Editorial: Unpalatable, yes, but tolls the obvious solution

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No funding options appeal.

User charges, no matter how low they are set, cause people to think about their use. Photo / Paul Escourt
User charges, no matter how low they are set, cause people to think about their use. Photo / Paul Escourt

Aucklanders probably do not like any of the options offered to them for making up a shortfall in funding for future transport projects. The "consensus-building group" set up by the Auckland Council sounds not exactly enthusiastic either about the options it suggested yesterday. Charging for the use of some or all of the roads in the city would be unpalatable to everybody - at first.

But it is the obvious answer, partly because it would be technically easy. The motorway off-ramps provide a simple charging point for all parts of the city, or for just the city centre if necessary. An off-ramp toll also has the benefit of allowing travellers from outside Auckland to avoid the charge by staying on the motorways. Since the revenue would be for improvements to the city's traffic flows and public transport, outsiders should not charged unless they enter Auckland's streets.

Aucklanders, of course, could avoid the charge by avoiding the motorways and some would do so.

But unless the toll was unreasonably high, most residents would soon revert to them for speed and convenience. If an exit charge looks more like a motorway toll than a city levy it hardly matters.

The Auckland Council needs to raise $12 billion over the next 30 years to cover a gap in funding between present budget projections and the $68 billion cost of additional roading, railways, cycleways and ferries planned for another million residents by 2040. Some may argue the funding shortfall could be properly passed to those people by financing the projects with debt against future ratepayers. But rates, like general taxes, are a wasteful way to finance anything.

User charges, no matter how low they are set, cause people to think about their use. In London, congestion charges have discouraged many from bringing cars into the city centre. So long as fast, reliable public transport is available, as it is in London, people will leave their cars at home or park outside the charged area.

To put such a cordon around Auckland's inner city before public transport has been improved would only send more commerce and employment out to the suburbs. If the city centre is to be revitalised as the Auckland Council envisages, it needs to find additional revenue for the central rail link before congestion charging could be imposed. A charge on the entire network, levied at motorway exits, could help pay for it.

Members of the consensus-building group have expressed surprise at the degree of acceptance of road charges among 2300 public submissions they received in response to options set out in their initial paper. But Mayor Len Brown, who has accepted the ultimate consensus-building task, will be under no illusions that it will be easy.

The group says hard decisions will have to be made by 2015, or rates will have to rise markedly from 2016 to start bridging the gap in funding the transport improvement programme. Even hard-headed organisations were reluctant to commit themselves to road charges yesterday. Auckland Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett said "a comprehensive assessment and modelling of the two options [higher rates or road charges] needed to be undertaken", and Automobile Association motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon said, "the devil will be in the detail".

This devil is not in the detail, it is the principle of paying to use roads that is hard to accept. The detail of how much should be charged and how charges should be paid are relatively straightforward. The toll cannot be so low that it does not cover the collection cost, nor so high that most people go out of their way to avoid it. First, we need to agree it is necessary.

- NZ Herald

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