The spectre of tolls on the Auckland Harbour Bridge to help to pay for a new traffic crossing has re-emerged in a council report, days before theelection.
Auckland Council staff say, in a report prepared for a transport committee meeting tomorrow, that a proposed law change would allow an application for a toll on the existing bridge as well as a new harbour crossing to be considered by the Government.
Legislation prohibits tolling existing infrastructure unless it is near or integral to a proposed new road.
Neither can a new toll road be built unless a feasible alternative route is available to those who cannot or do not want to pay extra for trips.
The suggestion that tolls may be reintroduced to the existing bridge to raise money for a new harbour crossing expected to cost up to $5.3 billion within the next 20 years raised hackles yesterday among North Shore members of the Auckland Council.
Ann Hartley, a former Labour MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, said she could not understand why tolls were being contemplated for certain sections of Auckland's transport network rather than more widespread and fairer revenue streams.
Fellow North Shore councillor George Wood said he did not see why Aucklanders should have to pay for a new harbour crossing when the Transport Agency was about to spend up to $3 billion on completing the western ring route, including the Waterview motorway.
But Transport Minister Steven Joyce said last night that proposed changes to the Land Transport Management Act would not alter the legal test of whether a toll could be charged for using an existing road.
He said the council was "completely wrong" to say legislative changes were needed to enable him to consider an application to impose tolls on the harbour bridge.
A Cabinet paper covering various other changes to transport legislation included an agreement to retain current tolling requirements, including that tolls could be charged on an existing road only if it was near and integral to a new road.
A toll-free alternative route must also still be available.
"It is way too early to speculate on whether tolling of another Waitemata Harbour crossing would happen, let alone the level of any toll, especially given that the opening of a new crossing may be 15 or 20 years away," Mr Joyce said.
The possibility of reintroducing tolls to the existing bridge was raised before the 2008 election by National MP Maurice Williamson, who was then his party's transport spokesman.
Mr Williamson, who also suggested that Auckland commuters could face tolls of up to $50 a week for travel on new motorways, is believed to have scotched his chances of retaining the portfolio after returning to his theme against the wishes of party leaders.
But he said at the time that charging tolls on a new tunnel under the harbour while keeping travel free on the harbour bridge would lead to a "dreadful distortion" for traffic.
That was not the first time harbour bridge tolls had political ramifications for National. Public hostility to a move by former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon to increase a 20c toll on the bridge to 25c five days before a byelection in 1980 in East Coast Bays was blamed for dashing National Party candidate Don Brash's chances.
The Transport Agency also issued a report this year in which consultants suggested that tolls of $6 to $8 on the existing bridge and a new crossing could pay for the crossing.
Retiring North Shore MP Wayne Mapp said then that tolls should be considered as a contribution to the next crossing, but $3 was probably "about as high as you can go".