basic features of the road cost model, the industry largely spurned the whole idea, and it lacked wide-spread jurisdictional support. Any one of these factors could have been responsible for its demise.

“Was the proposed reform regarded as too much, too soon, and just all too hard?”

Which is a shame, as it could have allowed proper hypothecation of collected revenue. Put simply, MDL would make it possible to charge according to the infrastructure wear caused by the vehicle. An end to questionable registration fees, a guarantee that road transport industry revenue would be spent on roads, and a potentially huge reduction in restrictions on access because of fears for road wear or bridge loading.

Such benefits have been demonstrated by the countries that have already developed and implemented such schemes, which include Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic, all of whom use in-vehicle technology to determine the charges payable.

Given the importance of the road transport industry to our economy, we should be leading the way on transport regulatory reforms, but the decision to axe the HVCI will just leave us further behind.