Dearer petrol, but train payoff to come

By Mathew Dearnaley

Aucklanders are being urged to tolerate a new regional fuel tax of at least 5c a litre as security for a $630 million loan for electric trains and other public transport enhancements.

The Auckland Regional Council yesterday confirmed its intention to seek its maximum share of a potential fuel tax of 10c a litre from January 1, leaving the Government to determine spending priorities for the rest.

Transport Minister Annette King indicated last year that the Government's share would be spent not just on electrifying Auckland's rail tracks for up to $500 million, but also on the region's incomplete western motorway bypass and helping Rodney District Council to build a toll road to Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

Although the Government will pay for the tracks and overhead powerlines, the regional council has allocated $364 million for 35 electric trains and $131 million for support facilities.

It will also spend $292 million on more diesel trains to tide passengers over until a full electric fleet is running in 2013, and on new or improved railway stations.

It also hopes to use fuel tax receipts and a 30-year loan to help to pay for $43 million of ferry terminal upgrades, other infrastructure costs of $52 million such as for an electronic all-purpose public transport ticket by 2010, and $111 million for extra bus, rail and ferry services over the next seven years.

As well as aiming for a regional fuel tax, subject to proposed legislation for which the Government has yet to secure a guarantee of political support in Parliament, the council's draft annual plan includes an average rates rise of 4.95 per cent.

That is in line with a decision the council took in its previous term not to attempt to bridge a $700 million public transport funding gap from rates alone, which it estimated would have required annual rises of 17 per cent over 10 years.

The draft plan, which council chairman Mike Lee called "one of the most significant in a generation", will be open for public submissions for a month from April 2 before being subjected to a round of hearings.

In a statement proposing to change its 10-year funding plan, the council expresses optimism that Aucklanders will accept a "modest" fuel tax in return for less traffic, cleaner air "and a friendly city that is easier to get around". "Research and consultation with the public over the past three years has identified congestion and air pollution as top concerns," the council says.

"With around 60 more cars on the [Auckland] roads each day, safe and affordable public transport is required sooner rather than later."

The council hopes a loan for capital investments secured by the fuel tax will free up extra operating funds for new and improved bus and ferry services as well as rail improvements such as late-night trains throughout the week from early next year.

As well as these measures, which it says will help to prepare Auckland to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it is seeking public submissions on proposals to contribute $10 million to the Government-led $240.5 million redevelopment of Eden Park and to spend $500,000 on promoting regional tourism.

Councillors also yesterday approved alternative back-stop budgets, in case a regional fuel tax has to be delayed for a year, or is blocked after a select committee considering its empowering legislation reports back to Parliament in May.

Although the regional transport authority has told the council a delay would force it to defer bus and ferry service improvements, Mr Lee told the Herald he did not accept advice that it would also prevent commuter trains running from Helensville from July.

Council transport committee chairwoman Christine Rose, a resident of Waimauku in Rodney District, said she was confident of support for a regional fuel tax even from people living in outlying areas as an alterative to paying for public transport improvements from property rates.

Although she acknowledged there was bound to be some resistance, she believed "even far-flung communities are becoming more aware of the need for improved services".

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