Beyond Auckland they're ready for cheap-fuel rush (+ map)

By Mathew Dearnaley

Service station owners beyond Auckland are preparing for a windfall from motorists wanting to avoid a regional fuel tax.

Kaiwaka's Shamrock service station, north of the regional boundary, is looking forward to extra business if a tax of up to 10c a litre is imposed.

Owner Glenn Teal said yesterday that business had already increased considerably since he dropped his prices to main-centre levels last year and he was looking forward to even better times if a regional fuel tax made it cheaper to fill up at Kaiwaka.

But the owner of Te Hana's Go Gas outlet, just inside the regional boundary, fears being given a wide swerve by motorists.

"We won't survive if everybody wants to buy cheaper petrol up the road," said Jaswinder Singh.

Just beyond Auckland's southern frontier, Pokeno service station owner Alan Wilkinson was unimpressed by a suggestion that the tax may extend as far as Mercer to help to pay for public transport services yet to materialise.

Although he and wife June will be unaffected - as they are moving next month to the South Island - he warned that the Auckland Regional Council would face bitter opposition from the Pokeno community if it had to pay higher prices while receiving nothing in return.

Pokeno and Mercer are both beyond Auckland's regional boundary, which runs across the southern slopes of the Bombay Hills, and their residents pay rates to Hamilton-based Environment Waikato.

But the regional councillor for the Franklin and Papakura Districts, Dianne Glenn, believes a fuel tax should reach Mercer as an amendment in 2004 to local government legislation made the Auckland Regional Transport Authority responsible for extending public transport services that far south.

That means motorists may have to travel as far south as Te Kauwhata or Huntly, or east to Mangatawhiri on State Highway 2, to beat a fuel tax which the regional council may start phasing in next year.

Even then they might not ultimately escape an extra tax, as the Government says other regions such as Waikato will be entitled to apply to raise money from motorists to help towards their own public transport projects.

Auckland is set to become the guinea pig, however, as the Government has indicated it will look favourably on the use of a large portion of fuel tax revenue of up to $120 million a year to service debt on loans for a $1 billion-plus electric rail project and towards some other public transport needs.

It says it will consider an application from the regional council for up to 5c of tax on a litre of petrol and diesel, and will raise a maximum of another 5c itself towards its own half-share of the electrification project as well as for some roading projects, notably the western ring route and Rodney District's Whangaparaoa toll road.

Ms Glenn said she hoped the transport authority, a regional council subsidiary, would eventually extend passenger rail and bus services to Pokeno, Tuakau and Mercer to support Franklin District Council development plans.

She said Environment Waikato already paid the transport authority several thousand dollars a year to subsidise a modest bus service for Tuakau.

But Mr Wilkinson, who acknowledged that his prices were generally 3c higher than those in central Auckland, said any attempt to impose a tax on motorists filling up at Pokeno would send local residents in search of Councillor Glenn "with a nice piece of hemp rope".

"We are in a user-pays society," he said.

"My argument is, bring on the buses and trains to Pokeno and Mercer and then ask me the question - the services have to come first."

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