Monday, April 9, 2012

Road tolls--- do we need them?

The question of road tolls has been around for years. Many of us remember the tolls on the Auckland harbour bridge and those booths where we had to line up to pay our twenty cents (or whatever it was in pre-decimal days). If one got stuck behind a driver, ill organized with the correct change, then we can relate to the now common road-rage phenomenon.
The date is alive and well again, with calls for those using the ‘needed ‘motorways to pay for their construction. It is touted that such a solution is the only fair way to meet the growing demand on our present system. What about ‘public transport?’ others say, perhaps of a greener leaning.
The answer(s) is not simple. It will need to be a uniquely New Zealand solution, because we differ from some of the countries put forward as shining examples. Any debate must take into account some salient factors.
New Zealand is a country of well less than five million people, with a taxation base to reflect that. We are also a nation with difficult topography; long and narrow, two main islands and mountainous. We are not a Germany, with a more easily connected ‘shape’ or a vastly bigger population. These factors alone, make planning and implementation of a national road network a major issue. If you add the necessity for rail and other public transport, then the problem is confounded. The simple fact is that New Zealand is never going to be able to have a ‘profitable system, if it goes down that pathway. We have to accept the fact that there is going to always be level of subsidization.
‘I don’t want to pay more taxes!’ you cry? It is the same argument put forward for a robust public health system, or social welfare net. You can’t have it both ways. Pay less and you get less, or pay in another way; social disconnectedness and a system catering only for those who pay. I say that transport is a little different, if there is a choice.
New Zealand has long has a collective psyche of sticking up for the ‘small person,’ for those who cannot help themselves. However, it feels like this is changing. We are becoming a less ‘caring nation,’ something we share with many western democracies. The political spectrum reflects that in that both major parties are fighting for the middle ground. Both the Labour and National Parties have moved to a more centrist stance, meaning that there is less and less difference between them in basic policies. One could also say that ‘Leadership,’ perceptions drive the voters’ choices on Election Day, rather than political manifestos.  When did you last read one? As for the other parties; they are generally more populist in nature, apart from the Greens, who possibly attempt to stay true to their real core policies.
What then do we do about the question of tolls on proposed new motorways? There have been many suggestions about how they should be funded, ranging from the State funding to all out user pays options. Some say, stick a tax levy on every litre of fuel purchased. Isn’t that already in existence and it is supposed to go to road and transport needs?  Others suggest a government/private relationship, where the cost is born by both parties, with the State owning the road after an agreed period wherein the Private consortium collects tolls.
Auckland and Wellington both have issues around funding road and rail projects. The debate is endless, with little progress. There is an argument that if tolls are allowed, then it should be on all Auckland (and possibly Wellington) motorway construction. Listen to the talkback radio shows and you will hear the total frustration and different viewpoints.
‘If we let them put tolls on us, you know they will be permanent,’ some say. Possibly, but what is the choice--- higher taxes (in different guises) or paying every time you travel on a motorway? Collecting tolls, is no longer an issue with modern technology, so those talking about holdups at toll booths are way out of focus in their thinking. ‘It will make the cost of transporting goods more expensive,’--- Will it? Would not the more efficient timing and less use of fuel, make up for that?
One only has to look at Australia to see the possible use of tolling our major motorways, Melbourne in particular. They represent a bigger version of NZ, but have the huge distances and relatively small population compared to the USA and Europe. Melbourne has a larger tax base than cities like Auckland and Wellington, but they suffered from the same transport issues that we face. They have already had the debate that NZ faces, and they are getting on with it. They are using the tolling system on the new motorways and the public has reluctantly accepted it.
One way we can plan for the future is to extend the use of bus lanes, where railway is not planned. The North Shore example is going to be extended, providing an efficient and fast pathway to the central city. There is the difference between Australia and NZ. Just get on and do it. If we find that tolling doesn’t work or penalizes a section  of our society, then bring some sort of ‘subsidy’ in, but don’t let the problem become so bad that we will end up -paying even more in the future, and that will be for tinkering rather than going for broke. We can’t leave it in  the hands of the politicians alone. Speak up!