Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Editorial: To unclog the roads, try tolls

Despite his terminal problems with the Attorney-General's portfolio, Transport Minister David Parker deserves credit for putting a concrete proposal to Aucklanders that might relieve their traffic congestion by charging for peak time road use. It is a tentative step. Citizens and councils have been given six weeks to respond and the Government says it will not pursue the idea if feeling is against it. Mr Parker says the Government has no preferred road charging scheme, nor has it a timetable for introducing charges. The next step would not be to adopt a scheme, he says, but merely to decide if further investigation is worthwhile.

If he sounds less than bold, he is being positively courageous in comparison to his predecessors in two Governments. The Ministry of Transport has long advised ministers that some form of road pricing will be needed to deal with the country's worst urban congestion but no minister has paid more than lip service to the idea. Mr Parker has published a set of options that would involve either tolls on certain parts of the motorways and arterial roads or a parking charge in commercial centres, or cordons that would register a charge every time a private vehicle crossed them during peak times, weekdays from 6am to 10am.

A cordon of some sort seems to be favoured by those Auckland local body leaders who have dared endorse road pricing. The ministry's report offers three cordon possibilities. The largest and simplest would encircle the isthmus, charging vehicles $6 at the harbour bridge or $3 at any of 14 other charging points on the Northwestern Motorway, Mangere Bridge, the Tamaki River crossings and roads through Avondale and Otahuhu. It is not evident why travellers from the North Shore should pay double the rate.

A second option proposes two cordons, one inside the other. The inner cordon appears to enclose Remuera, Epsom, Mt Eden, Mt Albert and Grey Lynn-Westmere. It too would carry a $3 charge when it was crossed. A third option, called an area charge, would apply only inside the inner cordon and a one-off charge of $5 would be made not only to enter that area but to drive past certain points within it.

Why, it must be wondered, has so much attention been given to cordons when the fairest form of road pricing is an electronic toll? Tolling technology nowadays enables a charge to be placed on roads as they become congested, discouraging their use by drivers with more time to spare. Thus a toll can be avoided by those who do not wish to pay it. A cordon charge cannot be avoided, except by living and working entirely on one side of the cordon or crossing it by public transport.

The ministry's study argues that cordon charges are simpler, less expensive and more practical and transparent. But more likely the ministry prefers them because they would generate more net revenue. Tolling technology is expensive and a system that allowed motorists a free alternative might barely cover costs. It would, though, be much more effective at rationing road use.

An inescapable cordon would probably not much reduce road use - not at $3 or $6 a day. People would complain bitterly at the introduction of such a charge but once in force, most people would pay it and make little or no change to their commuting habits. Congestion would continue while the authorities raked in revenue from the cordon to put towards building new roads or covering the operating losses of public transport.

Auckland sorely needs a source of additional revenue for the roading programme the public purse will not fully fund. But cordon revenue will provide more roads to become congested in their turn. Only tolls will ultimately reduce the congestion. The cordon system is not the answer.

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