First Published in The Age, 1999

A veteran of both the 1970s Melbourne Eastern Freeway campaign and a 1980s anti-roads demonstration in South London, I had intended to do something radical like not pay CityLink for using the Tullamarine Freeway and fight the company through the courts. Or use minor roads and avoid the tolls by polluting suburban streets instead.

Which the people at CityLink must have known, because I have been bombarded with glossy and very expensive public relations material urging me to apply for an e-tag, the smart-bomb thingy that tells the computer how much to deduct from your bank account everytime you pass a toll booth. They really don't want me to go to war with them and will do anything to win me over.

The personalised letters don't just say how good CityLink will be for everyone, but if I apply now, not now, but NOW, I can win a brand new car, enough petrol to double the ozone in our lower atmosphere and treble global warming and on top of all that, $50 of free freeway use. On a freeway for which some of us think we have already paid.

The only problem with all this attempted bribery - including personal telephone calls from CityLink urging me to join the e-tag ragtag gang - is that I already have.Way back when they put their very first advertisement in The Age, we considered the civil disobedience option and how much fun it would be to run a case through the courts on the basis that the public had already paid for the Tullamarine Freeway (the only bit we are likely to be forced to use) and that private companies have no right to use the Victoria Police to extract fines for non-payment of tolls.

The CityLink E-Tag

But given that I worked in Sydney for six weeks last year paying the Harbour Bridge toll most days without complaint and that with a family and of mature-ish years, we rang up, got the forms and bought an e-tag over the phone. Along with the opportunity to win a new car, enough petrol to raise the planet's temperature at least 10 degrees Celsius and our $50 of free freeway use. I have an automated telephone receipt number to prove it.

Buying an e-tag hasn't stopped the B-52 carpet bombing of our mailbox by CityLink. The expensive glossies just keep coming and coming and so do the phone calls.

I rang to complain that we had joined and there was no longer any need to pester us. If the computer system can't tell who is on the system and who isn't, how will it cope with billing CityLink use? The customer services man said he would take notes of my comments and forward them up the line.

Except when he read back what I said it had been changed to something like: "The system works very well and I'm looking forward to using my e-tag." He said it had something to do with the pre-programmed tick-boxes on his screen.

Apparently there is no tick-box for: "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore. Your computers don't talk to each other. Stop the bombardment. I have already surrendered!"

Which could explain why CityLink has had very few complaints. Like Saddam Hussein always winning elections with 112 percent of the vote.

But if CityLink can't tell who has bought an e-tag and who hasn't, how will it monitor the toll-charging and what form of control will there be to ensure the humble motorist is not overcharged? Going by the performance thus far, I live in fear of attempting to correct any toll bills that might be in error.

Is it being operated by the same people who gave us the MetCard? Can I buy shares in the operating company?

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