The traffic jams that snagged Auckland roads on two nights late last week could hardly have been more timely for the Consensus Building Group, which is advising the Auckland Council on transport funding.
In the most telling of ways, they confirmed its view that doing nothing is not an option. It would simply be a prescription for more frequent gridlock and more crowded buses, trains and ferries. But doing something entails an inevitable and substantial cost for Aucklanders. The guiding principle for this must always be that most of the cost is drawn from those who derive the most benefit.
The first of the group's two recommended solutions to plug a $10 billion to $15 billion funding gap in the council's 30-year integrated transport programme fails to meet that criterion. This option suggests that from 2021, the money should come from hefty increases in rates, a regional fuel tax, tolls on major new roads, further government contributions and small public transport fare increases.
The financial burden would, in effect, be widely spread. An advantage of this approach is that it would be reasonably simple to implement. But that does not outweigh the fact that much of the funding would be drawn from homeowners. Some may benefit from better public transport, but many would gain little or no direct or indirect advantage.
The second option is better targeted. It envisages the introduction of road pricing supplemented by smaller increases in rates and fuel tax, further government contributions and small public transport fare increases. Motorists would be levied to use existing roads through motorway tolls, or charged to pass through cordons on other congested arterial routes. This would be more expensive to implement but the approach has several benefits, as well as drawing most of the funding from the major beneficiaries.
Most importantly, it would prompt immediate behavioural change by drivers, a feature not associated with the other option. Virtually overnight, there would be less road congestion. Equally, to cater for those induced to leave their cars at home, planners would have to ensure that convenient, quick, reliable, comfortable and affordable public transport options were available.
Neither approach will, of course, be particularly palatable to those who must pay the cost. Doubtless, the Consensus Building Group will be told as much in much of the feedback it receives. The Government's response is also problematic. It has already made its opposition to a regional fuel tax clear, and may well have reservations about a motorway toll or cordon charges. But this is not something that requires its involvement. The Super City was established ostensibly to provide the people of Auckland with strategic direction and leadership. If the council can convince them to supply the bulk of the funding on the basis that there will be a dramatic improvement in traffic movement, the Government should get out of the road.
The best way of achieving that outcome would be through a referendum run as part of October's local-body elections. It cannot be a yes or no vote on the public paying more for transport. Such a vote would always see higher charges rejected. The question would have to be carefully tailored so as not to simply provide a chance for the venting of spleen. In essence, it should be boiled down to a vote on what is preferable - increased rates or road pricing.
This is not the first time that motorway tolls and cordon charges have been raised. In 2006, they were proposed by the Ministry of Transport, only to be set aside when they were greeted angrily. But the city's transport predicament has worsened substantially since, and Aucklanders may be much readier to accept them as the best way out of a quickly deteriorating situation. They offer the best way forward.