The concept of paying to drive your car across Auckland has bunny-hopped a little further forward – with the Auckland Council agreeing to give Mayor Phil Goff and his deputy the power to make political decisions with the Government during a new study.

At stake is a system of charging drivers that a Council report says could have a bigger impact on Auckland traffic than “tens of billions of dollars of infrastrucutre investment”.

The euphemistically named Auckland Smarter Transport Pricing Project – STP for short, just like the famed American oil lubricants company so prominent in motor racing – is the latest in a long line of inquiries into how best to charge drivers money for using the roads.  

As one councillor, Cathy Casey, pointed out when the Council’s planning committee agreed Tuesday to let Goff and Bill Cashmore make the political calls during the two year review, the new name follows ‘tolling’, ‘road pricing’, ‘network charging’ and ‘congestion charging’.

“Smarter Transport Pricing. What even does that mean? It just seems to me to be mystifying the process. It’s not smart, it’s about cars.”

“It is about revenue gathering,” she said, predicting Aucklanders wouldn’t get a proper say on the concept until near the end of the study.

“This is going to be a major change, but it seems to me the last people who will have a say will be the public of Auckland – in two to three years when our consultants have narrowed down the options.”

Auckland Council wants new ways to raise funds to pay for its roading and public transport infrastructure – and to ease congestion on city roads and motorways.

The project is a joint one between Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, the NZ Transport Agency, Ministry of Transport, Treasury, and State Services Commission. The parties agreed at the end of May to have a three-phase look at how best to charge Aucklanders for using the roads. Interestingly, it was the Treasury representative who took a week longer than others to put his signature to the plan.

By the end of this year the group hopes to have worked out the current state of Auckland’s roads without transport pricing and what methodology it will use and how it will “engage with the public and stakeholders”. Then, late next year it will have a shortlist of options. Finally in 2019 it will work on the design, testing and analysis of the options so it can offer advice on whether transport pricing should proceed.

An update on the project plans, provided to the planning committee, emphasises the need to ring-fence the money raised from motorists for spending on transport improvements so the political backlash is contained, and the need to ensure there are alternatives such as better public transport so those who cannot afford charges are not hit hardest.

The Government has previously indicated it sees congestion charging, or road pricing, as many years off.

At yesterday’s Council planning committee meeting there was some frustration at the time even the STP project will take. The finance committee chair, Ross Clow, said: “I will just stress we do need revenue on this,” and councillor Wayne Walker wanted the Council to consider a trial. “We do need money now”.

Walker said the last study into alternative funding had already become “dinosaur stuff – absolutely hopeless” because technology for identifying and charging drivers by place, time or distance travelled on the roads had moved so quickly.  

Councillor Dick Quax said the Council had “burned a considerably amount of ratepayers’ money over the years” on the issue, but the chairman, Chris Darby, corrected him: “I would say that this is investment.”

Another councillor, Daniel Newman, wanted transport pricing to be aimed at “pricing behaviours, but this is Auckland and it always comes back to be about revenues.”

Casey said the STP project, the whole concept of charging drivers, was 10 years too early.  “If people had reliable public transport they would not object to this. Gathering revenue by pricing our roads is not something I think we will get support for because I do not think the alternatives are there.”

She was the only committee member to vote against the move to delegate power to Goff and Cashmore to push the project ahead.

Cashmore said Aucklanders’ greatest frustration was traffic congestion. “They want alternative modes, they want better public transport.”

He believed the study would examine what was needed, such as universal wifi and 4G phone coverage to allow the latest technologies to log what cars were travelling where and when.

“We need to clearly articulate where we want to go.  We cannot build our way out of congestion.”

The last big joint study was the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), which looked forward 30 years.  It found “incentivising more efficient travel demand patterns” would be an important component in keeping Auckland moving.

Papers to the planning committee yesterday said “smarter transport pricing has an impact on the key ptransport performance metrics that is larger than that achieved by tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment.”

International literature showed “road pricing can be a very effective means to address congestion.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

Leave a comment