Sydney toll road profits grow despite pandemic as public transport usage dropped

Sydney toll revenue has grown for the country's biggest private road operator despite the coronavirus pandemic, with traffic already rebounding to pre-pandemic levels as public transport patronage dwindles. Two new Sydney toll roads - the M8 and NorthConnex - helped soften the impact of the coronavirus downturn for Transurban, which recorded a statutory loss of £448 million at its mid-year results on Thursday.

The opening of NorthConnex in November helped tolling giant Transurban grow its Sydney revenue by 7 per cent during the pandemic.

The opening of NorthConnex in November helped tolling giant Transurban grow its Sydney revenue by 7 per cent during the pandemic.Credit:Peter Rae

While Transurban's average daily traffic numbers dropped by close to 20 per cent across its toll roads in Australia and North America, toll revenue grew by more than 7 per cent in Sydney alone, generating £612 million for the company. Sydney's public transport patronage remains 43 per cent lower than February 2020, but road traffic is sitting at 98 per cent of pre-coronavirus levels, according to government figures, after commuters moved towards private travel amid the pandemic.


The company operates six toll roads in Sydney alone, and is eyeing a second Sydney Harbour tunnel, set to be built by 2026.

Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton said Australia, and particularly NSW, was proving a fertile market for the tolling giant.

Commuters are continuing to use toll roads, such as the M8.

Commuters are continuing to use toll roads, such as the M8. Credit:Anna Kucera

"Whether it's toll roads or rail or whatever asset it may be, we think Australia overall and particularly NSW is one of the best places to invest in the world," Mr Charlton told reporters. "You look at how we've handled the pandemic, the long-term demographics, sovereign risk, the ability to work constructively with government, it's just a very positive environment compared to a lot of other places." A report by Transurban, which surveyed more than 3000 people, found that 20 per cent of daily public transport users from Sydney predicted they would use public transport less than they did pre-pandemic.

Mr Charlton pointed to a 14 per cent increase in private car sales in December, and a 400,000 daily increase in average daily traffic between July and December 2020, as evidence car use would continue to increase as coronavirus restrictions eased. "Health and safety issues are continuing to dominate travel behaviour," Mr Charlton said. "Traffic is close to pre-COVID levels, and we do expect over time as the city grows, we do expect traffic in Sydney to continue to grow, even with flexible work and other things that are happening."

Peak-hour congestion, where speeds drop below 60km/h on parts of the M7, grew from 3.5 hours pre-COVID to 4.5 hours in November, according to Transurban figures. Mr Charlton said the government needed to work with business to address flexible work hours to ensure peak-hour congestion didn't return to the same level as people begin returning to work. "It would be a shame if we returned to peak-period congestion as the pandemic subsides, but the good news is that small changes to the way we work help everyone get around more efficiently," Mr Charlton said.

Opposition transport spokesman Chris Minns said the revenue growth in NSW for tolling was evidence Sydneysiders were paying too much. "It would not be surprising to any Sydney motorist that Transurban's toll revenue is up. They know, they're paying for it," Mr Minns said.

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Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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