Labour needs to sell its fuel tax
Tax increases are assumed to be politically toxic yet the impact can be over-rated. Only a few years ago the pollsters were reporting – to the consternation of the media commentariat – that the public seemed to prefer improvements to public services ahead of tax cuts. Similarly, will Aucklanders grudgingly accept higher fuel taxes, if that delivers them less congestion on the roads?
Last week, when the government’s draft transport consultation document was released, the Beltway chatter focused almost exclusively on the cost – which would add 9-14 cents a litre to the cost of petrol over the next three years. Yes, Auckland will bear the brunt of it, in that its residents are also facing a regional fuel tax in July. Yet Auckland is where many of the congestion problems (and potential gains) are located – and it no longer seems reasonable to expect the rest of New Zealand to treat the fixing of Auckland transport problems as their top priority, while foregoing their own roading needs.
That is the main change the draft plan proposes. It envisages a significant shift of transport resources into regional and rural New Zealand – and away from the previous government’s focus on a few massively expensive, high priority roads that (ultimately) would only add more cars to the congestion problem. A wider vision that combines all the relevant elements (road, rail, public transport, rapid transit, cycling) was needed, and with safety concerns being baked into the mix from the very outset.
No doubt, if Auckland wants a better, modern transport system – and if New Zealand is serious about killing fewer people every year on its roads – then someone will need to pay for it. Reportedly, even National would have had to hike the excise tax by 10-20 cents a litre over three years, to pay for their own Roads of National Significance.
Certainly, that shift away from elite roads – which had been eating up 40 per cent of the transport spend –is politically significant. After harvesting votes from the regions at every election, National appears to have virtually starved the provinces of their roading (and road safety) needs between elections. Over the course of this decade, West Coast, Taranaki, Southland, Otago, Northland, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, and the Bay of Plenty have all seen reductions in the spending they received through the National Land Transport Programme. Half of all vehicle journeys may travel on local roads, but less than 5 per cent of Land Transport’s spend had gone into improving them.
Beyond this regional shift, the plan aims to (a) promote safety across the country’s road networks for motorists and cyclists alike, (b) enhance public transport, and (c) create rapid transport systems within the main centres.
Is this affordable? Possibly. Arguably, about half the cost of the East-West Link motorway project could provide median safety barriers down every kilometre of state highway in the country. More median barriers, safe passing lanes, rumble strips, intersection upgrades are being envisaged – all of which should serve to reduce the road toll, perhaps significantly.
If the coalition government can get that message across – and deliver some concrete gains, quickly – the impact of those fuel tax increases may well be politically sustainable.
‘‘It envisages a significant shift of transport resources into regional and rural New Zealand.’’