Auckland’s terrible traffic – everyone wants congestion charging but nobody wants to pay

If they charge drivers a fee to use the busiest roads at the busiest times, will that reduce congestion?

MPs came to town yesterday to hear Auckland views on traffic congestion. Most of the submitters they heard from were in favour of introducing a toll or congestion charge on busy roads. But several did not want to pay those charges themselves.

A working group led by the Ministry of Transport has produced a report called The Congestion Question. It proposes that charges for Auckland should be introduced by 2025. Yesterday, the transport and infrastructure select committee held a day of hearings on the report at the Aotea Centre.

David Aitken of the National Road Carriers Association told the committee the freight haulers and delivery companies he represents “support tolling in principle but it has to have clear benefits”.

He listed those as reduced peak demand, increase the use of public transport and quicker delivery of freight.

But, he said, because road carriers have no choice but to transport freight on the roads, “We submit that they should not have to pay”.

National MP Christopher Luxon laughed out loud at that and his colleague Mark Mitchell slowly shook his head. Sitting next to them, the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter looked wide-eyed with surprise.

Also, said Aitken, for those who would have to pay, a suggested charge of $3.50 wasn’t high enough, when a two-stage bus trip cost $3.55.

The AA’s senior infrastructure adviser, Sarah Geard, said her organisation was neither for nor against the proposal.

A 2018 survey of Auckland members had identified congestion as their “100 per cent main issue” of concern, but it also revealed they didn’t want to pay. “Even among peak-time commuters, a majority were not prepared to pay anything,” she explained. “Even if their commuting time was cut in half.”

Two-thirds of the AA survey respondents said if there was a congestion charge on arterial roads they would try to avoid it by using other roads.

Richard Gardner from Auckland Federated Farmers said they also agreed with congestion pricing “but would like exemptions to be made for the transport of livestock and primary products”.

Labour MP Helen White said to him, “I’m going to put it to you really bluntly. Every sector wants an exemption and you are one of the sectors that will benefit the most from this.”

Why, she asked, should agriculture and horticulture be exempt “when low-wage workers on shift work in South Auckland aren’t?”

“The benefits and costs aren’t shared equally,” Gardner said. “We are harder hit.”

Viv Beck from the central city business group Heart of the City said they were also in “overall support” of congestion charging. But she rejected the notion that the central city was a “low-risk” area in which to start the scheme.

“Putting a cordon around the central city is not low risk,” she said. Retailers were struggling and did not want anyone making it harder for their customers or their staff to come into town.

“Congestion charging should only be introduced as part of a consistent approach that focuses on several points,” she said. “It should not penalise one area.”

Paul Brown from the Auckland branch of Blind Citizens NZ was also concerned. “As you will appreciate,” he said, “none of our members drive.” But the city is not friendly to sight-impaired people and catching buses is fraught with problems.

“So often we catch taxis. That costs us much more, even with a Total Mobility card. It should be possible for blind and sight-impaired people to be exempt.”

Genter said to him, “You make the case for exemption much more compellingly than freight carriers.”

Exemptions did not preoccupy all the submitters. Venture capitalist Lance Wiggs, appearing on his own behalf, pointed out that the critical issue was not to manage existing vehicle numbers but to reduce them. Not just for congestion, he said, but for the climate, for health and for safety.

He had an unusual suggestion. “If you go to the great cities of the world,” he said, “they’re horrible to drive in. So you don’t drive. Let’s be a great city, let’s make Auckland horrible to drive in but wonderful to live in. The AA wants to get more people driving. Let’s stop doing that.”

Transport consultant Josephine Baker said any new charge for driving should be tied to a major benefit. In Nottingham, she said, congestion charges paid for a new tram.

Business strategist Paul Minett disagreed and suggested all the money should be paid back to households as a dividend. “That would change the conversation,” he said, “and people might just support the idea.”

Auckland mayor Phil Goff was aware the issue will be a “hard sell”, but he said by 2025 many major new public transport projects – including the CRL, the Eastern Busway, the Northern Busway extension and a new rapid bus service in the northwest – will be finished.

At the end of the session, members of The Congestion Question steering group came forward.

Convenor Karen Lyons from the Ministry of Transport said many of the criticisms had been misplaced.

There will be a “catch you once” approach: If you enter a congestion zone or drive on part of a designated road, you’ll be charged, just once.

Rat runners will be caught because they have to use bits of arterial routes.

Peak-time commuters driving into the city centre will be charged. But off-peak shoppers, shift workers and others driving when the roads are less busy will be fine.

The scheme was proposed with no exemptions. Although, said Lyons, they would need to look again at the issues raised by the Blind Citizens group.

Committee chairman Greg O’Connor (Labour, Ōhāriu) said the select committee will now consider the submissions and report back to Parliament by August.

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