Fuel prices may have come off the boil, but the new financial year has heralded a new round of road freight cost rises now flowing through to farmers and farm sector service industries.
During 2023-24 Canberra will collect an estimated $6.15 billion as truckies pay a six per cent rise in the heavy vehicle road user charge component of their fuel purchases.
That's almost $1b more than the same levy generated just two years ago.
The road user charge has just risen from 27.2 cents a litre to almost 29c/litre.
At the same time rural transport operators cop a 6pc increase on the road tax component of their annual vehicle registration fees in 2023-24.
Those 6pc rises will be repeated again next year and in 2025-26, by which time the road user charge will be 32.3c/l.
Previous annual increases in user charges were less than 3pc.
"It adds up to a compound rise above 19pc over three years," said Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association president, Scott McDonald, in North West NSW.
"It will significantly add to our business costs and inflationary costs - all the way to the supermarket.
"Our (trucking) rates are already up almost 30pc on two years ago, but our operating costs are much higher and margins are much tighter."
He said the new road user charge would inevitably add to farmers' expenses and food processors' freight costs would rise, too, meaning their margins and payment structures to producers would get tighter.
The road user charge is applied to vehicles weighing more than 4.6 tonnes, recognising they are responsible for wear and tear on the nation's roads and should contribute to maintenance and construction costs.
However, while the trucking industry agrees it should pay a fair share towards regional road repair bills, concerns are widespread about the road user charge evolving into an arbitrary tax used to fund politically expedient state and federal government spending announcements, rather than paying for broader transport productivity priorities or the industry's longer term needs.
We're just paying for the last round of election promises- Mathew Munro, Australian Trucking Association
"It's a very large bucket of money, but there's no transparency or auditing to provide accountability about what it's being spent on and why," said Australian Trucking Association chief executive officer, Mathew Munro.
"We're just paying for the last round of election promises."
He also noted how flood reconstruction works were seemingly being funded from road user charges when extreme wet weather events had caused road and bridge damage, not trucks.
Mr Munro said there was a lack of funding certainty for road authorities to make strategic, long lasting transport infrastructure decisions, which would become increasingly more important as Australia's climate changed.
"The model and decision processes are flawed and for our $6b contribution we deserve clearer rules and more say on what is being built with that money," he said.
"We need to work quickly with government during the next three years to develop a new model and a systematic approach to building and maintaining resilient infrastructure."
The ATA also wants a fairer road user charge for remote Australia, where road transport operators cop considerable vehicle wear and tear, must operate at slower speeds and use a lot of fuel transporting goods over long distances, yet road improvements or repairs are limited.
"They do not receive value for the charges they pay ... the quality of roads in remote Australia is extremely poor," the ATA has told the federal government in a submission.
"High fuel prices and charges also contribute to the high cost of food in remote communities where the freight cost component can be as high as 20.4pc of sales."
The ATA recommended remote area trucking operators pay half the new road user charge (14.4c/l of diesel).
"The federal government has not commented on whether it will do anything, but we think the figure is fair - these areas may never see the standard of road maintenance afforded to other parts of Australia," Mr Munro said.
"These high road user charges don't just make goods and services more expensive, they add to agricultural export costs, which in turn, reduces income flowing back into remote communities."
ALRTA's Mr McDonald, based at Tamworth, felt rural sector truckies were generally operating at an efficiency disadvantage to big freight companies running along major highways between capital cities.
"We're invariably travelling on rough rural roads which are slower to travel and harder on your gear," he said.
While diesel bowser prices had declined from the $2.35/l national averages of last November to around $1.80 today, the latest jump in road user charges followed a host of cost increases hitting transport operators in the past two years.
Tyres and most spare parts had doubled and a replacement semitrailer was probably 30pc to 50pc more expensive.
"You'd probably need $1.2 million to set up a new B-double with sheep crates today, but a few years ago you'd have got it for less than $900,000."
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