Aucklanders could be paying 80 per cent more for rail services after the arrival of electric trains, regional councillors were warned yesterday.
A staff report to the Auckland Regional Council's transport committee foreshadows a potential $20 million increase on an annual contribution of $23.4 million for passenger rail.
This is 40 per cent of rail operating subsidies, leaving the Government's Transport Agency to pay the balance.
But Transport Minister Steven Joyce wants regional councils running metro rail services to share "actual fair costs" for the renewal and maintenance of networks, and the Cabinet is considering how Auckland can contribute to loan repayments for a $500 million fleet of electric trains due to start arriving in 2013.
The minister favours giving an extra Crown subsidy to Auckland to cover its share of repayments, but only on condition the region increases its contribution to annual operating costs and accepts a "funding glide path" to eliminate or significantly reduce the subsidy over time.
Regional council staff calculate that if Auckland is ultimately required to contribute 40 per cent of loan repayments, as well as face a possible trebling of rail access charges being renegotiated with KiwiRail, its annual operating bill would balloon by $20 million.
Their report to the transport committee says no provision has been made in the council's 10-year budget for such an increase, and neither does the Transport Agency have funds to meet its 60 per cent share of extra costs.
The advice drew strong reactions from committee members, still smarting over the Government's decision more than a year ago to abort a regional fuel tax on motorists to pay for the electric trains and other public transport infrastructure.
Mr Joyce said the regional impost would be too much for motorists to bear on top of national fuel tax rises, and the Government would foot the bill for the trains instead.
North Shore representative Joel Cayford said yesterday Auckland had been put into "an extremely damaging position" and the message was failing to get through to the Government that the beneficiaries of public transport improvements included motorists who stood to enjoy less congested roads.
Regional chairman Mike Lee said he was disappointed the minister appeared to regard funding for commuter rail as a commercial rather than economic investment in the region's infrastructure.
Council finance committee chairman Bill Burrill suggested rail passengers should be prepared to pay higher fares for improved services.
"I am concerned about biting the hand that's feeding you," he said.
"It is totally unrealistic to expect that ratepayers and taxpayers or anybody else is going to pay the cost of your transportation."
Manukau representative Brent Morrissey said he suspected that in looking for ways of sharing the loan repayment costs, Mr Joyce was trying to "disguise his mistake in withdrawing the fuel tax".
"Contrary to biting the hand that feeds it, I think Aucklanders were quite happy to feed themselves."