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.’’

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