Sometime next year, when the Waterview tunnels are opened, Auckland's planned motorway network will be virtually complete. At that point, roading offers little further hope for accommodating growth in traffic if it continues to add an estimated 800 cars to the congestion every week. No wonder, therefore, the Government has had to agree with the Auckland Council that some sort of charge will be needed eventually to ration use of the roads. The council has been resigned to this prospect for some years, largely because it looks to road charges for a source of revenue for its underground rail link. The Government has previously vetoed every petrol tax, toll or congestion charge the council has proposed, but now has changed its tune.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges conceded this week, "we can't keep building new lanes on highways. We will need a combination of demand-side interventions if we are going to deal with congestion over the next couple of decades". He prefers the term "demand-side interventions" to taxes, tolls or charges but those are what it means.
Unlike the council, the Government does not advance these for revenue raising but for reducing traffic on the roads. It clearly thinks road rationing is more politically acceptable than revenue raising and the AA agrees. Feedback from members, it says, showed support for tolls as long as people could be convinced it was for congestion benefits, not simply revenue.
But the truth is, the council will need the revenue for its share of the cost of the Central Rail Link long before congestion reaches Mr Bridges' horizon of "the next couple of decades". The Waterview motorway connection will probably lighten the load on existing motorways and arterial roads over the next few years. It will become the preferred route to the airport for traffic from the North Shore and the central city as well as the West. But if the council is to meet half the cost of the Central Rail Link without overtaxing ratepayers it will need an additional source of finance. A transport levy now imposed on business and residents is set to expire in 2018.
The council has already begun construction of the first stage of the underground rail line without an agreement with the Government on how the project will be financed. The project still struggles to satisfy the NZ Transport Agency's and the Treasury's tests of value for money despite the rise in rail and bus patronage in recent years. The present Government remains lukewarm about it but is probably resigned to funding it when it comes to the point. Congestion, no matter how reduced it may be by Waterview, will be the pretext for asking motorists to subsidise the trains.
The joint report for the council and the Government this week did not suggest how road travel might be charged. Mr Bridges said one option was to track all traffic with GPS technology which is being trialled in Singapore and Japan. But that implies no roads would be free at times the charge applied. Travel is a basic freedom. We could welcome the chance to pay to use a fast lane when we need one, so long as free lanes remain.