Council roading engineers are on notice to find new efficiencies to survive below-inflation maintenance funding for the next three years.
The Transport Agency has issued an indicative operating budget including a national increase of just 2.3 per cent to $1.26 billion for the upkeep and renewal of local roads from next month until mid-2015.
Although Auckland, Whangarei and the Bay of Plenty will each receive increases of 4.1 per cent and the Waikato will gain 7.5 per cent, the Far North District will have to make do with a paltry 0.2 per cent rise and financially troubled Kaipara faces a 1.7 per cent cut.
Various South Island councils also face funding difficulties, prompting a warning from Local Government New Zealand of deteriorating roads, although the Transport Agency says Kaipara has been unable to spend its full allocation for the three years to June 30.
The funding squeeze follows what a Government-appointed taskforce charged with finding maintenance savings of up to 15 per cent acknowledges has been a "flat-lined" budget response to a Beehive funding directive.
State highways will gain a slightly higher 2.5 per cent increase for maintenance, operations and renewals, to $1.39 billion.
That comes amid high bitumen prices and as the Government prepares to ramp up its "roads of national significance" programme, including Auckland's $2 billion Waterview motorway projects.
Although the Transport Agency has yet to finalise a budget for new state highways for the coming three years, it is expected to be a little above $3 billion, with help from a 2c tax increase on August 1 on each litre of petrol.
Spending on public transport operations will rise by 33 per cent - off a much smaller base but also assisted by fuel tax - to almost $830 million.
But within that sum, fare subsidies for surging numbers of bus, train and ferry passengers will increase by a more modest 7.4 per cent. Much of the rest will be for higher rail access charges and debt payments on new electric trains for Auckland and Wellington commuters.
An increase of $21 million for the use of KiwiRail's tracks through the two regions is questioned by Auckland City transport chairman Mike Lee, given what he says is a high frequency of signals failures continuing to delay trains.
Auckland will receive more than $445 million from the Transport Agency, equal to about 60 per cent of its public transport operations budget, and ratepayers will add $380 million.
The region will also receive $248 million for the upkeep of its roads, to which will be added a local share of about $328 million.
Despite the tight road maintenance funding, agency chief Geoff Dangerfield said combined investment by the Government and its council partners amounted to 27 per cent of the previous land transport programme, and would continue to take priority.
He was confident recommendations of the road maintenance taskforce would continue to keep critical routes in good condition, although he acknowledged some of those less travelled may have to cope with less attention.
Labour's transport spokesman, Phil Twyford, said potential efficiency gains remained hypothetical and the Government was sacrificing the welfare of rural communities "to pour billions and billions of dollars into its hand-picked roads of national significance".
"The Government likes to paint Auckland as the villain, in wanting the rest of the country to subsidise its rail budget," he said.
"But the real story is that these hand-picked roads are gobbling up all the money and rural and provincial New Zealanders are the ones who are really being done over here."
Kaipara District officials could not be contacted but Northland Regional Council transport chairman John Bain said their financial woes were compounded by having to spend up to 70 per cent of their rates in recent years "just to keep their roads operative".
KEEPING NZ MOVING
Transport Agency indicative operating budget, July 2012 to 2015.
Total road maintenance, operations and renewals - $2.65b (rising 2.4 per cent).
* State highways: $1.39b (rising 2.5 per cent).
* Local roads: $1.26b (rising 2.3 per cent - to be matched by council funding).
* Public transport operations: $829.7m (rising 33 per cent).