Road users aren’t getting what they pay for

Roads are the lifeblood of the economy. Trucks move 93 percent of New Zealand’s freight around New Zealand roads – goods for export, imports from wharves, and all the things that people need daily.

So, it is a concern to us that Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency is cutting its share of the local road maintenance programme, and that the Government is taking another look at the New Zealand Upgrade Programme.

Transport Minister Michael Wood has said: “Recognising the need to decarbonise our transport system, we’re rebalancing the package to increase investment in rail, public transport and walking and cycling”. 

This is against a backdrop of the Infrastructure Commission consulting on He Tūāpapa ki te Ora | Infrastructure for a Better Future – we will share our submission next week – and this week, a Parliamentary select committee looking at congestion charging motorists to use Auckland roads during peak traffic to try and ease up some of that flow.

Who should pay for the roads?

Motorists operate under a user-pays system, including trucks and private vehicles, contributing about $1.75 billion in road user charges to the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP). That used to go to roads. It has been expanded to fund others who don’t pay into it, including rail, walking and cycling. So, there is less money for roads.

That became a stark reality for many when the Government announced it would put up $780 million for a walking and cycling bridge across Auckland’s harbour.

We support user pays and we support congestion charging. But we want the user to get what they are paying for, not to have substandard roads while a few Auckland cyclists get a premium bridge.

The road freight industry is concerned about the unsafe state many roads are in. We have seen a lot of local government councils in the media recently saying cuts by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to funding its share of the local road maintenance programme is creating serious risks up and down the country.

Congestion charging has the potential to reduce traffic on Auckland motorways during the twice-a-day peaks. This would help the flow of freight as the cost of congestion and disruption to the supply chain as a result of congestion are serious issues. But the design of such systems is critical to their success and back-room costs can be alarmingly high. Their purpose should not be viewed as a means to reduce roading investment in critical network solutions.

A growing population, more freight, and sustained economic growth have significantly increased the demand for high capacity and quality roading. Our roading assets have been “sweated” more and are noticeably deteriorating in the eyes of most New Zealanders.

Increased demand of course means increased costs, but in the absence of a fair pricing mechanism, capital requirements for building, maintenance, and use will only continue to increase, without moderating demand.

We must be able to fairly and accurately price road use – and possibly other infrastructure – to both allocate costs and manage demand. Such an approach can be used to moderate private vehicle use, optimise efficient movement of freight, and increase public transport use and more physical travel such as cycling and walking. This will be an important tool in the fight to lower our nation’s carbon emissions.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB), part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the United States, has stated the real opportunity to take action on climate change is to focus on the transport infrastructure. TRB recently warned that the USA’s crumbling transportation infrastructure must be rebuilt and modernised. More resilient infrastructure would lift recovery, create jobs, strengthen the economy, and fight climate change.

New Zealand needs to take note.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum