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Should the user pay?

Lessons from Anglo-Australian history

Abstract

The paper puts the case that historical analysis helps to understand current discussions on user-pays principles and practice. In particular, (a) it is demonstrated that the nature of funding systems is dominated by political considerations, and (b) user-pays systems lead to inadequate funding of infrastructure when politically controlled, but provide funds for expansion when “market-driven” (in pursuit of profit maximisation). The case is illustrated by reference to the experience of interregional transport infrastructure in 19th century in England and 20th century Australia.

Revenue deficiencies arising from government-controlled rates can lead to the demise of private transport infrastructure. The problem is considered in the context of the history of interregional roads and railways in England between the 15th and 19th century in England and in Australia in the 19th and 20th century. The current embrace by government of the user-pays system in transport services arises from fiscal deficiencies, as much from economic philosophy. User-pays policies are part of the global re-emergence of economic rationalism since the 1970s.

The lesson for other nations from Australia's experience is twofold. First, in a federal system of government, despite the efficiency benefits of user-pays in interregional land transport, fiscal and political objectives will prevail. Second, in sparsely populated and/or developing countries, deregulation of long distance road transport will make funding a national highway system a critical concern.

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Williams, A.W. Should the user pay?. Transportation 22, 115–134 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01099435

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Key words

  • funding
  • interregional roads and railways
  • taxes
  • tolls
  • user-pays