Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Grand Old Duke of Auck marches to his own beat

Auckland Mayor Len Brown.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Mayor Len Brown risks becoming typecast as our very own Grand Old Duke of Auck with his latest plan to "persuade" central government to approve regional tolling or taxing for Auckland's new transport projects.

He's been marching up and down this particular hill, waving his fists at the Key Government, then retreating on a regular basis since his election campaign nearly two years ago.

Tomorrow he's asking councillors to spend $1.1 million to fund yet another sortie of futile protest.

There's no mention in the various reports to council why he thinks the proposed "united front" approach from Aucklanders, if that dream scenario could ever be achieved, might receive any better reception from Wellington.

The negative response from Labour's transport spokesman Phil Twyford to the idea of Aucklanders having to pay more for transport infrastructure than other New Zealanders, suggests that on this issue at least, the two major political parties are of a similar mind.

After analysing the derisory handful of 161 submissions received in response to the "Getting Auckland Moving" discussion paper this year, the bureaucrats are recommending further investigation into three alternative sources of additional funding: regional fuel taxes, congestion charging/network charging, or additional car parking charges.

To try to mastermind the miracle of getting Auckland motorists to agree to paying more now for the promise of uncongested roads in the future, the mayor's office called in Guy Salmon, the Blue-Green, veteran of the Native Forest Action Council campaigns of the 1970s. He now runs the Ecologic Foundation, whose mission is "Finding pathways to sustainability".

In Auckland, they propose to form a 21-member Consensus-Building Group (CBG) which will have 12 two-day monthly meetings between this July and July 2013, "including importantly, a dinner together on each occasion to build relationships".

All the usual suspects are named as likely members, Michael Barnett and Tony Garnier, plus one more, to represent the Auckland Business Forum, Connal Townsend from the Property Council, two from the Automobile Association, and Gary Taylor from the Environmental Defence Society. There will also be "active observers" from three central government agencies and two from Auckland Council. Donna Wynd, of the Child Poverty Action Group, will represent "low income and other disadvantaged transport users" and there'll be three from "non-automobile modes" representing cyclists, walkers and public transport users. Oh yes, and three Maori representatives, to be selected after 21 hui.

With the help of technical advisers, this disparate assembly is supposed to reach agreement on the best way of extracting more cash out of Aucklanders, then convince us of the wisdom of their advice. Then someone has to sell it to Government.

Interestingly, Mr Salmon seemed taken with the advice of one Aucklander who warned that in selecting a chairman many prominent Aucklanders held simplistic views on the matter and he strongly recommended that efforts be made to find a non-Aucklanders for the role.

Even before the process has been approved, there are signs of dissension. AA spokesman and nominated CBG member Simon Lambourne complains members will be hamstrung by the decision to restrict discussion to three preferred funding methods. Mr Salmon also admits a reluctance on the part of Treasury officials to partake. And why should they?

Over recent years there have been several expert reports on the costs and efficiencies of various means of road pricing. The Ministry of Transport's briefing paper to the incoming minister in December warned Gerry Brownlee that Auckland Council would be knocking on his door with requests for new legislation to allow extra "tolling" to pay for the city rail tunnel.

The paper said that "road pricing" was "not an efficient tool to raise revenue". This no doubt harked back to a 2006 investigation by Ministry of Transport which said collecting motorway tolls in Auckland would exceed revenue raised.

It also pointed out a network-wide motorway toll would create widespread congestion on most of Auckland's other roads as drivers attempted to avoid the extra charge. Both the previous Transport Minister, Steven Joyce, and his successor, have ruled out a regional fuel tax and both have expressed significant reservations about introducing local tolls and congestion charges.

All of which suggests spending $1.1 million with Mr Salmon to repackage the cracked record that central government refuses to listen to is a waste of time and money.

In its place, Mr Brown should try a more revolutionary approach. If he's dedicated to public transport and to the rail tunnel, then adjust his budgets.

Despite all the tub-thumping from the road lobby, traffic volume on state highways across New Zealand hasn't risen since 2005. As a commentator noted, contrast that with public transport patronage in Auckland, which has grown by a third in the past four years. Aucklanders are voting with their feet and their HOP cards. All it needs now is for the politicians, local and national, to follow.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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