Regional fuel tax to help fund Penlink

By Mathew Dearnaley

Whangaparaoa Peninsula will be promised a toll-free link road to Auckland's Northern Motorway from a regional fuel tax of up to 10c a litre likely to be announced today or tomorrow.

Although two-thirds of the tax - starting at 2c a litre in July and rising in stages up to 10c in 2011 - will pay for Auckland's billion-dollar rail electrification, it is expected the Government will offer blue-ribbon Rodney District a cut of $150 million for its long-sought Penlink road.

That will delight the district council while annoying Auckland Regional Council and the Green Party, as well as stealing electoral ground from National.

The Government's largesse will come from 1c of its potential 5c share of the fuel tax, enabling the road to be built without a toll of about $2.50 which the council expected until now would have to be levied.

A similar amount of fuel tax is also likely to go towards the $1.89 billion Waterview motorway tunnels.

Property development levies and council land contributions will cover the rest of a $183 million bill for the 7km Penlink road to Whangaparaoa from the Northern Motorway at Redvale, which will include a 540m bridge across the Weiti River near Stillwater.

But the hefty Government funding will put it under jurisdiction of the Transport Agency's highways division, rather than the district council.

Documents obtained by the Herald say the Government will carry the full risk for the project, relieving the council of the entire burden.

They disclose that the Government ruled out building the project as a toll road, under a public-private partnership, as "too risky".

That is despite the Government's previous promotion of it as a vehicle for spreading revenue collection costs of the $365 million motorway extension to Puhoi, which will open early next year as the first state-owned toll road. The pre-election economic and fiscal update listed Penlink yesterday as a new risk, stating that the Government was considering providing up to $200 million in 2009 for it, a proposal which would increase gross debt but be serviced from regional fuel-tax revenue.

The Penlink announcement will upset the regional council, as potentially undermining its efforts to align transport priorities with its strategy of limiting urban sprawl.

The Green Party will also be irked, as it supported the fuel-tax legislation on condition it be restricted to projects deemed consistent with Auckland's regional land transport strategy.

But Transport Minister Annette King, who will turn the first sod of earth today on the $220 million Hobsonville Motorway project before holding a briefing on the $160 million-plus New Lynn railway trench, appears set to ride out any political flak.

One of the Penlink documents reports her as telling Rodney District Mayor Penny Webster in a conference call with officials last week that the project would not have to "go through" the regional council or the Auckland Regional Transport Committee.

The minister acknowledged that those organisations would be "upset" but said she had always told them the regional fuel tax had to benefit everyone.

"Rodney will not be benefiting from electrification of the rail system in Auckland, nor from the Waterview project, so Penlink is the project for Rodney," she is reported as telling Mrs Webster.

The Penlink announcement will represent a strong pre-election foray by Labour into traditional National territory, after that party's opposition to the fuel-tax legislation's passage through Parliament in July.

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