With the Labour Party in power a regional petrol tax on Auckland is a near certainty. The new Transport Minister, Phil Twyford, has made it clear the Auckland Council can have the tax as soon as it asks for it. The council is almost certain to do so as a means of providing Auckland's share of the cost of improvements to commuter railways.
A petrol tax has obvious political benefits. An extra 10c a litre would soon go unnoticed in the fluctuation of prices at the pump. Taxes already account for roughly half the retail price of petrol and motorists seldom complain. Nor has there been an outcry about some of the revenue of road taxes being used to subsidise public transport. Motorists recognise that every person who chooses public transport takes a car off the road.
Nevertheless, Mayor Phil Goff and his council would be most unwise to put their hands out for a petrol tax until they have brought the costs of the council administration under better control. The recent disclosure that the city has 194 council officers on salaries above $200,000 is alarming. On top of that, the Weekend Herald reported that no fewer than 234 people are employed by the council and its associated organisations on "communications", which principally means persuading ratepayers their money is being well spent.
Goff came to office promising to trim this sort of flab. The number employed in communications has emerged from a review initiated by the mayor. The findings of similar "value for money" reviews of the council's waste management, water services and global partnerships are keenly awaited. If the elected council is going to be able to get control of its costs it may need more power than its legislation provides to bypass its chief executive and make some staffing and remuneration decisions. Before the new Government rushes in with a petrol tax, it should review the performance of the "super city" set up by the previous Government seven years ago.
But even a more efficient local government would probably need an additional source of revenue for projects to keep pace with Auckland's traffic congestion. Keeping pace means improving both roads and public transport as the population grows. Petrol tax is a relatively painless revenue provider by comparison with tolls and congestion charges. But being so, it is less likely to change drivers' behaviour. It probably would require a direct charge for roads or carparking to get most people out of their cars.
Tolls and congestion charges, though, are costly to administer. The technology and bureaucracy is liable to cost as much as the revenue collected, and collecting an electronic toll can be difficult. Petrol taxes are collected by the oil companies and any additional collection costs involved in a regional differentiation will doubtless be added to the price at the pump.
A rise in fuel costs is quickly reflected in all goods and services relying on transport. The previous Government resisted the Auckland Council's appeals for a petrol tax because it would be felt throughout the wider economy, not just Auckland's. The new Government clearly believes the economic price is worth paying for better electric railways.