Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Time for Road Pricing


Living in a newly-settled country, New Zealanders have always been interested in roads and bridges. It's hard to believe it, but a century ago Aucklanders still went to Wellington catching the night boat from Onehunga to New Plymouth and training the rest of the way. It took nearly 24 hours. The rail line from Christchurch to Picton wasn't completed until after World War Two. Politics from earliest times was about communications. Parties would out-bid each other at election time with promises of a road here, or a railway there. But governments were always chronically short of money and the country seriously indebted. On the eve of an election plans would be unveiled; people were invited to vote for progress. Nothing would happen until, hey presto, just as another election was rolling around, trucks and a road gang would turn up to do some work - then depart. Many rail lines, roads, and bridges took more than 30 years to complete under this regime. Some private investors decided to risk capital, hoping to get their money back through tolls. The South Island's Midland Line and the North's Manawatu Line were privately constructed, but eventually taken over by the government. By 1914 almost all construction was dependent once more on the taxpayer. In the boom years for agriculture after 1945, many roads were built and sealing done. But those were the days when we were also able to buy cars more readily, so our need always outstripped the roads and bridges that the government provided. Petrol levies were introduced to ensure an element of user-pays. A National Roads Board, the father of Transit New Zealand, was set up in 1954, with the intention of de-politicising decisions about where to spend the available infrastructural money. But none of this solved the perennial shortage of funds.

Scarce infrastructural money didn't make us unique. After World War Two Europe and North America faced the same challenge. Before long, adventurous governments encouraged private investors to construct in return for tolls. The United States and Australia have some toll roads. France's peage system has shrunk distances and is a byword for efficiency in an otherwise chronically inefficient country. Initially French trucks avoided the toll roads because they thought them expensive, until experiments showed that using the alternative free routes actually cost more fuel and drivers' time than paying the toll. New Zealand governments have known this for years but have failed to give a lead. Drivers sit in long queues on their way to work, burning fuel and wasting time, while the Greens tell everyone to get out of their cars and cycle to work or use low-level public transport. I haven't seen any of them offering to be coolies pulling refrigerated trucks to supermarkets. On the eve of the 1999 election Helen Clark promised legislation to facilitate toll roads. It was ages coming, and so far as I know, only the extension to Auckland's northern motorway is currently being constructed on a toll basis.

A reluctance to face the inevitable means that Transit's tactics closely resemble those of governments 100 years ago. Whenever concern is voiced about slow planning and construction, officials turn up, wander about, talk plans, and we then discover they'll take 20 years because of funding constraints. Auckland's Harbour Bridge is ageing and seriously overloaded; Wellington's Transmission Gully was needed 20 years ago but is mired in bureaucracy. Last week the capital's narrow coastal northern entry point was jammed for the umpteenth time by a crash. Costed properly, the time and gas wasted while commuters fumed would have paid a week's worth of tolls for everyone.

Overseas the potential link between quality infrastructure and faster economic growth was demonstrated decades ago. Over the last 40 years roading networks have helped transform Europe from the rubble that existed at the end of World War Two to the economic powerhouse it is today. The gap in living standards between them and us keeps widening while our politicians adopt a horse and buggy approach to roads and bridges. Of course there will be the elderly grumblers who complain that they've paid their taxes etc, and that "the gummint should pay". But so long as we wait for the silliest end of the community to agree on realistic road-pricing policies we are doomed.

Right now we have our local elections at hand. Councillors and mayors can lead, and should convince central government to be bolder. More action on expanding our infrastructural options, and less complaining about overseas shareholders buying into our airports, could surprise us with the improvements they bring to everyone's lives.