Where’s the funding plan for big spending transport policies?

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
24 August, 2023

Transport policy in New Zealand increasingly resembles an episode of Utopia, the Australian comedy series that lampoons a government agency responsible for large infrastructure projects.

In one memorable episode, the hapless bureaucrats in the Nation Building Authority are instructed by a political staffer to investigate the feasibility of a “very fast train” connecting Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane despite reams of evidence suggesting it is a terrible idea.

The train never gets built, of course, but that doesn’t get in the way of the big policy announcement and glossy prospectus.

Sound familiar?

You don’t have to look hard to find echoes of Utopia in New Zealand’s land transport debate. Just take the recent roading announcements by National and Labour.

National has earmarked $24 billion to revive Steven Joyce’s Roads of National Significance, while Labour has in the last week released a $20b Draft Government Policy Statement. That comes on top of a $45b plan for a second harbour crossing.

These are ambitious proposals – but the decision-making processes leave a lot to be desired.

Serious questions surround National’s fiscal projections, for example. Inflation does not appear to have been adequately accounted for, and private investment has simply been assumed.

Labour, meanwhile, have outlined their preference for the most expensive option for a second harbour crossing before releasing a business case. How exactly the bridge would be funded and financed remains unclear.

And that’s before you even touch the giant boondoggle that is Auckland Light Rail.

It need not be like this.

A more effective approach would see New Zealand recommit to road pricing strategies. Road pricing – a system where road users pay charges based on mileage, time of travel, route, and vehicle type and weight – can promote transport funding transparency and alleviate congestion.

Road pricing is supported by a vast body of international literature, and it has been implemented to great effect in countries as diverse as Austria and Singapore.

As I noted in this column last month, New Zealand was once a world leader in pricing our roads. However, the National Land Transport Fund has gradually grown disconnected from price signals.

Two policy solutions can help turn this around.

First, electronic road user charges (eRUC) should be broadened to encompass all vehicles. Drivers of light diesel vehicles and heavy trucks already pay a distance-based charge via telematics – a method of monitoring vehicle activity that uses GPS technology. Indeed, the road freight transport industry contributes billions of dollars each year to the National Land Transport Fund to offset the costs of depreciation and general road maintenance.

While RUC for cars is currently set at 7.6 cents per kilometre, it fails to account for either time or location. Telematics could be deployed to solve that long-standing conundrum. My VW hatchback places much less strain on the road than a Ford Everest, but I sometimes forego the morning rush hour train from Porirua to Wellington in lieu of a convenient car park at Sky Stadium. The road user charges I pay should reflect that decision.

However, the current set-up does not cater for this. Fuel excise duties and the 7.6 cent RUC charge are blunt tools for assessing the costs my VW imposes on Wellington’s roads.

A better system would see my car fitted with an electronic distance recorder. This would capture information about my road use, and a digital payments system would then send me a bill at the end of the month. That is not novel. It is how we already pay for our internet use.

If privacy concerns were dealt with appropriately, then eRUC would enable a road pricing system that was more responsive to user demand. And it would ensure road maintenance was covered by those who benefited from the asset.

Congestion charging should complement eRUC.

A congestion charge works by imposing a fee on vehicles entering specific areas or zones that are clogged-up with traffic. During peak travel hours and on busy urban roads, the charge is typically higher; during off-peak hours and on empty suburban streets, no charge would apply.

This method of road pricing helps unblock traffic. Those most able to shift time or mode of travel – either by travelling at an off-peak time, or by catching a bus or train – would have reason to do so. Congestion pricing, done properly, means more trips can be successfully completed at peak times.

Kiwis already pay for traffic congestion through their scarcest resource of all: time. In fact, Aucklanders now spend an average of five days a year stuck in traffic. And they’re not alone. New Zealanders across the breadth of the country are spending more and more time idling in stop-and-go traffic, driving up emissions and increasing wear and tear on our roads. That helps no one.

Shifting to congestion charging, a tried and tested method of managing demand, can help ameliorate this. Indeed, Geoff Cooper, general manager of strategy at Te Waihanga/New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, notescongestion charging is “one of the most significant moves we can make to improve our transportation network”.

The politicians largely agree. Although teething issues persist, there is now cross-party support for its introduction. National and the Greens agree on very little when it comes to transport policy, but congestion charging is a rare area of common ground. That consensus should encourage our politicians to finally implement a system that has been proven to encourage better use of the road network.

Simeon Brown’s comment that a National-led government would “rapidly” legislate to allow major centres to implement congestion charges is therefore welcome news. The National transport spokesman told Q&A’s Jack Tame over the weekend they would work with councils to design a system that was attentive to local and regional needs.

Road pricing strategies such as eRUC and congestion charging can help New Zealand build a road network that is fit for purpose. And they just might even put an end to the parallels between transport policy in this country and the absurdities of Utopia.

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