One aspect of the government’s proposed changes to the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA) is the repeal of a provision which allows regional councils to introduce regional fuel taxes. Already the process to create a regional fuel tax seems quite complex, as the government was able to unilaterally cancel the Auckland scheme back in March 2009, delaying projects like electrification, Penlink and integrated ticketing – which had been banking on that money. However, it seems that transport minister Steven Joyce isn’t content with his power to remove schemes, he wants to also banish the ability of council to even propose them.
An article in today’s NZ Herald highlights that Joyce’s determination to rid the legislation of regional fuel taxes runs against advice from Treasury:
“Despite his perception of Treasury support for the overall purpose of the amendments, Mr Joyce acknowledged it would have preferred a more thorough legislative review…
…He said the Treasury had concerns about removing the existing legislation’s regional fuel tax provision without replacing it with an alternative funding mechanism.
Although the Treasury appreciated regional fuel taxes had some practical limitations, it believed retaining legislative provision for them “would send an important signal to the regions about being accountable for funding their transport decisions”.
But Mr Joyce said that would result in much higher prices and hand authority to local councils to spend Government taxation.”
I have somewhat struggled to understand why Joyce is so opposed to regional fuel taxes. They are obviously something that regional councils (including Auckland Council) would impose, so if they were wildly unpopular people could simply vote in a future local government election for people who proposed to get rid of the scheme. Furthermore, when the ARC implemented the old fuel tax scheme it went through a highly complex and detailed public consultation process – and was actually (and amazingly) quite popular!
I can only surmise that Joyce doesn’t like the ability of regional fuel taxes to give local councils more independence in how they fund transport projects and how they raise funds. Similar to his opposition to road pricing schemes, the only logical way to make sense out of how Joyce can both want local government to fund a greater proportion of public transport projects and simultaneously take away their ability to do so, is that actually he’s not particularly interested in seeing those PT projects proceed. Even if central government doesn’t have to pay for them.
I have noted in the past that I think central government has far too much power, compared to local government, when it comes to transport funding matters. People simply don’t vote, in national elections, on transport matters (I may be an exception to this rule) whereas they very much do have transport in the top of their mind when voting in local government election. A regional fuel tax would recognise the greater connection between local government and transport policy, giving them the ability to fund additional transport projects through a scheme that they take the political risk over.
Sure, regional fuel taxes have some issues in terms of whether particular petrol stations fall one side of the region’s border or the other, but I suspect the fuel tax would need to be set incredibly high for people to bother travelling many kilometres out of their way in order to avoid the tax. Furthermore, if all the regions took it up then the border issue would go away. In the USA there are a million different local taxes and they seem to survive.
So all up, removing the ability of local councils to put in place a regional fuel tax is an incredibly anti-democratic move whose only justification seems to be a desire to see transport decisions become even more centralised.