Editorial: Tolls on rail and ferries likely to backfire

Many public transport-users may return to their cars, creating greater road gridlock. Photo / APN
Many public transport-users may return to their cars, creating greater road gridlock. Photo / APN

There is a surface allure to the Auckland Business Forum's view that all transport users, not just motorists, should contribute to the city's big road and rail projects. If nothing else, it seems fair to spread the burden.

Accordingly, the forum says, the price of tickets for rail and possibly ferry trips should include a $2 toll to complement that being paid by car drivers. These tolls would raise more than $700 million annually to cover repayments on loans to fill a $10 billion funding deficit.

The idea is included in the forum's submission on the 30-year Auckland Plan as a means of financing a "ring-fenced' group of high-priority network improvement projects. At the top of its priority list is the east-west highway corridor from Pakuranga to Onehunga, which is likely to cost about $2.5 billion, followed by the $2.4 billion inner-city rail tunnel plan, both of which the forum wants completed by 2020.

Factors other than fairness could be used to justify its funding suggestion. Many Aucklanders use both their cars and public transport during the course of a week. All modes of transport stand to benefit if the rail loop, in particular, is successful. Indeed, if it is the catalyst for a significant easing of traffic congestion, some people now using public transport could start using their cars more frequently. If all Aucklanders stand to benefit, is it not reasonable for them all to contribute by way of tolls?

Unfortunately, however, the Business Forum's case has a serious flaw. The major thrust of transport spending in recent years has been to get people out of cars and on to trains, buses and ferries, thereby lessening congestion on the roads. To attract and retain patronage, public transport has not only to be fast, frequent, convenient and comfortable. It has to be affordable.

The danger of making a $2 toll part of ticket prices is that this will cease to be the case. If so, many public transport-users would return to their cars, creating greater road gridlock. The forum's prescription has the potential to be a spectacular own-goal.

Perhaps a more notable part of its submission is the high priority that it accords the rail loop. The road corridor from Pakuranga to Onehunga is, understandably from its perspective, top of its list. It caters for more daily freight traffic than any other state highway except the Auckland Harbour Bridge. But the forum's promotion, as a second priority, of the rail loop suggests that, unlike Transport Minister Steven Joyce, it is convinced of its cost-benefit merits.

This view could, of course, also hinge on the fact that forum members stand to be major beneficiaries of a project that advocates say will boost business and employment in a revived city centre. They also note that the rail tunnel would make road trips easier for longer periods of the working day.

However, in terms of getting such work under way, the forum's core approach of linking its proposed funding with big projects - including motorway tunnels for the next Waitemata Harbour crossing - is not particularly helpful. It is more likely to muddy the waters than provide clarity, thereby slowing progress. There is more appeal in Mayor Len Brown's proposal to concentrate initially on the rail loop, and to hold a referendum on the road tolls and congestion charges that he sees as the best means of paying for it.

Aucklanders will have to be convinced to pay for this in some shape or form. That will occur only if they recognise it is in their best interest. Many motorists will have an instinctive aversion to tolls or a congestion fee and see it as a punitive way to fund a rail project. But they would surely be even more annoyed if a broader-based toll served only to make the city's roads more congested over the next few years.

- NZ Herald

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