Need to know
- According to the AAA, households spend an average of $81 a week on tolls in Sydney, and about $57 a week in Brisbane and Melbourne
- Due to high administration fees, a single unpaid toll can end up costing many times more than the original charge
- A class action is underway in Queensland against Linkt toll operator Transurban for charging unreasonably high administrative fees on unpaid toll notices
Driving on Australia's major toll roads can put a big dent in the household budget these days, and many commuters have little choice but to use them.
According to the Australian Automobile Association's (AAA) transport affordability index, motorists in the middle to outer suburbs of Sydney pay an average of $81 a week on tolls, the highest toll costs in the nation. It reportedly adds up to about $2 billion a year for Sydney residents.
In Melbourne and Brisbane the average is $57–58 a week for people commuting in and out of the city from the suburbs. (The AAA calculations are estimates based on a family of two working parents and two kids living in middle to outer suburbs with high population densities.)
But it can get a lot more expensive if something goes wrong with your toll payment, especially if the toll is operated by Australia's biggest toll operator, Transurban.
Steep fees for unpaid tolls
Transurban commands an 83% share of the toll road market according to Nicholas Schroeder of the research firm IBISWorld. Overall, the toll collection industry is expected to generate $3.1 billion in revenue in 2022–23 with a profit margin of around 42%, the firm reports.
According to the AAA, motorists in the middle to outer suburbs of Sydney pay an average of $81 a week on tolls, the highest toll costs in the nation
Transurban's Australian e-tag business, called Linkt, operates on a number of central arteries running through metropolitan Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Motorists are generally made aware of a missed payment when an overdue notice arrives in the mail. If you're facing a number of unpaid Linkt tolls, each invoice will have a steep administrative fee attached, one that goes up significantly if you don't pay before a second notice arrives.
The unpaid toll notice can sometimes be triggered by an administrative error rather than a deliberate non-payment, but that won't stop the notices and hefty admin fees from coming in.
Sydney's Linkt toll road network is the most expensive in the nation. (Image: Transurban.)
Queensland class action
In Queensland there's a class action underway against Transurban on the grounds that it violated the state's Transport Infrastructure Act by adding unreasonably high administrative fees to unpaid toll notices.
The class action also includes the state of Queensland and the Brisbane City Council (BCC) "if the state and BCC set or imposed the amount of these fees".
According to the law firm running the class action, Piper Alderman, Linkt was charging an initial $8.50 administrative fee in addition to the toll charge for every unpaid fee notice when the class action was launched, and $23.81 per follow-up (or 'demand') notice if the initial notice wasn't paid within 10 days.
Admin fees this high can send a driver's debt into the thousands of dollars – far beyond what the initial toll charges would have added up to
The current Linkt unpaid toll administrative fees in Queensland are $9.48 initially and $26.55 for every follow up notice. (In Sydney the figures are $10 and $20; in Melbourne it's $14.22 and $27.75.)
Admin fees this high can send a driver's debt into the thousands of dollars – far beyond what the initial toll charges would have added up to.
And in Brisbane, along with the Linkt charges, you may also be fined $201 by the Department of Transport and Main Roads or the Brisbane City Council for each unpaid day of travel if you don't pay an overdue toll notice. In Melbourne, Victoria Police can fine you for unpaid tolls in addition to any Linkt fees.
According to reporting by the ABC in 2021, the Queensland State Penalties Enforcement Registry was attempting to collect more than $150 million in unpaid toll debts, some of which were many times more than the original toll amounts. In one case, a driver reportedly owed $1500 on initial toll fees of less than $20.
Tolling customer ombudsman
Along with the class action, Transurban's unpaid toll collection practices have been the cause of a number of complaints to the Tolling Customer Ombudsman (TCO), a dispute resolution service set up in 2004 by Transurban. According to the company, the TCO makes independent decisions about toll disputes.
The TCO received 591 complaints in 2022, lower than the historical average of 1000 a year due to the lingering effects of COVID-19 on road traffic.
Most of the complaints to the TCO have been about fines and administrative fees, though account management complaints have been on the rise in recent years.
In some cases, complaints to the TCO involving tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid tolls and related fees can't be resolved by the ombudsman because the fines were imposed by state authorities.
E-tag cancellation no easy matter
One account management case that was recently lodged with the TCO highlights how frustrating dealing with Transurban can be.
Ross tells CHOICE that his wife's attempt to cancel her 89-year-old father's Linkt e-tag involved multiple phone calls, extended hold times, and, finally, trips to her father's nursing home so he could talk to Transurban, even though she made clear that she had power of attorney to act on his behalf.
It was a very simple matter, but it was made as difficult as possible
Transurban was given the father's name and credit card number, but the call centre people wanted the couple to track down his e-tag serial number and the registration number for his most recent vehicle, which was no small undertaking. In the end, even that wasn't enough to get the tag cancelled.
"It was a very simple matter, but it was made as difficult as possible, " Ross says. "We're not talking about accessing someone's bank account here. We're just talking about canceling an e-tag for an 89-year-old-man. They clearly identified they were speaking to the right person, but failed on multiple occasions to cancel the tag. So I just don't see how it could be any worse."
In NSW, Linkt charges a $10 admin fee for the first toll notice, and $20 for the second.
Fees more than double the original toll
While the TCO has ruled in favour of the toll operator in every published decision, lodging a complaint appears to be worthwhile. (The ombudsman only renders a decision when a toll customer and Transurban can't come to an agreement themselves.)
In many cases, Transurban has drastically reduced the amounts owed by toll customers by removing some or all of the extra fees.
In one case we reviewed, a Sydney driver owed $10,234 before filing a complaint with the TCO. As with other cases, Transurban had referred the case to a debt collector, the cause of considerable stress for the toll customer.
A woman's toll debt was reduced from $5078 to $1158, indicating that $3920 of the debt was from administrative and other fees
Transurban agreed to replace the administrative fees with 'transfer' fees, bringing the debt down to $3048, a reduction of $7185. (Linkt's admin fees were $10–20 per notice in this case; its transfer fees were $1.10–2.90 per notice.)
Similarly, a woman's toll debt was reduced from $5078 to $1158, indicating that $3920 of the debt was from administrative and other fees rather than the toll amount itself.
Drivers who take issue with smaller amounts have also seen their debts greatly reduced. A Brisbane driver's debt was reduced from $174 to $24, for instance, after the admin fees were removed.
In-built conflict: When a toll road is clogged with traffic, the toll operator profits while motorists aren't getting value for money.
Are tolls roads fit for purpose?
Dr Michelle Zeibots, a senior lecturer in transport at University of Technology Sydney, tells CHOICE that Sydney in particular has an unusually high number of toll roads by global standards, adding that "there is a great deal of debate about whether many of them are necessary".
Having to pay a lot to use them but still being stuck in traffic raises questions about whether motorists are getting good value for money, Zeibots says.
"You will never build your way out of congestion in large cities like Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, and it's congestion levels that raise questions about a tollway being fit for purpose," Zeibots says.
There's a built-in conflict when private companies like Transurban enter into contracts with state governments, since Transurban stands to benefit from congested toll roads and lose out if there are better public transportation options.
You will never build your way out of congestion in large cities like Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, and it's congestion levels that raise questions about a tollway being fit for purposeDr Michelle Zeibots, University of Technology Sydney
"This dilemma is the reason why involvement of private sector interests in the provision of essential transport services has always been fraught," Zeibots says.
It becomes even more fraught when fines for unpaid tolls go well beyond the original toll charges, she says.
"This is an area that needs to be highly scrutinised and regulated by government. If an entity is applying charges in order to increase profit margins, this has a deleterious impact on transport efficiency from a consumer perspective."
An independent review of road tolls and fees in NSW was tabled in the state parliament in May this year. Public hearings on the issue are expected to take place in the second half of 2023.
A spokesperson for the state agency Transport for NSW told CHOICE the review will aim to "find a simpler and more equitable system for the people of NSW and will be a thorough review of Sydney's toll network. This includes the make-up of administration fees."
Toll operator Transurban paints a very different picture of toll costs than the AAA or some of the TCO decisions.
"Linkt customers travelling in a private vehicle spend an average of $6.70 per week on tolls, with 82% spending less than $10 per week," a spokesperson told us, pointing out that the AAA calculations of a typical household are based on 2016 census data.
According to the 2021 census, however, a family of two parents and two kids is still the most prevalent type of household in Australia.
The discrepancy between the AAA and Transurban figures, which the company says are a national average based on Transurban's customer data, underscores the many variables at play when trying to determine toll costs.
The NSW Labor government's commitment to cap toll costs at $60 a week starting in 2024, for instance, is expected to affect 51,000 drivers, a relatively small proportion of drivers using Transurban toll roads in NSW.
Toll notice aggregation could be fairer for NSW customers, reducing the confusion that comes with receiving multiple toll noticesTransurban spokesperson
Transurban says it has proposed to the NSW Government to allow multiple unpaid tolls to be included on a single notice, which already happens in Queensland and Victoria. Under this system, toll customers pay one administrative fee for a notice covering three days of travel regardless of the number of tolls they go through.
"Toll notice aggregation could be fairer for NSW customers, reducing the confusion that comes with receiving multiple toll notices," the spokesperson says.
Mixed messages on who sets admin fees
As for administrative fees for unpaid toll invoices, Transurban says they are regulated by the respective states "and cover the costs associated with collecting unpaid tolls".
The company told us that Transport for NSW, for instance, prints and issues the notices in the state and has exclusive access to its driver registration database. The $10 and $20 administration fees for NSW toll notices predate Transurban's involvement in tolling operations in the state, the company says.
A spokesperson for the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads confirmed that the state sets the maximum toll and toll notice fees but added that "the toll road operator may use its discretion to charge up to the maximum set by the government, and may choose to charge less than the maximum".
A spokesperson for the Victoria Department of Transport and Planning told us that Transurban toll notice fees are not a transport-related issue.
Ombudsman: Admin fees a systemic issue
Tolling Customer Ombudsman Phillip Davies tells CHOICE that "where a consumer raises the fairness of the administration fees, this issue is dealt with", adding that "often, reducing or waiving these fees is part of early resolution offers".
"Given the frequency of this occurring, this apparent systemic issue has been raised with Transurban. TCO understands these fees and other charges are set under agreements with the relevant state government, however, so the issue of the level of the fees and charges is beyond our jurisdiction," Davies says.
Toll rebates in NSW
Toll rebates are available for NSW residents. Here are the details:
- If you spend more than $375 a year on tolls you can claim a 40% rebate capped at $750.
- for tolls charged from 1 July 2022 to 30 June 2023 the deadline to claim a rebate is 30 June 2024.
- for tolls charged from 1 July 2023 to 30 June 2024 the deadline is 30 June 2025.
- the NSW Labor Government has committed to a $60 per week cap on tolls (in addition to the current rebate) starting in 2024.
Given the frequency of this occurring, this apparent systemic issue has been raised with TransurbanTolling Customer Ombudsman Phillip Davies
If you've racked up a number of unpaid tolls and are having trouble paying them, you can apply to Linkt for assistance. The toll operator says it will negotiate payment plans with customers and notify state authorities of your financial situation (with your consent). For people who can demonstrate they've been affected by unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence or health issues, Linkt toll credits are available.
If you feel you've been charged unfair fees, lodge a complaint with the tolling customer ombudsman.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.