By DAVID MOASE
PRIVATE investment and advances in technology could combine to reduce the time it will take to upgrade the Pacific Highway.
NSW Transport Minister Carl Scully last week said that at present funding levels it would take another 20 years to finish improvements to the main highway between Sydney and Brisbane.
That news has prompted calls to examine the use of private sector funding and tolls to reduce the construction time, with one toll road operator suggesting the work could be completed within eight years.
Member for Coffs Harbour Andrew Fraser said any move to toll roads would have to be community driven and suggested conducting a plebiscite to gauge public opinion.
"The issue would need to be fully canvassed and there would have to be clear savings for motorists," Mr Fraser said.
"There would have to be guarantees that the builders would meet their commitments.
"Considering the deaths, accidents and congestion ? especially in Coffs Harbour ? on the highway, I'm sure the idea would get some support."
Mr Fraser said the suggestion reminded him of a plan put forward by the NSW coalition government in 1992 to have privately funded highways.
"We were caned at the time but if it had been adopted then we would have had dual carriageway from Sydney to Brisbane by now," he said.
Supporters of the toll road plan acknowledge allowances need to be made so local residents can use the roads without having to pay.
Vehicles would need to be fitted with equipment, such as E-tags used on city toll roads, which would automatically bill drivers' bank accounts and could also be used to exclude local users from payment.
Trials being carried out in Germany using global positioning system (GPS) technology could make the tracking and billing of drivers even easier and more cost-effective for road operators.
The chair of the Combined Lobby Group for a Coffs Harbour bypass, Wilson Dale, said he was sure private road builders would
be able to find a much cheaper way to build the Coastal Ridge Way bypass alternative, which has been dismissed by the RTA as too expensive.
"Some suggestions we made for reducing the cost of the Coastal Ridge Way were not really examined," he said.
NSW Premier Bob Carr and Transport Minister Carl Scully have both given cautious support to the idea of putting tolls on new sections of the highway.
"People want new infrastructure and they want it quicker. It's a very heavily used road. We believe that people appreciate time can be saved on that and they may be happy to pay," Mr Carr told the Sydney Morning Herald.