Barney Irvine: Look before leaping into transport funding

Whatever approach council settles on, it needs to demonstrate to Aucklanders that any new charges are worth it. Photo / Greg Bowker
Whatever approach council settles on, it needs to demonstrate to Aucklanders that any new charges are worth it. Photo / Greg Bowker

Barney Irvine is the Automobile Association's principal advisor for infrastructure and motoring affairs.

"Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die."

That phrase has often been used to describe the way Aucklanders feel about paying for transport infrastructure - we all want better roads, rail and walking and cycling facilities, but almost no one wants to dig deeper into their pockets.

Recently, though, there's been a shift.

We regularly survey random samples of our 500,000 Auckland members, and what we've noticed is an increasing preparedness to pay at least a little more to improve the transport network - many AA Members see it as an inevitable part of living in a fast-growing city.

This is exactly how things played out in our latest survey, which looked specifically at funding options, existing and new.

The majority of respondents supported, or were at least willing to consider, the new funding tools that have received most airtime: a regional fuel tax, a motorway toll and the sale of Auckland Council-owned assets.

But the survey found that there was more support for a tool that council already has at hand - the Interim Transport Levy.

The levy is a targeted rate that was established last year to fund transport projects, for a three-year period.

Households pay $114 per year and businesses $183, and all up the levy enables around $175 million of investment annually ($100m of which comes from the council side). So that's a big chunk of Auckland's share of the $400m per year funding gap that the city faces.

Should we be surprised at the support? Well, kind of, because rates rises in general are an unpopular funding source. What it shows is that the $114 figure is about right, both in terms of what people are able to pay, and what they think is reasonable.

For us, the big question is: if the levy is accepted by ratepayers and is generating a decent amount of revenue, does it really make sense to replace it? Can the cost and hassle be justified?

A regional fuel tax could arguably offer some benefits in terms of fairness, but it also presents serious technical and political difficulties, as do motorway tolls and asset sales. The other thing is, we're probably only looking for an interim solution. Within the next 10 years, the Government's plan is to start replacing fuel tax in Auckland with a distance-based charge, and that would supersede anything we set up now.

What it shows is that the $114 figure is about right, both in terms of what people are able to pay, and what they think is reasonable.

The AA isn't opposed to new funding tools - in fact, we've supported a regional fuel tax in the past - but we certainly shouldn't be jumping straight in.

Instead, we'd like to see council take the following steps:

First, work with the Government to get clarity on the fundamental questions: how much exactly is Auckland up for to meet its share of the funding gap? How long will it be needed for?

Next, investigate whether there are smaller-scale tools available to top up the levy. Different approaches to value capture (recovering some of the value that infrastructure generates for private landowners) seem an obvious starting point.

If we find we're still well short of the target, then it would be time to look at far-reaching new schemes, with decisions guided by a meaningful public consultation process.

Lastly, whatever approach council settles on, it needs to demonstrate to Aucklanders that any new charges are worth it.

There's a lot of frustration with council's track-record on transport, and if people don't see things improve, the readiness to pay more will dry up fast.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 23 May 2017 11:14:53 Processing Time: 430ms