No one in the Beehive will admit it but yesterday’s report on the future of Auckland transport marks a major change in Government thinking.

As recently as six months ago the Prime Minister was rejecting congestion charges.

And since National power in 2008, both Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee have opposed congestion charges, road tolls and a regional fuel tax as a means of funding Auckland transport, particularly the central rail loop.

Now repackaged as a demand management system, road tolls are back on the agenda and this time, a new Minister, Simon Bridges, is supporting them.

Since Mr Bridges has been Transport Minister the Government has agreed to fund part of the central rail loop and now the road tolls – moves which underline his “new generation” approach to transport policy and which mark him as one of the up and coming Ministers to watch in the Key Government.

Yesterday’s announcement also shows that that he knows how to win a battle around the Cabinet table.

The Transport Alignment Project report was initially conceived of last August as a political way of sidelining Auckland Mayor, Len Brown’s pressure for the Government to immediately invest $300 million more in Auckland transport.

Mr Brown proposed a “Transport Accord” along the lines of the Housing Accord signed by the Government and the Council but the Government opposed that. 

“For us to even contemplate more funding above-above the $1 billion a year we invest in Auckland transport we would need high confidence in a strategy,” said Mr Bridges at the time.

“We didn’t have that in the Auckland plan.

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Finance Minister Bill English and Mr Bridges told Mr Brown that Auckland’s transport plan was expected only to deliver modest improvements in the areas that matter most to Aucklanders — tackling congestion and driving greater public transport use.

The  Ministers proposed a review, possibly even involving an overseas transport consultancy to look into Auckland transport.

Mr Brown ignored that.

The Ministers finally got their way, and the Auckland Transport Alignment Group was set up headed by a Governance Group consisting of the Secretary for Transport, Deputy Secretary Treasury, the State Services Commission Deputy Commissioner Auckland, and the Chief Executives of Auckland Council, the NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport.

Mr  Bridges won that round and by all accounts, Mr Brown has been a co-operative member of the process since.

But the Minister’s second battle has obviously been inside the Cabinet.

In January, after the Prime Minister announced that the Government gave the go-ahead for the Central Rail Loop, Mr Brown was arguing for a congestion charge to fund the Council’s share. (Expected to be around $1 billion).

“What the Government has always said is that if the Council wants to put a further tax or charge on Aucklanders, we are lukewarm,” replied Mr Key.

Mr Bridges though is adamant that his smart demand management system is different.

“I don’t see it as a change or U-turn because we are totally sceptical about regarding this as revenue,” he told POLITIK.

“It is actually about changing behaviour.”

And so to assuage those Ministers who saw road tolls as another tax, he has agreed that revenue gathered by the tolls will be offset against road user charges and fule excise tax which will be reduced.

Simply the system would probably work using GPS and satellites and would levy charges that would vary according to the trip taken by the vehicle and the time it used the roads.

Singapore has such a system up and working.

Mr Bridges says that the alternative is to pay billions building extra lanes on motorways which will become more and more expensive as the cost of land rises and it becomes more difficult to consent them.

He says there will be a progressive move towards the pricing system over the next decade.

There is much work to be done.

But allowing for such a long lead time may have been his second  important concession to win over those in Cabinet who are sceptical about the proposal.

There is a suggestion that he may have been too conservative; that as congestion continues to increase in Auckland, public pressure may also increase on the Government to introduce the pricing system earlier.

But that’s a fight for another day.

His victory yesterday was to be able to have Mr English join him in launching the proposal for the road tolls.

And  there are other immediate problems.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the Harbour Bridge.

The report says: “Although strengthened in the past decade, the bridge has limitations in its ability to cater for growth in heavy vehicle traffic.

“Some level of heavy vehicle management will be necessary for the future to preserve its lifespan.

“Depending on the timing and nature of any restrictions on heavy vehicle traffic, there could be substantial economic costs for Auckland and New Zealand. “

Mr Bridges was unable to be specific with dates as to when this might happen.

The report says a second harbour crossing will be needed within the next 30 years and that it is likely to be a tunnel.

Mr Bridges said the cost would be higher than the Central Rail Loop making it the most expensive infrastructure project in New Zealand ever.

Meanwhile, there will be a need to move the people who will live in the 13,000 or so new houses needed to be built in Auckland each year.

In an interesting move, Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf yesterday made a wide-ranging speech on Auckland which addressed housing.

“One of the crucial things we’d like to see is that the Auckland Unitary Plan provides sufficient residential development capacity – regarding the quantum, location and typology – to support urban growth and create a competitive market for land,” he said.

“This would send a clear strong signal to land-bankers and speculators getting rich off the status quo. “

Obviously, that land would be on so-called greenfields sites.

The  Transport Alignment Project has taken a more generous approach to urban sprawl than the initial Unitary Plan with the TAP allowing for substantial housing development in the north in the Silverdale, Dairy Flat area and the south-west in the kingseat, Pukekohe area.

But development in both areas would place more pressure on motorways which the TAP envisages would be partly met by widening, by business and by the demand management system.

Finance Minister Bill English said yesterday that Auckland would l need to accommodate an expected 700,000 additional people over the next 30 years.

“The emerging approach indicates a need to focus on ensuring transport enables and supports this growth, particularly through early investment in new growth areas in the north-west, north, and south of Auckland,” he said.

Capital investment in transport in Auckland is expected to rise rapidly until 2022 when it will drop off as the Central Rail Loop is completed. But the harbour bridge could be the next item on the agenda.

In the meantime, the TAP team are expected to produce another report in August which will look at the costs and benefits of some specific projects and which, Mr Bridges says, may allow the Government to bring some forward within the next year and allocate extra Government and Council funding for them.  

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