The test of what we really want is often not what we say we want, but what we are willing to pay for. It is therefore to the credit of Mayor Len Brown and the Auckland Council that they are proposing ways Aucklanders might pay for the council's answer to traffic congestion.
The key, in the council's view, is the completion of an inner-city rail loop. A line from Britomart to Mt Eden under Albert St would enable trains to run through Britomart rather than terminating there, and services on all lines would be faster and more frequent. The council believes the improved rail services would take much of the pressure off roads.
The council might be right, though the Government and its transport officials are not convinced. They have not been willing to gamble $2.4 billion (the estimated cost of the underground line) on the chance that it might work. That sum, they point out, is too big a slice of all the money the Government has allocated for Auckland transport improvements over the next few years. But if the council can convince its citizens to pay for the scheme themselves, the Government should not be concerned. The council is putting a smorgasbord of revenue-raising suggestions to the public for comment. The list includes rate increases, regional income and sales taxes, road tolls, parking charges, fuel levies and special rates. None of those would be painless. Citizens might be tempted instead to choose a visitor tax or airport departure charge, though these should not be on offer. They would be an impost on those who make the least use of commuter transport.
The guiding principle for choosing any of the options should be that it draws most of the cost from those who derive the most benefit. The direct beneficiaries of the rail project would be those using it. An indication of the amount expected from train fares should be part of the council's proposal. The main indirect beneficiaries are car drivers who are promised less congestion. If they can be convinced of that benefit they should not begrudge a road toll, regional fuel tax or a parking levy in the city.
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People whose properties are well served by public transport might also benefit. The council suggests a tax on their increased valuation and an extra development contribution from new subdivisions, presumably those in the vicinity of stations where higher density development will be needed to make the scheme worthwhile.
None of the payment options will be easy to sell to the council's voters - new taxes in any form are never welcome. But if the benefit is made clear, Aucklanders will respond. They readily agreed to a toll when the harbour bridge was proposed. The Government of that time was hard to convince of the bridge's merits even though Auckland would pay for it, and the attitude in Wellington seems to be the same now.
New Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee, like the previous minister Steven Joyce, warns the Auckland Council it would need Government permission to raise the money in the ways suggested. In the interests of the national economy the Government might not let the council spend $2.4 billion on a railway regardless of who pays for it, since the amount would be a considerable investment of national capital resources.
But the Government has set up a Super City ostensibly to provide Auckland with just this sort of strategic leadership and direction. If the council can convince Aucklanders to stump up for it, the plan can be considered economic. We will not agree to pay for it unless we can be convinced enough of us will use it. It will be up to Mr Brown and his team to convince us. In taking on that task they have done the right thing. The Government should not get in their way.