AA trying to sabotage electric-rail project, says ARC chief

By Mathew Dearnaley

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee is accusing the Automobile Association of trying to sabotage the $1 billion rail electrification drive.

A furious Mr Lee says that is the intent of a letter the AA has written to him - and copied to Transport Minister Annette King - challenging council preparations for a regional fuel tax.

The row has erupted at a sensitive time for the project, which Mr Lee wants to start immediately so Auckland's rail network can be electrified between Eden Park and Otahuhu in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Councillors will meet tomorrow to approve a request to Ms King to raise 1c a litre from next winter on all petrol and diesel sold to road users, to be followed by a further 2c in 2010.

AA Auckland transport spokesman Simon Lambourne yesterday denied trying to derail the project, or even knowing of tomorrow's meeting, saying his organisation simply wanted the council to follow best practice by consulting motorists properly before introducing what would be the country's first regional fuel tax.

The council says it needs the tax to support a loan of up to $630 million for electric trains and other public transport, leaving the Government to pay about $500 million for a 25,000-volt supply network.

An earlier plan to impose a tax of 5c in one hit this year has been watered down, amid pre-election jitters about the impact high fuel prices are already having on households and businesses.

Despite that, Mr Lee says the Government's approval of an initial 1c will be enough to let the Auckland Regional Transport Authority issue an immediate international call for tenders.

But Mr Lambourne said in his letter - which Mr Lee disclosed to the Herald - that the AA was "strongly of the opinion" the council had not met legislative requirements for a fuel tax, having confined public consultations to a period before Parliament passed an enabling law last month.

He warned of strong opposition from the AA "and, we are certain, from Auckland motorists" unless they received clear information about the amount of the new tax and its phase-in timetable.

Although he acknowledged the AA had stated publicly many times that regional fuel taxes were an important funding tool for transport infrastructure needs, he said they required adequate consultation with motorists, with his organisation representing more than 264,000 in Auckland.

"We seek an assurance from you that should the ARC wish to progress a regional fuel tax in the future, then prior to doing so it will undertake a comprehensive consultation process that meets the expectations of the AA, Auckland motorists and the law," Mr Lambourne wrote.

Mr Lee is incensed at the AA's timing, telling Mr Lambourne in a written reply that the council had fully met its obligations to consult the public during its budgeting round in April, when it sent a summary of its initial proposal for a 5c tax to 558,000 addresses around Auckland.

He says the tax was supported by 118 submissions, compared with 45 against.

- NZ Herald

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