Friday, April 28, 2006

Editorial: City needs Parker's boldness

David Parker's pending return to Cabinet is welcome on several counts. In the first instance, he should never have been consigned to six weeks in the wilderness. His exile owed more to pressure on the Prime Minister arising from David Benson-Pope's difficulties and a prima facie case of election misspending than what always appeared to be a minor piece of business corner-cutting. As it is, a Companies Office inquiry has emphatically cleared Mr Parker of filing false returns. Nothing stands in the way of him reclaiming the energy, climate change and transport portfolios.

His return to the latter is particularly significant. In his short time as Minister of Transport, he had shown every indication of confirming the widely held belief that he is the best of the Government's newcomers. If his brightness was never in doubt and his business nous was a major plus, his urging of a solution to Auckland's traffic woes also suggests a much-needed boldness. Barely was he in the minister's chair before Aucklanders found before them a set of alternatives for relieving congestion by charging for peak-time road use. The Ministry of Transport had long contended that pricing was required, but no minister had been prepared to meet the issue head on.

This is new territory for Aucklanders, and their initial reaction has been far from positive. Yet that accentuates why Mr Parker should be welcomed back to the transport portfolio. He brings a fresh and vigorous perspective to a problem that has bedevilled and bamboozled successive local and regional councils. This week's division and dissent around the table at the Auckland Regional Council over the continued investigation of road pricing was merely the latest symptom.

Many Labour MPs, with an eye on electoral fallout, would probably also sleep easier if the concept was pressed a little less assiduously. Nonetheless, of the options up for consideration, there is a growing head of steam among Cabinet ministers and at the Auckland City Council for the area charge. This scheme, inspired by central London, would entail a $5 daily charge for driving in morning weekday peak hours anywhere in an almost 40 sq km sector of central Auckland. Not only does it seem the fairest alternative but it would generate the highest cashflow of any scheme, amply covering extra public transport services and roading improvements.

Submissions on the Ministry of Transport study close today. If amid all the public rancour, the area charge is confirmed as the most acceptable, its viability should be the subject of intense investigation. The minister can play a key role in galvanising progress. It needs to be established, for example, whether a one-off daily charge of $5 would be enough to get people out of their cars. Or if congestion would continue unchecked while the authorities gobbled up revenue. We also need to be assured that if people change their commuting habits, the public transport system will be able to cope. Part of Mr Parker's brief must, therefore, be to also recognise if a scheme cannot deliver a solution. He must be ready to withdraw and study other options, albeit while never losing sight of the urgency of the situation. It may be that, rather than a system based on cordons, the answer lies in electronic tolling. At the very least, this would introduce an element of fairness based on motorists' ability to avoid a toll.

Either way, there is reason to think that something can now be achieved. Finally, Aucklanders are receiving concrete proposals. Mr Parker's reinstatement will enhance the prospect that these will be followed by action.

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