Aucklanders will pay 11.5 cents a litre in a new regional fuel tax – but the total of $4.3 billion it will help raise will simply ‘hold’ traffic congestion for 10 years.

As the Auckland Council endorsed the new tax it accepted the big spend aimed to keep road congestion at 2016 levels, which were bad, for the next decade.

The tax will help Auckland meet a multi-billion dollar shortfall in funding on a range of transport projects which will cost $28 billion over that period.

Despite advancing part of the Mill Rd highway in Manukau and the Penlink road from Whangaparaoa towards the city, improving the airport to Puhinui road and paying for faster construction of busways through east Auckland, the depths of the road traffic problem became clear.

The Mayor, Phil Goff, revealed even the multi billion dollar Waterview Tunnel which opened last year, had improved congestion for just three months but traffic buildups were already back to the levels before it began linking the northwestern motorway and the south western motorway to the airport and south Auckland.

Drivers are unlikely to see big improvements or reductions in travel times by paying the new regional fuel tax.

“We are running fast just to stand still,” the Mayor, Phil Goff said before the council voted to consult the public on the 11.5 cent rise in fuel prices, due to begin on July 1.  “We still need to do more.”

The aim of holding congestion at 2016 levels is seen as a plus because the city’s population is expected to rise by 300,000 over the period. The transport package should ease ‘congestion’ on public transport but for motorists paying the fuel tax it is going to be a case of a small improvement and then things won’t get any worse.

The 2016 goal applies to both the morning peak traffic jams and “interpeak” traffic volumes which officials said was “criticial to supporting the efficient movement of goods and services” for the city’s economic development.

All but two councillors, Greg Sayers and Sharron Stewart, supported the new fuel tax. Goff rejected criticism from Sayers, who represents the Rodney area, that the tax would fund light rail – or ‘trams’ as the councillor called it – to Auckland airport. The mayor said none of the $1.5 billion from the tax or the extra $2.8 billion it would ‘leverage’ from the government and developers would be spent on light rail.

Only one councillor, Daniel Newman, had favoured a special rate increase of up to 14 percent instead of introducing the fuel tax to relieve pressure on the poor, but he voted for the tax in the end.

Another, John Watson, questioned estimates it would cost households $140 a year, saying constituents had calculated for him it would be twice or even more than that. “There are clear inequities for suburban Auckland and the poorer part of Auckland’s population.”

In an interesting move, a newly elected Labour councillor, Josephine Bartley seconded a motion from centre-right councillor Desley Simpson to include reference in the council’s public consultation document to the central government’s separate increases in fuel excise tax. The motion divided the council, some seeing it as an attempt to make a political point against the government, for whom the excise increases of up to 12 cents a litre over the next four years have been politically sensitive. Simpson said the council had to be honest with motorists about what they would face.

A tearful Bartley said she had found support for the council’s 11.5 cent regional fuel tax among some of her struggling constituents but “then the Government comes out with the excise tax which pushes it out to 24 cents and people came back said said: ‘We cannot pay that.”  She said it was not party political. “No way in hell I’m going to run for National” but people needed to know there were two increases coming.

Goff, a former Labour minister, resisted including reference to the fuel excise tax increases but after much debate the council agreed to say to the public in a footnote that Auckland’s 11.5 cent rise was not the same as the Labour-led government’s further imposts and refer them to a government website for details on that plan.

The regional fuel tax replaces a transport levy paid by ratepayers for the past three years, totalling $345.

Under the plan accepted by the council, the regional fuel tax would help pay for 14 separate projects, including $210 million of $552 million for road safety measures and $112 million of $342 million for “active transport” or walking and cycling improvements.

Goff said Auckland had suffered decades of under investment in infrastructure and doing nothing now was not an option. Some had suggested motorway tolls instead of a regional fuel tax but each toll charge would likely be more than the $2.30 a week the Automobile Association estimated the fuel tax would cost households a week.

Where the fuel tax money will go:

1. Bus Priority Improvements – total cost $266m – fuel tax contribution of $100m

2. City centre bus infrastructure – $163m – fuel tax $62m

3. Improving airport access – $68m – fuel tax $26m

4. AMETI Eastern Busway – $743m – fuel tax $193m

5. Park and rides – $63m – fuel tax $24m

6. Electric trains and stabling – $396m – fuel tax $150m

7. Downtown ferry redevelopment – $73m – fuel tax $28m

8. Road safety – $552m – fuel tax $210m

9. Active Transport – $342m – fuel tax $112m

10. Penlink – $200m – fuel tax $66m

11. Mill Rd Corridor – $508m – fuel tax $102m

12. Road corridor improvements – $302m – fuel tax $87m

13. Network capacity and performance improvements – $296m – fuel tax $99m

14. Growth related transport infrastructure – $300m – fuel tax $126m

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

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