Monday, 7 December 2020

Auckland congestion charging to go to Parliamentary select committee

Following the release of the Phase Two report and significant numbers of reports on congestion pricing in Auckland, Stuff reports that a Parliamentary Select Committee (presumably Transport and Infrastructure) will conduct an inquiry into the issue.  This arose from comments from both the New Zealand Transport Minister Michael Wood (who is new to the portfolio, since Labour won the general election in October 2020) and Finance and Infrastructure Minister, Grant Robertson, alongside the naming ceremony for a railway tunnel boring machine - part of the NZ$4.4 billion Auckland City Rail Link project

The congestion charging report indicated that the two scheme options with the greatest merit are:

  • City Centre peak time cordon scheme;
  • Congested Strategic Corridors scheme.
The significance of the Auckland City Rail Link project is that it adds considerable capacity to Auckland's electric commuter railway system, by replacing the terminus arrangement of the downtown railway station at Britomart, with an underground loop, connecting the three main railway lines (to the west, south and east-south) in both directions. The Mayor of Auckland has suggested that congestion pricing for the downtown area be introduced to coincide with the opening of the rail project, as it significantly enhances the capacity of public transport along some major corridors into downtown Auckland. 

It was notable that although the Mayor of Auckland spoke favourably about congestion pricing after the reports were released, both Ministers were non-committal about the proposals in the reports. Deputy Chair of the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee, Green MP Julie-Anne Genter has been reported as supportive of congestion pricing stating:

"The Green Party is supportive, and believes the government should be driving this forward, especially if there are mitigations in place to ensure it doesn’t disproportionately penalise low-income households...Replacing the regional fuel tax with a congestion charge would do that because it is disproportionately high income people who drive into the city centre...We are disappointed the report didn't focus more on the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, I suspect congestion charging could make a big diff[erence]."

This is a positive start and she is correct, there should be positive impacts on low-income households if introduction of congestion pricing replaces the regional fuel tax, so that only those driving at peaks on congested roads are paying more, but everyone else is paying less. 

It is also worth noting that there have been no statements opposing congestion pricing from Opposition political parties on the centre-right (National) and free-market right (ACT) (both supported congestion pricing as a concept before the election). There has been no statement to date from the Maori Party (centre-left) either.

However, there are much greater impacts from congestion pricing on strategic corridors, compared to the Auckland city centre. Already around half of all commuting trips to downtown Auckland use public transport, cycling or walking, so there is less scope to shift mode compared to all other commuting, which is dominated by car use. 

Key to the next steps is how to conduct public engagement and consultation, with Auckland Council's planning committee approving ongoing work on the project last week.

Part of this absolutely has to be to present the case as to how congestion pricing can replace the regional fuel tax, and what to do with additional revenue generated assuming that, as it scales up in size, it raises more than the regional fuel tax does now. It could replace ratepayer funding for new capital transport projects, but there will be a range of views including reducing ratepayer contributions to road maintenance and public transport subsidies. Questions around governance and delivery of congestion pricing must also be considered, particularly as there will be pricing on a mix of local roads and state highways, and governance will affect decisions on operational policy, rate setting and use of net revenues.

The Congestion Question project has been innovative in developing options for congestion pricing in a city dominated by car use, with most employment not located in the downtown area, and with 74% of commutes by private motor vehicle (11% by public transport, 5% by active modes, remainder work from home or "other means"). Auckland is a new world city, with relatively low density development, so is much more akin to many North American cities than European cities. If it can pioneer congestion pricing that effectively reduces congestion across the city, for lower density cities, it will be an example for others to follow.

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