New stations put extra pressure on ratepayers

By Mathew Dearnaley

Money has been assured for new Auckland railway stations, but at extra cost to ratepayers, after the Government's cancellation of a regional fuel tax for motorists.

An integrated public transport ticketing project will also be scaled back under Auckland Regional Council budget decisions made yesterday.

Although regional rates will be held to an average 3.93 per cent next year, as originally programmed, the council has approved a revised 10-year funding plan including annual rises of up to 6.73 per cent by 2014. Its new schedule would lift the average rates bill from $336.79 this year to $350.03 next year.

Chairman Mike Lee acknowledged a council-imposed rates rise ceiling of no more than 5 per cent honoured since 2005 would be breached in three of the next 10 years, from 2013 to 2015.

He acknowledged that the budget commitments would be inherited next year by the new Auckland Council, at which point he said their impact on overall rates would be "fairly minimal", equating to annual rises of under 1 per cent.

Although the council made an assumption in March that it would have to hand control of most of the stations to the Government to overcome a $202 million funding hole left by the aborted fuel tax, chief executive Peter Winder yesterday disclosed compromises to avert that.

These followed agreement by the Transport Agency to:

Pay a 60 per cent subsidy for new railway stations including at Newmarket, New Lynn, Manukau, Onehunga, Grafton and Avondale.

Make a $5 million grant towards costs already incurred by the council on Newmarket Station.

Lend the council $32.8 million over four years to pay for six new six-car diesel trains already on order from KiwiRail until the Government buys electric rolling stock.

Mr Winder said those concessions would still close only 22 per cent of the funding gap, meaning the council would have to borrow heavily and raise its rates to keep most of its public transport programme intact. He produced a series of scenarios, including rates rises of up to 9.5 per cent to pay for the full programme. But the council preferred his recommendation to try to scale back the integrated ticketing project, which previously carried a capital cost of about $80 million, including a 60 per cent Government subsidy. Mr Lee said the council would try to find ways of halving that cost.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce last night expressed satisfaction that Auckland's "main short-term" items had been settled and repeated assurances that electric trains would be provided within a 2013 deadline.

He said the Transport Agency was lending rather than granting money for new diesel trains because the council's intention had always been to sell those once the electric fleet arrived.

The minister said he would report to the cabinet next month on options for buying an electric fleet and that, despite Mr Lee's nervousness, "we remain committed to electrification".

- NZ Herald

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