The Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, may not be as loud and brash in his pronouncements as his predecessors but the message yesterday remained the same. He was, he said, "very sceptical" about the options presented by an independent advisory board to the Auckland Council to plug a $12 billion transport funding gap over the next 30 years. Shorn of euphemism, that represented yet another Government thumbs-down for the recommended solutions to the city's congestion woes.
The board suggested a toll of about $2 as drivers entered the city's motorways, or a mixture of a rates rise of about 1 per cent and a 1.2 cents a litre higher regional fuel tax. The first would require Government approval which, clearly, will not be forthcoming. Mr Bridges said the motorway system was built by taxpayers, and any revenue raised from it would belong in the first instance to taxpayers. Never mind that the on-ramps are half-funded by ratepayers and offer an ideal and simple charging point. In the case of the second recommendation, the minister noted that rates were a matter for the council, but said the Government did not support new taxes or raising the national tax for the benefit of one region.
The Auckland Council can have expected no less. It knows that as congestion woes have mounted, popular sentiment has become much more accepting of the idea of tolls. It also knows that in an Automobile Association poll, most stated a preference for motorway tolls rather than a rates rise. But it is equally apparent that any thought that the weight of Aucklanders' opinion will one day cause the Government to buckle appears misplaced.
Such rigidity is hardly helpful. If the Mayor, Len Brown, can convince Aucklanders that they should accept motorway tolls, the Government should, aside from making the required law change, butt out. But the rights and wrongs are quickly becoming irrelevant. It is time for the council to turn its mind to options that would receive a better reception. In that, there is no need to change the guiding principle.
Most of the $12 billion must be drawn from those who derive the most benefit. That rules out increased rates because the financial burden would be met by homeowners who would gain little. In contrast, charging motorists to use existing roads draws the funding from the major beneficiaries. User charges cause people to think about their use. Road congestion would ease very quickly as people were induced to leave their cars at home. A smoother path would become available to those who most need to travel by car and have most to lose by delays.
The Government's rejection of motorway tolls points unerringly towards congestion charging on other big roads. In London, this has discouraged many from driving into the city centre. That decision has been made simpler by the availability of fast, reliable and inexpensive public transport. In Auckland, this is more problematic, and there is a danger that commerce and jobs might migrate to the suburbs. The council would, therefore, have to place a high priority on the upgrading of public transport. A start to the inner-city rail link in 2016, as suggested by the mayor, would play an important role in that.
The council says it will consult Aucklanders from January on the two options advanced by the advisory board. That would be quite reasonable if the Government showed any inclination to accept them as valid. But that is not the case. The next step, therefore, must be to talk to the Government about what could be acceptable. The city's rapid growth dictates that no time can be wasted chasing pipe dreams.