The road monster needs feeding again, oh woe, what will we do? For 50 years, Aucklanders have been trying to pacify this particular taniwha. We've criss-crossed the isthmus, with strip after strip of tarmac in his honour. But it's never enough. Give me more, he growls, or I'll bring your city to a grinding halt.
Auckland Transport's 30-year solution is to spend $59 billion on an "integrated transport programme". Unfortunately, the plan comes with a shortfall of $10 billion to $15 billion in guaranteed sources of future public funding.
The Consensus-Building Group, established last July with a budget of $1.1 million, to find ways of making good that shortfall, today unveils its solution. Not surprisingly, for a consensus-seeking body, made up of a Noah's Ark collection of road-user representatives, they've produced a true smorgasbord of ways to squeeze more cash out of Aucklanders.
From now until 2021, they're proposing a lightning raid on our pockets by way of increased rates, a regional fuel tax, and small increases for public transport users. From 2021, we're being asked to choose between two unpalatable options. The first includes, "significant increases to rates and fuel taxes, tolls on major new roads, further government contributions and small fare increases for public transport users".
The second option involves road pricing options, in particular a motorway network toll to be levied on anyone entering or exiting the network, and a cordon charge, levied each time a vehicle travels in or out of a certain area, such as the CBD. The report says such "road pricing" could generate $250 million annually by 2031, which is just over half the $400 million a year extra the council needs to fully fund the transport plan.
But even if we scrambled together that extra $400 million a year for the next 30 years, the road taniwha will still not be happy. A month ago, when Auckland Transport unveiled the integrated transport plan, it confessed that even if it goes completed as planned, Auckland streets will be more congested than now. Sorry folks, but you don't get much for $59 billion these days.
The CBG report repeats this, thundering that "if Auckland wants to improve the performance of its transport system, then it will need to go further than the Auckland Plan does. We need to build more capacity on all modes of transport so Aucklanders have realistic choices about how they travel." But then, a hint of sanity creeps in. It admits,"there are limits to our ability to build new roads and increase the capacity of existing roads".
In Saturday's Herald, mayor Len Brown was sticking with the plan, proclaiming himself a convert to bringing tolls and user charging to the city streets. He said he would lead a campaign in favour.
Presumably, as a Labour man, Mr Brown was formerly opposed to road charging because it penalises those on lower incomes such as many of his South Auckland constituents. A sharp increase in property rates over the next five years is another controversial ingredient of the CBG's recommendations. The report admits rate increases "may not reflect a property owner's use of the transport system, or their ability to pay", but argues the pay-off will be in the "higher property values" owners will reap from being near a new roading project. But being forced to sell your house because you can't afford the higher rates is hardly going to be seen as a "benefit" by most of us.
But the regressive nature of road pricing is not the real issue here. The true problem is our leaders' desire to spend $59 billion on a 30-year transport plan that if completed as designed, leaves Auckland more congested and gridlocked than now. Especially when there's a $15 billion funding gap to boot.
The madness is summed up in the above quote from the CBG report, which simultaneously calls for "more capacity on all modes of transport" while admitting there was little room for new roads.
We should confess the road taniwha is an over-fed failure and that after 50 years of favouritism, it's time to look elsewhere for solutions to our transport woes. The obvious alternative is to redirect our favours and priorities and cash towards fast-tracking Auckland's promised modern integrated public transport system. Spoil it rotten to make up for decades of neglect. But stay within budget.