Auckland households with hefty travel needs could pay almost $1600 more a year under one tolling option for filling a $12 billion transport funding gap.
Independent advisers to Mayor Len Brown yesterday signalled an average extra cost to households of $345 under a "flat-rate" tolling scheme in which drivers would be charged $2 each time they join a motorway.
An alternative, expected to be more effective in reducing congestion by up to 20 per cent, would entail variable fees according to time of use.
Tolls varying from $2.80c at peak hours to $1.30 at quieter times and weekends, but nothing at night from 8pm until 6am, would cost households an average $371 more each year.
An alternative proposal for raising an extra $300 million annually for enhanced bus and rail projects as well as roading improvements is to raise rates by an extra 0.9 per cent and to increase fuel tax for Auckland motorists by 1.2c a litre for each of 10 years from 2016.
That would add $348 to average annual household bills, says a 12-member advisory panel, which included representatives of transport users, unions and business groups in the second phase of a research exercise likely to end up costing ratepayers almost $3 million.
But the panel chairman, former Secretary of Transport Stewart Milne, acknowledged - after presenting the three options to Mr Brown ahead of a public submission period likely to start in January - that "averages can be misleading" and that the effects would vary considerably.
Raising rates and fuel taxes would have a less variable impact, by spreading the burden across the region, but that would hit even those who did not own a car or take public transport.
The cost to households from tolls would fluctuate far more, ranging from about $130 annually for infrequent users, up to $1580 for those with heavy transport needs unable to adjust their travel behaviour such as by changing routes or using buses, trains or bikes.
Mr Milne said the higher rates and fuel tax "pathway" would be the easiest to introduce, requiring little or no legislative change, compared with tolls needing Government approval and a new law.
His panel says that would cost $108 million to set up, including for the installation of cameras on poles at 119 motorway entry points or up to 68 gantries.
Collecting tolls through automatic number-plate recognition technology already used on Auckland's Northern Gateway toll road to Puhoi would cost about 24c for each transaction.
But Mr Milne said tolls would provide greater performance improvements to the transport system and align costs closer to those who used motorways and stood to benefit from up to 20 per cent less congestion than if nothing was done.
He acknowledged there would be "a period of unsettled road use" initially, as drivers sought alternative routes, but expected a significant swing back to motorways once conditions on them improved.
His panel has identified a number of arterial choke-points - including Triangle Rd in Massey, and Great South Rd between Takanini and Papakura - where "additional capacity" would be needed to cope with extra traffic.
It is also trying to pre-empt criticism from North Shore commuters about having to pay tolls to reach Auckland, saying its proposals would spread the cost of a new $4.8 billion harbour crossing among all motorway users.
Mr Milne said the Government might have to consider providing transport assistance similar to accommodation supplements for families hit hardest.
But the risk of doing nothing as Auckland's population soared by a million more residents over the next 30 years would be of a city "grinding to a halt" at peak times.
Mr Brown, who has ruled out a referendum but says he expects "tens of thousands" of Aucklanders to make their views clear to his council in submissions to its 10-year budget in the first quarter of next year, warns congestion will cost the city's economy $1.6 billion a year under existing transport funding.
First Union secretary Robert Reid, representing the Council of Trade Unions on the panel, says employers should also expect claims for transport allowances at wage-bargaining.
Anything to move around town faster
Paul Turner is split on a motorway toll.
Anything that helps his team of 10 plumbers get around the city more quickly by improving roads and public transport has to be a good thing.
His staff can spend up to half the day on the road, staying off the motorways in the morning peak and battling the afternoon rush to get home.
But the head of Euro Plumbing in St Johns wonders if the proposed toll is just a revenue-gathering exercise.
Either way, Mr Turner said tolls were another cost that would probably get passed on to customers. A $2 toll could cost his business $100 to $200 a day.
Plumber David Mortimore, who runs five vans from a base in Devonport to St Heliers in the east, Te Atatu in the west and Omaha, north of Auckland, said: "I don't have a problem with it. It should have been done years so."
Everywhere else in the world has tolls and nobody bats an eyelid, said Mr Mortimore, who is old enough to remember tolls on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which ended in 1984.
He is not too sure if motorways tolls will improve traffic flows, but likes the idea of extra revenue to pay for new roads.
It's a similar story for Scott Carr, general manager of Laser Electrical and Laser Plumbing, which has more than 100 vehicles on the road in Auckland. Some of his staff do five jobs a day, using the motorway three of four times. Mr Carr said a $2 toll might make the motorways flow better at peak times, but it could cause congestion on other roads.
Regan Baucke - among Herald readers to give feedback yesterday - said tolls were better than a regional fuel tax and higher rates. Tolls, he said, would reduce congestion.
How, when and where will drivers pay up
How will drivers be tolled?
Charges will be triggered by cameras identifying vehicles through the Transport Agency's motor registration centre (as happens for Auckland's Northern Gateway toll road).
Payments could be made through retail outlets or the internet, or debited from electronic Hop cards.
What area will it cover?
Auckland's entire motorway network from the Bombay Hills to Puhoi.
Will people driving in or out of Auckland through the Northern Gateway toll road have to pay twice?
No. The proposed scheme will replace the existing northern toll.
When might tolling be introduced?
The panel says "realistically" not before 2017/18, given the large amount of technical work needed to set up infrastructure at every motorway on-ramp, and a requirement for Government approval of new legislation.
Will there be a cap on how much drivers have to pay each day?
No. That has been rejected as too complex, and likely to require a higher level of tolls to subsidise frequent motorway users.
Were any other road charging schemes considered?
Yes. The panel considered three schemes suggested by the Ministry of Transport in 2005. Two involved cordons around either central Auckland or the wider isthmus and the other entailed charging drivers according to distances travelled along motorways. These were rejected as being too complex and unfair on commuters having to make long trips.