Friday, March 17, 2006

Brian Rudman: Profligate councillors go for dearest road option

The dreamers who see road tolls as the answer to Auckland's congestion have been getting over-excited about today's release of the Ministry of Transport's Auckland Road Pricing Evaluation Study.

I'm not sure why. This time last year, state road builder Transit New Zealand reported to the Cabinet that it could find no rabbits in that particular hat. So I'll be surprised if the ministry has had better luck. Particularly when chief executive Dr Robin Dunlop's previous job was head of Transit.

At the time of that report, Transit had permission from the Government to toll Alpurt B2, the Orewa to Puhoi motorway, when it was completed. Transit then had to confess that a standalone electronic tolling system would need continuing subsidies to cover operating costs. Of the $1.80 toll, $1.35 would disappear into administering the system.

Transit's plan B was to propose a $53.5 million "toll systems project" aimed at "developing the toll management system for state highways and other toll roads". The idea was to find one or more other roads to toll as well as try to spread the revenue net.

But the report did admit "it is unclear at this stage whether there will be other toll roads completed within 10 years".

From there it was an easy step to opening up the question of tolling existing roads to pay for building new ones. But I can't see the present Government contemplating that. Unless, of course, they called it a congestion regulator.

But to introduce such a system, you'd have to introduce an isthmus-wide ring of electronic tollgates, with a vast and expensive monitoring and billing system to extract the cash.

The best I can see for tolling is that it might reduce the numbers on the roads. That's if it's priced high enough to act as a deterrent. But, of course, that would hit Labour voters - the poorer among them anyway - hardest. My money is on it never happening.

The joke is that while Auckland politicians are screaming at central Government for more and more transport funds, they can't resist simultaneously adding unnecessary millions to the wish list every time they meet.

On Tuesday it was the turn of the transport policy committee of the regional council to confirm every nightmare the Wellington bureaucrats might have had about the profligacy of Aucklanders.

They voted in favour of the super-expensive $1.55 billion option for completing State Highway 20 through Avondale - this after both the affected territorial authorities, Auckland City and Waitakere City, and the Department of Conservation, had endorsed Transit's preferred, and much cheaper, $1.15 billion route.

The battle is over whether the western bypass joins State Highway 16 North at the existing Waterview interchange, or runs down the Rosebank Peninsula and meets at a new interchange.

Even the ARC transport advisers, in preparing their report to the committee, conceded that there was not much in it. Their recommendation to the committee was that it advise Transit that "the ARC does not consider there is a compelling case that the Waterview option ... is significantly better than the Rosebank option" and, it seems, leave it at that.

But the politicians didn't. They passed a resolution declaring "the ARC supports the AR [Rosebank] route as it has significant advantages in terms of enhancing the Auckland region's strategic roading network".

The cost of this final stretch of the ring road has blossomed as more and more efforts have gone to mitigate the impact of its route through a series of parks and the environs of Oakley Creek.

But as the ARC officials note, apart from the cost, there's not a lot between the two alternatives.

Environmentally, the Oakley Creek valley is affected whichever option is chosen: by the highway proper in the Waterview option, and by a feeder road from the city, providing an alternative route to the airport and south, if the Rosebank alternative is chosen.

Against the Rosebank option is the high cost, environmental and financial, of linking the existing highway to the peninsula.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both options. But none of the reports I've seen suggest $400 million worth. In these financially lean times, to go against the consensus and argue for Rosebank seems deliberately contrary.

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