Toll looks likely on Waterview link

By Paula Oliver, Brooke Donovan

A toll looks likely to be slapped on drivers who use the new $1.9 billion Waterview connection, regardless of which party leads the Government that makes the final decision.

The Waterview connection is set to be completed by 2015 as the country's first big public-private partnership roading project.

The Labour-led Government will make a final call on whether a toll will be charged on the major new route in late October or early November - but Finance Minister Michael Cullen yesterday openly talked of the potential for a $2 fee.

Asked how much the toll would be, Dr Cullen said, "Oh, quite small."

He then referred to Prime Minister Helen Clark and Transport Minister Annette King having talked about a $2 toll as being an acceptable amount.

"We've said things need to be kept at an affordable level, and you need to have alternative routes," Dr Cullen said.

The Waterview connection is the country's largest roading project. It would join State Highway 20 to State Highway 16, creating a 48km motorway linking the cities of Manukau, Auckland, Waitakere and North Shore - without passing through the central business district.

It will include some tunnelling and is expected to lead to shorter, more predictable travel times and more reliable access to Auckland Airport.

A steering group made up of business and public sector representatives and chaired by former Chief Ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood has been examining the best way to build the Waterview connection.

It was revealed yesterday that the group has recommended private sector involvement as offering the best value for money to build the road, and Mrs King has asked officials to look harder at the detail of how the project will be funded.

That work could include recommending how much of the project should be funded with private sector money, versus what proportion would come from the Government.

"Once this work is done the Cabinet will be able to make some firm decisions on how to progress Waterview," Mrs King said.

But she was less forthcoming than Dr Cullen about tolls. Repeatedly asked in Parliament yesterday by National's deputy leader, Bill English, if there would be a toll, she said there might not be, but if there was it would be small.

National has been in the spotlight for its own untidy position on road tolls this week and yesterday the party tried to make political capital out of the likelihood that Labour would charge a fee on the Waterviewroad.

National is intending to use public-private partnerships to build infrastructure more speedily and tolling is likely to be part of that plan. It is possible the Labour-led Government will not impose a toll, but internationally tolls are common in public-private partnerships and initial advice from the New Zealand Transport Agency suggests a small proportion of construction costs could be recovered by tolling.

AA motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon said yesterday it was too early to talk definitively about tolls. "Until we know exactly what we're talking about in terms of funding it's all theoretical."

Paul Callow, who runs Deloitte New Zealand's work on public private partnerships, said tolling was a "secondary issue".

"The key thing is to make it a success and for the Government to convince itself that private sector involvement can add value."

What next:

The Treasury, Ministry of Transport and NZ Transport Agency will look at the detail of how the Waterview connection should be funded.

That group will report back to Government in late October or early November - just as the election is expected to be held.

The Government will then make a decision about whether tolls will be used on the project. Senior ministers are openly discussing a potential toll of $2.

Interest among private-sector players is said to be high. If that follows through, a competitive bidding process will be held to choose who will build the road.

It is forecast that 90,000 cars a day will be using the road by 2026, although that equation is based on there being no toll.

- NZ Herald

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