The politics of the next Auckland Council will be stretched to the limit with the revelation yesterday that even what many will consider a conservative transport investment agenda for the next 12 years will begin with a $4 billion shortfall.

The news is contained in the final report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project which was published yesterday.

The shortfall comes with a  proposed roading and public transport agenda which would be the largest joint Government- local body infrastructure investment ever in New Zealand.

The budget for investment in new transport and the maintenance of existing infrastructure out to 2028 is $24 billion.

Most of that will be financed by the Government, but there is a $4 billion shortfall.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges says the greater part of that shortfall will have to be funded by the Council which is already up for an additional half billion dollars because of cost blowouts in the Central Rail Loop.

At the same time both the leading Mayoral candidates, Phil Goff and Victoria Crone, have pledged to hold rates to a below 3% increase per year.

Auckland Employers and Manufacturers’ Association, CEO Kim Campbell, says the Council will not be able to get there without considering public-private partnerships,  infrastructure bonds or asset divestment.

That’s the debate the Government has always wanted the Council to have.

And Bridges told POLITIK last night that how the shortfall was funded was going to be the next discussion.

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“At one of the new Mayor’s and new Council’s first meetings I hope they think about me,” he said.

“We are going to have to sit down and agree on our approach in the coming months to funding.”

But one proposal is off the agenda.

The leading Mayoral candidate, Phil Goff, told POLITIK  earlier this week that he thought a regional petrol tax should be put in place in the interim before electronic road pricing could come into effect.

Bridges says the Government is emphatic that it won’t agree to this.

“The basic reason for that is, when you get down to it, there is an acute sensitivity within the Government about new taxes on Aucklanders,” he says.

“We have to be very careful about that.”

Bridges would well remember how Maurice Williamson failed to make John Key’s first cabinet in 2009 after he proposed $5 motorway tolls when he was Transport spokesperson.

That reluctance to add new taxes is also behind what seems like ultra caution over the introduction of electronic road pricing.

But it is firmly on the agenda for introduction over the next 12 years though planning is not to begin until next year.

Again, Bridges is careful to emphasise that it would be used as a demand management tool and would be fiscally neutral.

As road pricing came in, other road taxes would be lowered.

However, Auckland’s current Mayor, Leno Brown, sees road pricing as a viable fund raiser.

“Road pricing offers Auckland a fairer means of funding transport than over-reliance on property rates,” he says. 

Any revenue raised must go to improvements into the transport system.”

He is dreaming.

Bridges says there would be a number of important caveats on the introduction of road pricing.

“We don’t see it as being a top up revenue source where it is going to be used to plug some temporary fiscal hole which Council may feel they may want to use it for.”

The ATAP report clearly sees road pricing and thus demand management as critical because of the limitation on building new transport infrastructure, particularly roads.

Bridges says that once the current construction agenda laid out in the plan for the next 30 years is completed, the transport network in Auckland will have been fundamentally built.

From then on the costs of further construction would outweigh any benefits.

“The benefits of more and more transport infrastructure becomes less and less over time,” he says.

“The costs, not only financially, but also environmentally and socially become increasingly prohibitive about the benefits.”

The report sets out the dilemmas that planners face by pointing out that the inner part of Auckland’s motorway network has the highest traffic volumes in the country.

“But it is physically constrained – particularly along State Highway 1 between Takapuna and Mt Wellington where the motorway pushes up against high intensity and high-value development, coastlines and other major infrastructure (such as railway lines),” it says.

“Limited capacity additions on this part of the network can provide some local benefits, but appear to shift bottlenecks and congestion points, rather than address them.

“Conversely, increasing capacity along entire corridors involves the significant land acquisition, extremely high costs and potentially major amenity impacts.”

The bitter reality for many Aucklanders will be that the report does not anticipate that the new road construction that is planned will make much difference to congestion.

“The proportion of travel time in severe congestion during the morning peak, across the whole transport network, is projected to decline from 27% to 21% over the next 30 years,” it says.

“This result is mainly achieved through progressively implementing smarter pricing rather than increasing the level of investment in infrastructure.”

That’s what makes this whole project a hard political sell for the Government.

Much of what is proposed is simply to cope with population growth rather than to improve the transport experience of Aucklanders on a day to day basis.

That is why Bridges and the rest of Cabinet have always been so keen for the whole transport issue to be managed by the Auckland Council.

But whether the centre-right Councillors will be able to convince the likely Mayor, Phil Goff, who campaigned as Labour against privatisation, to sell off shares in the airport and the port is a big question.

But it’s a debate the Council have to have if they want the transport plan to go ahead.

That’s why this report was issued before the Council elections.

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