- Push to overhaul punitive CityLink fines system
- By Benjamin Preiss
- Contributed by: Cole ( 1 article in 2017 )
Overhauling the punitive CityLink fines system is shaping as a major factor in whether the company secures an extension to its road toll deal.
CityLink owner Transurban wants to extend tolls on the road by more than 10 years as part of its plan to build the West Gate Tunnel project.
But that extension must pass through the Victorian Parliament, where the Coalition has already flagged it will vote against the deal in the upper house due to concerns about a lack of financial transparency.
Now some key crossbenchers have expressed concerns about the tolling system and indicated reforming it would be an important factor in how they will vote.
Legal groups are also heaping pressure on the Andrews government, urging it to insist on "decriminalising" the fines system as part of any negotiations over the West Gate Tunnel.
Community legal centres and Victoria Legal Aid are dealing with a skyrocketing number of clients with CityLink infringements, weighing heavily on their resources and the justice system as revealed by Fairfax Media earlier this year.
A report released by community legal services said that in the past financial year, Victoria Legal Aid alone had provided nearly 14,000 advice sessions and court representations about infringements for more than 4500 separate clients.
WEstjustice chief executive Denis Nelthorpe said his centre had clients who had incurred up to $160,000 in fines.
The system must be reformed so that toll infringements are treated like water or phone bills, which are enforced through the civil debt recovery system, Mr Nelthorpe said. Instead CityLink fines are currently being enforced by the sheriff's office and the courts.
Opposition roads spokesman Ryan Smith said the Coalition would have to "disallow" the extension unless more information was released about how much Transurban stood to gain from the proposed deal.
But he said that the criminal enforcement of fines should also be reviewed.
"If a review of the criminal enforcement means a better deal for Victorian motorists then any change should be considered," he said.
Crossbenchers including Democratic Labour Party MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers MP Daniel Young also raised concerns about the criminal enforcement of tolls. Sex Party MP Fiona Patten said she shared the concerns about criminal enforcement but also had broader issues with the arrangement with Transurban.
Transurban has requested a 10-to-12 year extension to the CityLink tolling concession, which was due to expire in 2035, as part of its plan to build the tunnel.
Upper house Greens MP Colleen Hartland said it was time for a "total overhaul" of the criminal enforcement of CityLink fines.
She said changing the tolling system would be a central campaign issue for the Greens, arguing it was unreasonable for the justice system to be enforcing a private company's fines.
However, the Greens have yet to decide how they vote on the toll extension.
The government holds 14 votes in the 40 seat upper house. To pass legislation, it needs the support of 16 Coalition MPs or the five Greens and at least two crossbenchers.
A spokesman for Treasurer Tim Pallas declined to reveal whether the government had raised concerns about the fine system with Transurban.
"The government is in negotiations with Transurban over a range of matters relating to the operation of CityLink as part of the West Gate Tunnel market-led proposal," he said.
A Transurban spokeswoman said 99 per cent of people paid their tolls. "We do everything we can to help people before their unpaid tolls escalate," she said.
This included reaching out by letter, phone, text message and email as well as offering hardship and first-time forgiveness programs.