Simon Wilson: The real problem with congestion charging

OPINION:

Back in June, a parliamentary select committee came to Auckland to hear what “stakeholders” thought about congestion charging. That’s a toll for when you drive on a certain road at a certain time of the day. The submissions were hilarious.

Almost every group told the committee they supported the idea. They just didn’t think it should apply to them.

David Aitken of the National Road Carriers Association said trucking companies shouldn’t have to pay because their work was important and they had no choice but to use the roads.

When National MP Chris Luxon heard that, he threw back his head and laughed. His colleague Mark Mitchell just shook his head.

Federated Farmers wanted the same exemption, because food is important.

Heart of the City’s Viv Beck said the central city should not be the only place with a congestion charge, or shoppers and their own employees would go elsewhere. And on it went.

The AA said polling revealed nearly half its members were opposed to paying an extra charge. That was especially true for peak commuters, and even true if their commute time could be cut in half.

Two-thirds said they would probably try to find free routes instead of paying the charge. There’s a name for that: rat running.

But congestion charging did have some proper fans. Barney Irvine, formerly of the AA and now with an outfit called the Auckland Business Forum, had a Power Point with just one slide on it: a big thumbs-up.

Easing congestion was the goal, although he was concerned about the impact on those least able to pay. “It cannot succeed if the equity impacts aren’t mitigated,” he said. But how’s that going to happen?

Irvine wanted it addressed by the welfare system, “not discounts and exemptions”.

Labour MP Helen White asked him, “What about the working poor? They’re not covered by welfare.”

Luxon wondered aloud if tax credits could be used.

“Exactly,” said Irvine.

Committee chair Greg O’Connor, Labour, asked Irvine if he was concerned about the impact on central-city retailers.

“If the CBD hasn’t solved its retail problem by the time we introduce some kind of congestion charging,” he said, “we’ve got bigger problems.” True that.

Last week the select committee delivered its proposal for a congestion charging scheme for Auckland. The plan closely follows a report called The Congestion Question, prepared over the last four years by a working party including all the central and local government transport agencies.

A simple, camera-based approach is proposed, starting with a charge for all vehicles crossing a cordon around the central city and then expanding to include arterial routes. This is expected to reduce traffic by 8-12 per cent, enough to create school holiday conditions on the roads all year round.

The start date would be in the middle of the decade, when major new public transport projects have been completed. That includes the City Rail Link, the Eastern Busway, an extension to the Northern Busway and bus lanes with big new stations on the northwest motorway, for which work has just started.

Barney Irvine was opposed to the wait. “Aucklanders are desperate for action, right now, this election cycle,” he said. “If we wait until everyone has access to good public transport, we’re going to be waiting a very long time.”

But Auckland Transport chair Adrienne Young-Cooper told the committee those projects constituted “the most incredible construction programme for rapid transit”. Because of them, her board was “100 per cent behind the proposal to introduce congestion charging”.

Mayor Phil Goff also linked his support for the proposal to the completion of the big new transit projects. Without them, he said, congestion charging would be just another tax that hurts poor people.

Exactly one week later, Auckland Transport signed off on the new Regional Land Transport Plan, which delays completion of the Eastern Busway to Botany by a further two years. It wasn’t AT’s fault: Waka Kotahi NZTA, the Government transport agency, delayed its funding for the project.

Waka Kotahi was a key contributor to The Congestion Question. The busway decision could still be reversed, but let’s just say it’s remarkable how the agency can support congestion charging out one side of its mouth while delaying a desperately needed public transport project out the other.

The cordon solution is a nifty response to all those upstanding AA members who might want to game the system by commuting through quiet suburban side streets.

The cordon would follow the motorways around the edges of the central city. Rat running would be pointless: as soon as you crossed the cordon, you’d incur the fee.

Vehicles would be charged just once, regardless of how long they spent inside the cordon. In time it would be similar for arterial routes. The fee would not be charged on the motorways, but at off ramps. This would exempt vehicles travelling right through the city without stopping.

Set up costs for the cordon are put at $46 million, with $10 million a year running costs and revenue of $20 million. The arterial option will cost $185 million to set up and $87 million to run. Likely revenue is $223 million.

Venture capitalist Lance Wiggs advised the committee to embrace the revenue. “I’m a businessman and I like revenue a lot. You should too. You can use it to build bus lanes, tramways, bike lanes and lanes for people, to get them out of cars.”

Transport consultant Josephine Baker told the committee about the English city of Nottingham, where a congestion charge proved its value by paying for a new tram. O’Connor asked her what she thought a similar option for Auckland might be.

“Something big,” she said. “Like rail to the North Shore.”

Goff said congestion charges would call into question the ongoing need for the regional fuel tax (RFT), although he warned that scrapping the tax would produce a shortfall.

Green MP Julie Anne Genter sounded a word of warning. The RFT pays for capital works, she said, but more public transport will require more operational funding. A congestion charge could be steered towards that.

The proposal has support, at least in principle, from all political parties. But despite all the mumbling concern about “equity”, the plain fact is that congestion charging is another regressive tax.

The whole point is to deter those who would view a small fee as a barrier to driving. It’s hardest on the poor.

And it’s easiest on people who live within a few kilometres of the city centre. Yet they tend to be wealthy and already have the best options for public transport, cycling and walking.

Wiggs saw congestion charging as a flawed but useful tool to fight the climate crisis. “We’re in an emergency … and we are missing a substantial sense of urgency.”

He criticised the AA, which he said wants to get more people driving. “Let’s stop doing that. The critical issue is not managing existing and growing vehicle numbers, but reducing them.”

It’s true congestion charging should help with that. But it can be only one part of a much bigger and better plan than we currently have, for universally accessible public transport, citywide safe cycling networks, limited vehicles in the central city, getting freight off trucks and onto rail, and more.

Wiggs had a challenge for the committee: “Great cities of the world,” he said, “are horrible to drive in. Let’s be a great city. Let’s make Auckland horrible to drive in but wonderful to live in.”

As for all those people who live close to town but still drive in, there’s a much better way to deal with that. Coming soon: The case for banning company car parks.

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