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What you may not know is that in Australia, toll collection is dominated by a single ASX-listed, multi-billion-dollar Melbourne-based company called Transurban, and it's operating under lucrative state government contracts which generally run up to 30 years or more.
Over the 12 months up to 30 June 2017, Transurban's toll revenue rose 11.4% to $2.083 billion while its after-tax profit went up 850% from $22 million to $209 million.
But it's questionable whether Transurban, which collects toll charges on 13 of Australia's 16 toll roads, is dedicating enough of these funds to customer service.
Some would say the road toll business model itself is less than customer-friendly.
State governments have little oversight over whether the toll collectors they contract out to are being fair to motorists, but it's often the state agencies that will come after you if you fail to pay.
And failure to pay – even if you're unaware you'd incurred charges – will see the original toll fee multiplying each day as hefty administration fees tacked on by the toll collector are eventually topped off by a state-issued fine.
Once the state comes after you, it's out of the toll collector's hands.
It doesn't help that the toll collector's administration fees appear to be well out of line with any semblance of cost recovery either.
Mishmash of a system
Australia's privately run road toll system doesn't always offer users a fair deal, as toll costs can vary depending on where you live.
For instance, Sydney's Westlink M7 and WestConnex M4 are tolled by distance, whereas the older M2 and M5 charge a single fee no matter how far you travel.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Harbour Tunnel both have three different time-of-day rates, but the three-tiered system only operates in one direction. So motorists coming from northwest Sydney pay more than those coming from southwest Sydney.
It's generally the case that the farther you live from Sydney's employment opportunities (perhaps because you can't afford to live closer) the more you pay to reach them, a situation that holds true in other capital cities as well.
Many see this as a form of discrimination against outlying, lower-income commuters who have no choice but to take the toll roads to get to work.
According to the Melbourne-based Western Community Legal Centre (also called WEstjustice), toll debts disproportionally affect lower-income, outer-suburb neighbourhoods and outstanding fines from $20,000 up to $200,000 are becoming more common.
Toll charges vs service delivery
Then there's the matter of cost versus services rendered. The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils has estimated a daily return trip from the North Western Growth Centre (encompassing the Blacktown, Hills Shire and Hawkesbury councils) to the city at $27.62 a day.
This adds up to about nine percent of average weekly earnings in Australia and 20% of the minimum weekly wage.
Value for money?
Do the tolls we pay accurately reflect the cost of building and maintaining the road? That's hard to say, because the financial arrangements between the states and toll collectors are far from transparent.
What's clear is that collectors often raise tolls on one road to help pay for another, which you may or may not end up driving on.
Then there's the question of whether we should be paying a toll at all if the road becomes all but dysfunctional when you need it most, as is often the case at peak traffic times in major cities. Is it fit for purpose when your commute grinds to a halt?
Regardless of whether you get what you pay for, toll collectors are eager to win state contracts and start debiting your dollars.
As of March 2017, Queensland's road-toll debt was $233 million. And in Victoria, infringement warrants for toll fines added up to $687 million in 2015, according to WEstjustice.
About 70,000 Queenslander motorists who are in arrears simply can't afford to pay down this outstanding debt, according to a recent report by the Queensland parliament. For these citizens, unpaid community service may be the only option.
The degree to which these fines are attributable to mistakes on the part of the toll collector rather than the motorist is open to question. But big toll collectors like Transurban will certainly play hardball when it comes to collecting unpaid tolls.
In one case cited by Toll Redress, a Queensland-based toll user advocacy group, a Brisbane man ended up $30,000 in debt and had his licence suspended as a result of what he said was a lack of proper notification from Transurban and the piling on of a $23.46 administration charge for every unpaid $4.39 toll.
When he said he could afford to pay the tolls but not the admin fees, Transurban said no deal. So the driver contacted Toll Redress, who helped make the case to Transurban that its administration fees greatly exceeded the cost of issuing invoices.
Transurban eventually waived the fees and the unpaid tolls.
In another case in late 2016 that appeared on A Current Affair, the owner of a small trucking business attempted to resolve $1800 worth of toll charges levied by Transurban's Brisbane brand, Go Via, that were incorrectly invoiced.
He got nowhere with Go Via and ended up receiving a $66,000 collection notice from Queensland's State Penalty Enforcement Registry after administration fees and state fines were applied. The Registry then seized and sold one of his trucks to clear the debt.
If complaints are anything to go by, Go Via is the most troublesome toll road currently operating.
At fault by default
According to Toll Redress co-founder Michael Fraser, the service has heard from hundreds of consumers from all walks of life who've been caught up in costly disputes with Transurban.
"It seems to be a system that's designed so that whether it's the fault of the toll collector or the driver, it becomes the fault of the driver by default. And because of not-always-reliable notification procedures, you can just keep driving and thinking everything's all good until you receive a bundle of notices in the mail."
A common problem, says Fraser, is when Transurban declares that a toll user's account has insufficient funds to cover a direct debit, so suspends the account and starts charging a higher rate per toll.
"The first you're going to hear about it is when you get a notice in the mail," explains Fraser. "By the time the driver catches on to what's happening, multiple toll notices are in the mail, each with a high administration fee," he adds.
And if you don't get the letter because of postal issues or your details aren't up-to-date with the motor vehicle registry, you can expect a state infringement notice and hundreds of dollars owed per unpaid toll.
"In many cases, drivers have demonstrated to us – and attempted to demonstrate to Transurban – that their accounts were in fact fully solvent and the mistake was Transurban's or the bank's. A lot of people tell us that they never received a notice as well, so they end up owning hundreds of dollars for an alleged infraction that they were completely unaware of. When this happens, Transurban is not easy to deal with," says Fraser.
According to some calculations, Transurban routinely charge 10 times or more of the actual cost of mailing out an invoice, though these fees are reviewed and approved by state authorities.
Add state infringement penalties to the admin costs and your original toll charge can go as high as $345 in Victoria. And if you still fail to make payment after that, loss of licence, property seizure and wage garnishment may follow.
As Toll Redress puts it, "Our observation is that existing escalation arrangements enslave people in a vicious cycle of confusion, stress and financial strain."
During a state parliament hearing in March this year, the fee arrangements for Queensland's State Penalties Enforcement Registry were described as "complicated, inconsistent and inflexible".
One motorist who lodged a complaint with the Tolling Customer Ombudsman (TCO) in July 2016 made the case that nearly 80% of her $7300 unpaid Roam Tolling (part-owned by Transurban) charges were administrative fees.
With a debt collection agency on her back, the woman's initial calls to Transurban about the matter weren't returned or kept on record, she said in the complaint.
Eventually she reached an agreement with Transurban to pay $2973.43, which she assumed included the $750 she'd already paid.
When Transurban said the previous payments were not included, the TCO got involved and Transurban ended up giving the woman a $250 credit for tolls already paid (down from $375, which the TCO had initially called for).
In a 2016 letter to the TCO, Transurban confirmed that its administration fees "are required to reflect the actual cost associated with issuing these invoices/notices and are regularly audited to ensure compliance".
But charging $12.14 to send a letter (or $23.89 for a follow-up letter) to a motorist – or charging this much for each toll listed in a single letter – would seem to contradict this claim. Particularly when, in 2002, an accounting firm hired by the Victorian Government found the cost to Transurban to send out a collection letter would fall somewhere between 28–93 cents.
Transurban Customers and Communities Advocate Jean Ker Walsh says the company is often willing to come to an agreement on outstanding debts.
"The size and the complexity of the customer service side of our business certainly poses some challenges, but I would say we put a lot of effort into it and empower our staff to deal with issues in a personalised, case-by-case way," she says. "We deal with a huge number of issues and we resolve most of them at point of call.
"Perhaps what we haven't done as well as we could have is to let people know that assistance is available and how to access it. Our difficulty is that we don't know where our customers are having problems unless they tell us."
As for administration costs, Walsh says they reflect the cost of tracking down the names and addresses of drivers who don't have Transurban accounts, based on a toll camera photograph and then sending out the notices.
"We know two things: the size of the vehicle and the number plate. That's all we know."
When toll users receive unexpected collection letters, Walsh advises they take action immediately.
"If a toll user has any problem at all they should come into us sooner rather than later. We will make concessions in hardship cases, but it's the responsibility of the vehicle owner to make sure they don't sell a car to someone and forget to inform Transurban or the motor vehicle registry, for instance. We can't just write it off if you make a mistake, because then everyone will be coming to us with the same story."
In line with what the TCO told us, Walsh says the administration fees were approved by the respective state authorities and reflect Transurban's true administrative costs. Yet Walsh says the company has rolled out a new fee regime in NSW, Victoria and Queensland in which collection letters will combine six toll charges with a single administration fee, instead of an admin fee for each toll.
Asked how this new initiative aligns with Transurban's longstanding contention that an admin fee for every toll charge was justified, Walsh failed to offer a clear explanation, saying "we will be collecting less in fees".
"We can make mistakes just as anybody can, and technology can go wrong as well," she adds. "But if it's brought to our attention that it's our mistake and not the toll user's, we will move to fix it very, very quickly."
How to contest a fine
Motorists must first lodge a complaint with the toll collector and give it time to address the issue.
If the toll collector gives you the run-around or you are unhappy with their decision, you can lodge a complaint with the TCO here or call 1800 145 009.
But the TCO has no jurisdiction when it comes to state fines applied when a toll collector refers your case to a state penalty enforcement body. It also has no power to demand monetary compensation by a toll operator in the event that its behaviour caused economic loss to a toll user beyond the toll and related charges.
What the TCO can do is act as an intermediary between you and the toll collector to come to an agreement over disputed toll charges and administration fees.
If you don't like a TCO decision, you're not bound by it. You can escalate the complaint to other authorities, such as state consumer protection agencies or the courts.
Tolling Customer Ombudsman (TCO)
The TCOwas set up in 2004 in Victoria to help resolve consumer complaints about tolls. It's run by Victoria barrister and solicitor Michael Arnold and currently operates in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
Major toll operators ConnectEast, Interlink Roads, and Transurban and their regional brands (listed below) are required to abide by TCO decisions.
The big toll operators' regional brands:
E-way/M5 South-West Motorway
As of July 2017, the TCO has received about 7000 complaints since its inception. Some of the common issues include being charged for tolls on cars they hadn't owned for years, plus credit card and other administrative mix-ups that led to exorbitant fine notices and threatening collection letters.
But according to Ombudsman Michael Arnold, "The overwhelming number of toll road users meet toll payment requirements in time or upon receipt of a toll invoice."
When that doesn't happen, it's generally for one of the following reasons:
Your account with a toll operator doesn't have up-to-date or correct address details with the state motor vehicle registry, in which case notices are sent to incorrect addresses.
You haven't advised the toll operator or the state motor vehicle registry of the sale of a vehicle to a third party, in which case tolls incurred by the third party will continue to be charged to the seller's account.
You lack sufficient funds in a credit card or bank account at the time a cumulative toll charge is applied.
In Arnold's experience, toll collectors have been willing to make a deal with toll users who rack up high charges.
"I can't say that toll operators don't make errors in the course of their administration, but when errors happen I expect toll operators to redress the problem, and they do," he says. "The toll operators will generally make concessions and reduce the fees. That happens more often than not.
"But when the matter gets escalated from the toll operator to a state agency, that's a big problem because the toll operator has limited ability to control the state agency. However, there have been cases where a toll operator agrees to withdraw a number of the toll notices that have been escalated."
Arnold adds that toll operators aren't allowed to apply penalties in the form of admin fees in Queensland and Victoria and that such fees must be limited to the costs borne by the toll operator. But it remains a murky area.
"These administration fees are fixed in consultation with the state governments as part of the contract," he says. "I don't have jurisdiction over that, but they obviously have to justify the fees to the state governments before they charge them."
Transurban toll fee escalation
After 3 days
Toll plus $8.36
After 14 days
Toll plus $23.89
After 30 days
State or Brisbane City Council
Infringement notice: $176
If $176 not paid
by due date
State Penalties Enforcement
Registry Maximum fine: $288.90
Brisbane Go Between
Bridge car toll: $3.13
Percentage increase to
maximum fine: 9230%
NEW SOUTH WALES
Time to pay without penalty
After 25 days
Notice from RMS: toll plus $10 fee*
After 48 days
2nd notice from RMS: toll
plus $20 fee
After 69 days
State Debt Recovery Office
first notice: $180
After 69 days
State Debt Recovery Office
second notice: $242
Sydney Harbour Bridge
or Tunnel car toll
(9.30am – 4.00pm): $3.00
Percentage increase to
maximum fine: 8066%
Time to pay without penalty
After 14 days
Toll plus $12.39 invoice fee
After 30 days
Final Transurban invoice: toll
plus $24.48 invoice fee
After 90 days
Victoria Police first notice: $158.57
If first notice not paid
Victoria Police second notice: $181.57
If second notice not paid
Enforcement order: $311.07
If enforcement order not paid
CityLink toll, Tullamarine
Freeway to Westgate Freeway:
Percentage increase to
maximum fine: 6329%
QLD, NSW, VIC
If no payment is made
Loss of licence, property seizure,
*If toll user has a Transurban account in NSW, no fee is charged if toll is charged to account within 25 days.
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