On Saturday I opted to forgo a bacon and eggs breakfast and a coffee so I could make room in the budget and drive in the newly opened M4 tunnels, which bypass Parramatta Road and make the trip into the city from the west a little more bearable.
The major negatives, outside of the toll which I’ll touch on in a moment, are skipping the cheap petrol available at the Speedway service station, marvelling at how Da Franco restaurant is still open at Concord and saying ‘I must try that’ when driving past the always-busy Wagyu House at Croydon.
On the bright side I’m saving money and getting closer to a picture-perfect body by skipping a sneaky KFC or McDonald’s run, and I no longer have to weave out of the right hand lane when coming off the M4 and forgetting about the queue that builds to turn right.
Anyone who has grown up in Penrith or greater western Sydney has a love-hate relationship with the M4 and Parramatta Road.
We’ve all been stuck on the M4 for hours, feeling the like the journey home will never end as the sea of red brake lights constantly appears in front of us.
We remember the old $2.20 toll and scrambling for change before getting to the toll plaza, or doing the sneaky extra run along Parramatta Road to avoid it entirely. And then, not too long ago, the whole thing was free – bloody marvellous.
We’ve seen the M7 built and the introduction of the Light Horse Interchange (fun fact – the largest interchange of its kind in the southern hemisphere), new entry and exit points built, more lanes constructed and without question, more cars along for the ride.
But despite the traffic jams and the return of the toll, there’s something about the M4 that always feels like home.
After a trip away there’s a special feeling when you come over the M7 back onto the M4 – you’re almost home.
And now, a new era begins – tunnels under Parramatta Road that extend the M4 and will see many of us skip traffic lights and wear and tear on our brakes by continuing the motorway run for an extra 5.5km or so.
I say ‘many of us’ because I’m certain plenty will be avoiding it, repeating the chaos we see at the Church Street exit as thousands upon thousands of motorists aim to skip that now almost unavoidable beep that signals further draining of your bank account.
At around $15 return, the M4 is now an expensive drive no matter what your lot in life. The tunnels are brilliantly constructed, as far as tunnels go, but I’m not sure motorists will be handing over their cash all that comfortably.
I’m also not quite buying some of the sell points being bandied about regarding the tunnels.
The line that up to 20 minutes will be slashed off a trip from Parramatta to the Sydney CBD sounds incredible, but I didn’t quite see that on the weekend. Perhaps in heavy peak hour traffic, it may ring true.
I also found this line from Transport Minister Andrew Constance rather interesting: “The new M4 Tunnels are the first of four major WestConnex tunnels. When WestConnex is finished in 2023, drivers will save an estimated 40 minutes on a trip from Parramatta to Sydney Airport.”
Given you can quite easily get from Parramatta to the airport in 40 minutes now, that figure seems rather extraordinary and if true, will defy physics.
Quite often, the benefits of new road and transport projects are oversold, and when motorists are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the M4, and paying for the privilege to do so, the ribbon cutting and novelty is very quickly forgotten.
We do seriously need to do something about the tolls that now dominate the Sydney road network. I spent thousands of dollars in tolls in the last financial year and I wouldn’t say I’m a super-regular user of the road network. It is crushing the family budget of so many and often the cost of using new roads outweighs the benefits that get spruiked so loudly.
So after my first-up experience, would I travel in the M4 tunnels regularly?
Probably. After all, Parramatta Road lost its shine once Lazikos closed down a few years ago.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.