What is congestion charging?
Congestion charging means billing motorists to use roads at different times and locations to encourage them to change their time, method or route of travel. It is seen as a way to reduce congestion on roads, particularly at peak times, and reduce transport emissions.
Auckland Council is leaning towards “time of use” charges on congested sections of the motorway and potentially major arterial roads rather than “congestion charges” in a ring around the central city.
Where has congestion charging been introduced?
Singapore was the first country to introduce congestion charging in 1975 and since then a handful of cities, including London, Milan and the Swedish cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg, have introduced schemes.
Where has New Zealand got to with congestion charging?
Successive governments have talked about congestion charging for 20 years with most of the focus on Auckland, but nothing has happened. In 2020, the Government, Auckland Council and several government agencies produced a report, The Congestion Question, which recommended congestion charges could be phased in from 2025, starting with central Auckland. It found the scheme would generate benefits, but cause financial hardship for many households requiring mitigation. It suggested prices of between $1.50 and $3.50 during the peak and shoulder hours and no charge off-peak.
The then Auckland Transport chairwoman Adrienne-Young Cooper said before congestion charges are introduced “we need more high-quality public transport” and the government needs to ensure the system “does not unfairly penalise low-income earners”.
The Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee produced a report on congestion charging in August 2021, and cross-party support has been building for a scheme that has reached the stage of a bill being drafted.
Auckland councillors yesterday voted to set up a joint plan with Auckland Transport to look at how a system could work, and investigate options to address the impact on low-income earners.
Where do the political parties stand on congestion charging?
Labour, in government, prepared a bill to enable it, but then Transport Minister David Parker did not make a big deal of it in the run-up to the election.
The Nats are keen on congestion charges as part of a wider plan for new funding tools to move away from road user charges and petrol taxes to pay for transport and to manage traffic demand.
Transport spokesman Simeon Brown said National would take the Government’s draft bill and make changes to ensure benefits for travel times, but acknowledged it will be “fraught and difficult” to address high costs for low-income earners.
Under National’s plan, councils will be able to propose a scheme but Brown said National has still to work through whether it will share the revenue with councils and what it will be used to fund, “but in principle used in a way that helps to improve the efficiency of the network in that region”. The intent, he said, is to spend the money where it is collected.
Brown said it would take two-to-three years before congestion charging could be introduced - passing the legislation, consulting with councils on schemes, developing the technology and building the infrastructure.
Incoming Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has not included congestion charging in his 100-Day Plan and has more pressing issues on the legislative front before focusing on the issue.
The Greens have long supported congestion charging after sufficiently investing in public transport and a safe, protected cycleway network for viable alternatives, says the party’s transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter.
She said Auckland and Wellington could bring in congestion charging relatively quickly with the opening of the City Rail Link a good time for Auckland, adding it will realistically be about three years before it could be started. Nearly all of the revenue after operating costs would go to improving public transport, walking and cycling, she said.
“When congestion charging comes in, the road space is freer, which means it is easier to provide bus priority, protected bike lanes and for those that need to drive they are spending less money by paying the congestion charge because they are getting a faster, more reliable journey.”
Genter said making a decision soon on congestion charging would also send a signal about where housing should be built.
She said analysis showed that congestion charging would not necessarily hit lower-income families more, saying the majority of car trips into Auckland’s central city is mostly from the wealthy and inner-city suburbs, and not many low-income people drive at peak times.
A user-pays system for transport to replace fuel taxes has been proposed by Act.
The party envisages variable charges during traffic jams, dropping during free-flowing traffic, broadly in line with “time of use” charging
Eventually, Act aims to copy Singapore nationwide with statellite-based pricing, and over time make all cars imported into the country fitted with a transmitter for tracking, and free transmitters for older vehicles after a five-year transition period.
Where do cities stand on congestion charges?
After earlier saying congestion charging only makes sense once people have the option of catching a bus or train that they know will turn up on time, Mayor Wayne Brown is now pushing hard for “time of use” charges on known traffic jams, partly in response to the potential scrapping by National of the Regional Fuel Tax that brings in $150 million a year to spend on transport.
Councillors are largely on board, and support working with Auckland Transport on a scheme but have big concerns about the impact on low-income earners.
Officials say a flat fee at peak times would reduce clogged motorways by about 10 per cent at peak times - similar to that seen during school holiday times.
Brown says the charges are about fixing the terrible congestion costing $1 billion a year, and part of a suite of interventions, including existing and new busways, the opening of the City Rail Link (CRL) and the “plague” of road cones.
He believes the revenue from congestion charges should come to Auckland Council, but the Government may have different ideas, like sharing it with the council or using the revenue collected on state highways to fund its own programmes.
There is no timeline for the introduction of congestion charges in Auckland, but there is talk of it being timed for the opening of the CRL, expected around mid-2026.
Stephen Selwood, one of four commissioners running Tauranga City Council and former chief executive of Infrastructure New Zealand, said a study is underway on introducing congestion charges on the city’s state highways with the aim of reducing congestion by 20 per cent, increasing mode shift to public transport by 6 per cent and carbon emissions by a similar amount.
He said the study will feed into the council’s new 10-year budget and go out for public consultation and say “here’s the option, we think it will have major benefits to the city, would you be prepared to support it?’
If there is public support, said Selwood, the council will go to the government and say “let’s get on with this”.
Two questions need addressing, he said. There needs to be viable alternatives to the car and enough people to move to public transport, and what about people of lower incomes?
There are options for low-income people, but the simplest is number plate recognition technology(already in place on two toll roads) that would link to a community services card for a price discount or even free for that commuter.
“No doubt there will be robust community debate, but you have got to compare it with the counterfactual that if we keep on doing what we are doing, we pretty much know the outcome, and it’s not that good,” Selwood said.
Wellington has no plans on its books for congestion charging, but the council is supportive of it and tolls to encourage mode shift, reduce emissions and improve travel times.
Two years ago, the council’s infrastructure committee said road pricing should be about more than just “relieving congestion”, and used to meet national emission targets with a reduction in private car trips and a significant shift to low-carbon transport within years rather than decades.
What does the AA say?
The Automobile Association is open to congestion charging as a concept and its benefits in terms of travel times but mindful of the significant financial costs on motorists, especially where realistic alternatives are thin on the ground, said Auckland spokesman Martin Glynn.
Glynn believed it could be used for peak travel in and out of Wellington and Auckland city centres given they have “reasonable public transport alternatives” with public transport, walking and cycling, but is sceptical about congestion charging being used elsewhere where public transport is extremely limited.
“We are particularly mindful that despite the hype, congestion charging has only been introduced in a handful of cities around the world and, apart from Singapore, it has been focused on city centres only,” he said.
Last year, the AA surveyed members in Auckland on how they felt about congestion charges and found 14 per cent liked the idea, compared to 46 per cent who were opposed. The other 40 per cent did not know enough to comment or didn’t have a firm view.
Although a political consensus is building for congestion charging, the AA said it will be a “hard sell”.
Bernard Orsman is an Auckland-based reporter who has been covering local government and transport since 1998. He joined the Herald in 1990 and worked in the parliamentary press gallery for six years.