17 Mar 2009

Councils 'in dark' over funding of road projects

5:41 pm on 17 March 2009

Regional councils say they are in the dark about funding for major roading projects, despite the Government's announcement of a $1 billion boost in state highway funding.

The Government says it is re-allocating money from non-state highway projects, which includes funding intended for public transport.

It says money will still be spent in that area, but not as much as would have been spent by the Labour-led government.

But councils in Waikato, Hawke's Bay and Bay of Plenty say they want clarity from the Government about which roading projects it plans to fund.

The chair of Hamilton City Council's transport committee Dave McPherson says though the announcement provided the big picture on major roads, it is the small picture stuff that is going to make a difference to regional communities.

The Bay of Plenty says it is still awaiting a commitment from the Government to fund the Tauranga Eastern Motorway, the region's top roading priority.

In Hawke's Bay, transport committee chairman Alan Dick says the announcement throws one of two major projects into jeopardy.

Councils say they expect the Government funding plans will become clearer by the time the Budget is delivered in May. That information is vital in order for councils to submit their regional transport plans to the New Zealand Transport Agency in June.

Regional fuel tax dropped

In announcing the package on Monday, the Government confirmed it is dropping the regional fuel tax and partially replacing it with a national increase of 3 cents a litre this year and another three cents in 2010.

The regional tax, due to be phased in from July, would have added 9.5 cents a litre to the cost of fuel for Auckland drivers. Diesel users will pay additional road user charges.

Labour and the Green parties criticised the Government's decision to rein in spending on public transport.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce says spending in all the areas is going up over the next three years compared with the past three years, but some pressure is being put on non-state highway classes of spending to get better results.

But Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says this move will see a drastic reduction to public transport funding.

Ms Fitzsimons says the Government is moving $420 million out of alternatives to roading into new state highways meaning a cut to current funding of public transport, cycling and walking. This approach will do nothing to alleviate gridlock in Auckland.

Labour's transport spokesperson Darren Hughes is describing the decision to cut back on public transport funding as disgraceful.

"The fact that the Government wouldn't front up and say expressly that it was cutting public transport funding, but rather described it as 're-allocation of non-state highway classification spending' just shows you that they themselves know its the wrong call to make."

The Government says regional taxes are expensive and inefficient, and the entire country will benefit from improvements to Auckland's infrastructure.

Auckland scrambles for funding

Auckland Regional Council has been left scrambling to find tens of millions of dollars for transport projects that were due to be funded by the regional fuel tax.

Council chairperson Mike Lee says the local fuel surcharge would have brought in $202 million and there are concerns that the Transport Agency may not have funds to bridge the gaps.

The regional tax was intended to pay for projects including the electrification of Auckland's rail system. That project is safe, as it will be funded by the Government.

Mr Lee says there is uncertainty about almost all aspects of Auckland's public transport initiatives, including the tender process to buy new trains.

However, North Shore mayor Andrew Williams says that crucial public transport initiatives such as integrated ticketing will be affected. He says the minister will not reply to him on how integrated ticketing - which was to cost between $60 million and $80 million - will be funded.

Mr Williams says the Government's decision has wasted two years of public transport spending planning by the Auckland region.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce says details are still to be worked out and officials will be trying to do so shortly. A meeting between his ministry, the Transport Agency, Kiwi Rail and Auckland Regional Council will happen within the next week.

Auckland mayor John Banks welcomed the decision to scrap the regional fuel tax, saying it was a clumsy idea, and funding under the new system will be more equitable.