The announcement a few weeks ago that New Zealand Transport Agency was carrying out public consultation about charging a toll to use the new Puhoi to Warkworth Highway caused a flurry of interest and raised a few questions.
At the same time, NZTA announced it had all the necessary prerequisites to apply for resource consent for that highway's extension by 26km, from Warkworth to Te Hana.
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This has comparatively, passed without media comment. What it means is that this Road of National Significance, announced in 2009, continues its planning progress despite the stop/go nature of political expedience.
The consent application anticipates a consenting period of 12-24 months, with construction starting in 2030 and a five to seven year construction period.
The consent application does not have a price tag, but if the politicians say "go" then the consenting process could allow this project to progress when the Puhoi to Warkworth stretch is completed at the end of next year.
The proposal to toll the Puhoi to Warkworth Highway is a bit of a surprise and comes pretty late in the construction process.
Northlanders are well used to being charged to go through Auckland just as Aucklanders are used to paying to escape north.
The Auckland Harbour Bridge started it all. That was opened in 1959 after taking four years and today's equivalent of $42 million to build. The first toll was two and sixpence which is $4.70 in today's dollars. The bridge was paid for in 1984 and tolls ceased then.
In 2009 tolls started again with the Northern Gateway Highway. This 7.5km road bypassing Orewa and Waiwera was built as a toll road. It cost $360m of which $158m was assigned as a debt to be repaid by toll over 35 years.
In nine years until 2018, $67m of this debt has been repaid with the toll collected also covering $34m in operating costs.
Light vehicles pay $2.40, heavy vehicles $4.80 and the time saving is 7-10 minutes. Heavy vehicles have a significant financial saving. At the current rate, the debt will be repaid well before 35 years.
The extension of this road from Puhoi to Wellsford is a Road of National Significance proposed in 2009. The 18.5km Puhoi to Warkworth stage was commenced in 2016 at a contract cost of $710m.
It is being built under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) which undertakes to build, operate and maintain the highway for 25 years. NZTA will pay an annual service fee to use the road for the 25-year term of the contract.
Now, we are being asked to submit about a user-pays toll to offset the service fee.
Tolls are used to raise revenue - a user-pays contribution to the cost of the road which supposedly allows roads to be built earlier than they normally would.
They are also used to change behaviour, to manage congestion, to cause users to weigh the payment against using an alternate route or consider other transport modes.
Underpinning the toll proposals are that the fee should not deter motorists from using the road, that the cost/benefit is positive for them and that there must be a free alternative route available.
An interesting comparison of potential toll roads currently in play is with Transmission Gully, north of Wellington. This is a long-awaited 27km new route to the Kapiti Coast, built as an alternative to the coastal State Highway 1.
Transmission Gully was started in 2015 as a PPP with a contract price of $850m. It will be completed in December this year with a final price of $1.09 billion.
Curiously, despite being considered as a road suitable for tolling, NZTA announced last year it would not be tolled. The rationale indicated that, "Tolling the road would likely result in more drivers choosing to use the coast route, which would compromise the safety, environmental and access benefits the road would deliver".
Wellington drivers, it seems, would not value sufficiently the extra benefits provided if they had to pay to gain them.
This then, is the same question relating to Puhoi to Warkworth. Do we value the time saving of about 10 minutes safer driving sufficiently to pay $2.40 each time we use it?
The answer to that is probably yes, and we then, almost by default, value the future Warkworth to Te Hana extension the same way.
But, is there an equity issue here? Is it fair that Northlanders pay three lots of tolls to get to Auckland, while most of the rest of New Zealand get their new roads for nothing?
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.