Myth: The Fuel tax increases are just to pay for Auckland motorways

The announcement a few days ago that petrol prices are set to rise by 3c per litre each year for the next three years was pretty quickly latched onto by the media and one of the traditional tools they use is the vox pop to go and get some sound bites from people. Whenever this is done outside of Auckland there always seems to be person who then goes on to blame the increase Auckland with something to the effect of “Why should we be paying more for Auckland’s motorways”. Most of this is probably purely out of a hatred, or jealousy, for Auckland while but I suspect there is also an element of misunderstanding partly due to people simply not realising just how much bigger Auckland is than their town/city. As an example of that last point, here is a map showing the cities that are close to or above having 100k people in them. Auckland is bigger than the rest combined and what’s more its growing faster than them all too. That means a $100m interchange project like say Lincoln Rd is likely to be much cheaper on a per capita basis than say a bypass or bridge upgrade in a small town.

All urban areas above 50k people
All urban areas above 50k people

But back to the myth at hand. One of the things I found interesting about the governments announcement is that they very clearly identified that the increase was primarily to pay for the Roads of National Significance. The total RoNS programme is costing around $10 billion spread out over the next decade or so. Of that nearly $3 billion is being spent in the next three years on them and that represents roughly 80% of the budget for new state highways around the country. That budget in itself is far larger than for any other funding category as shown below.

NLTP spend

But where are the RoNS and how much are they costing. Well its a bit hard to get exact figures as the NZTA don’t clearly state on their website but after a bit of searching around the numbers below should be roughly right.

RoNS map

Now I don’t really count Puhoi to Wellsford as an Auckland project as there are very little benefits in it for Auckland and the government keeps telling us, they think it is primarily about improving access to Northland. That means that there are only really two RoNS within for Auckland, Victoria Park Tunnel which has been completed and the Western Ring route, the final pieces of which are now under construction. Combined they represent roughly $2.5 billion, less than a quarter of the RoNS spending. In fact many of the projects are in rural areas with low nearby populations.

Even more ironic was the vox pop that I heard that prompted me to write this post was from Wellington, on of the regions doing best out of this road building binge and which also has the dubious honour of some of the worst projects from an economic standpoint with the Kapiti Expressway having a benefit/cost ration of just 0.2 and Transmission Gully rumoured to be at similar level.

Further Auckland has traditionally received less transport funding that it provides in taxes as Brian Rudman pointed out a few months ago when the NLTP was announced.

But what’s new. In 1991, after an earlier battle for a light rail service, regional councillors calculated that Aucklanders then paid $150 million a year in fuel taxes but only got $84 million back in central transport funding. More recently, Green Party researchers have calculated that in the 15 years to 2005, Aucklanders paid $7.022 billion in fuel taxes and the like but only got back $3.222 billion in transport-related expenditure – less than half what they put in.

The levels have come back a bit following some increased investment in recent years but I suspect Aucklands level of investment is still well short of the amount of taxes provided. Of course those anti Auckland folk around the country are probably not that likely to read this blog so perhaps this is just a useful reminder for if the petrol price increases or Aucklands motorway investments come up in conversations with friends or family over the holiday season.


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  1. Why count VPT? it’s historic, been paid for. It has nothing to do with the FED rise.

    We know why NZTA keep counting it because it is one of the few RoNS to have any clear positive value. But this too is bogus because if we were to halt the entire RoNS programme today its benefits would continue and it’s costs also have been met.

      1. Yes of course this government do not understand nor believe in cities in general and Auckland in particular, being the county’s only city of scale. So the RoNS reflect this world view as well as being a transfer of wealth from the city to the provinces. They are the provincial party after all.

        Yet we know that cities are the biggest drivers of economic growth and innovation everywhere in the world; do they believe New Zealand is an exception to this rule?

  2. Your first picture, the maps with the circles, are just a whopping bit dodgy. Welly+Porirua+Hutt+Kapiti is over the 400K mark, and yet area wise it has a circle about 1/12th the area of Auckland’s.

    1. No it is based on urban area populations which come from Stats NZ. with the top ones being:
      1 Auckland – 1397300
      2 Wellington – 395600
      3 Christchurch – 375900
      4 Hamilton – 209300
      5 Napier-Hastings – 125000
      6 Tauranga – 122200
      7 Dunedin – 118400
      8 Palmerston North – 83300

      The sizes of the circles were all consistent at 0.1cm per ~100k population

        1. Pete, this site is run by volunteer contributors in their spare time. Public critique is part of the fact checking process here. If you’d like to submit some more accurate posts you are most welcome, but be prepared to have them torn to shreds.

      1. Further salt in the wound sorry, but you say “Auckland is bigger than the rest combined and what’s more its growing faster than them all too” yet Welly through Palmy added together is 1,429,700, which is more than 1,397,300 and these things should be represented by area so the statement is wrong as well.

        Maybe this post should have been titled “More Maths teachers needed in Auckland.” 🙂

        1. Yes, the sum of the circles should equal NZ total population, so you should combine small/rural areas into a single circle per council?

          1. Nope. Auckland is smaller than the major cities combined if the major cities include down to Palmy.
            1,397,300 < 1,429,700

            We're splitting hairs here, and I don't think you were aiming to deceive either. It's not the National Party and their BCRs after all.

          2. Yeah they’re all at a statisticians’ conference in Levin.

            From Matt’s reply about which data he used, namely:
            “2 Wellington – 395600
            3 Christchurch – 375900
            4 Hamilton – 209300
            5 Napier-Hastings – 125000
            6 Tauranga – 122200
            7 Dunedin – 118400
            8 Palmerston North – 83300”

          3. Hang on Matthew if Palmy is in Wellington then Hamilton is in Auckland….. A city is not a bunch of places separated by farmland by anyone’s definition. Anyway please show how Welly + Palmy = 1.4million!

          4. Patrick please refer to the comment directly above yours. From Wellington to Palmy on a list of cities ordered by size.

            You all study arts or something?

          5. What on earth is your point? We can subtract; no one is claiming Auckland has the entire population of New Zealand but it is by a significant order the biggest single place. What does the population of Dunedin have to do with a motorway between Wgtn and Palmy?

          6. My point was that the circles were wrong. My other point was that the statement “Auckland is bigger than the rest combined and what’s more its growing faster than them all too” was wrong too when the original map had from Auckland to Palmy. It was the map and the maths that were wrong. Nothing else, no other points. I have made no point at all about any motorway between Welly and Palmy. You’re all just reading things wrong. Now you’re all making me look like a pedant.

            It’s all fixed. I’m not worried anymore. Move along. Forgeddaboutit.

    2. Yeah, you appear to have sized the circles by radius, rather than circumference. Thus, your Auckland is about 3.141592653589793 times as large as it should be.

      1. George, please think about your comment some more and consider revising your comment. Whilst radius may not be the best way to determine the size of the circles, I don’t think using the circumference is any better because they are both “line” measurements (for want of better terminology!!). I suspect that you would prefer to see population proportional to circle area as it might be more sensible to think of each person taking up a certain amount of area on the map. Your comment that Auckland is pi times too big also applies to every city so is somewhat redundant.

    1. The Christchurch Southern Motorway is just another mall bypass, this time for the Hornby Mall. Not exactly what the pint of the airport motorway is. If you look at the map most people going to the airport from anywhere in the city will find the motorway useless.

      1. Chch’s motorways are some of the few RoNS projects that actually make economic sense. The point of the airport motorway (actually an expressway) is because it performs a similar function to what Auckland’s Western Ring Route will soon do, and it is currently an unsafe and congested two-lane road. It isn’t really about people going to the airport, and simply reading the NZTA page would inform you of that.

        After being critical of people who “hate” Aucklanders despite having never been there (a claim that simply can’t be proven by the way) Patrick seems to do a good job of not practising as he preaches, perhaps inspiring that “hate” in the first place. Having visted and explored Auckland numerous times, having lived in both Wellington and Chch, I can safely say that Chch has its fair share of congestion on major arterials, and it is getting worse each time I come here to visit. More importantly, most of those current arterials are of poor quality and run right through residential zones, which is arguably unhealthy and unsafe, and certainly not desirable.

        Furthermore, if Kapiti is part of Wellington, then Waimakariri and Selwyn (at least the urbanised parts) must surely be considered part of Chch (two RoNS run right through them) which would boost the population to approx 420,000. Looking at where the population is, and where the money is going, Cantabrians could just as rightfully feel as agrieved as Aucklanders.

        And they are repairing roads in Chch – most of them are CCC responsibility though, and they need to repair whats underneath first. Again, a little research would inform you of that.

      1. There are projections for regions that I can use but ideally want urban area projections which I haven’t seen before. Will have a look and perhaps pro rata urban areas based on the regional growth.

  3. I would love to see a similar map showing projected population growth for the next 30 years. From memory way over half the country’s growth is likely to be in Auckland.

  4. It’s a real shame that the government is increasing petrol price to fund these stupid projects and we have to go along with it, not too mention the MPs payrises greedy bastards the lot of them!!!!!!!

  5. The main point should be that the 9c was to pay for the Waikato Expressway, Kapiti Expressway and Christchurch Motorways. None of which are in Auckland! People from around the country probably would have a point if Auckland kept spending on mega-motorways, like a new Harbour crossing.
    Actually the biggest money losers are lightly trafficked rural roads that require maintenance for stock, milk and logging trucks.

    1. totally agree. rural folk contribute much to the economy but they forget how much we townies subsidise their road network through fuel taxes. people also don’t understand how trucks do a disproportionate level of damage to the roads due to their weight and how yet again we townies are subsidising the freight industry.

      1. Successive governments have created the ‘them and us’ by seemingly concentrating on one or the other. The RoNS are good examples of this. I wonder what a rural person would rather have – a sealed road for 20 km leading to a SH or a motorway at the end of a unsealed road?

  6. A brilliant post Matt L, notwithstanding the nit-picking (I mean constructive criticism) above. I had to laugh at those who couldn’t see what Matthew meant by “Wellington to Palmy”. It was pretty obvious guys! But what is most interesting is that Auckland’s population is (almost) as great as the next eight largest combined, and growing faster as well.

    I for one am happy to have some of my taxes (including road/petrol taxes) diverted out of my region where appropriate, after all, NZ is pretty much a large, spread-out village and we’re all in it together. I seldom visit Christchurch and even rarer go further south, but so what? Part of the charm of the deep south is (a) almost no traffic, and (b) a deep hatred of Auckland (especially among those who’ve never been here).

    Which leads to the relative merits of the various projects. If Wellingtonians wants a Northern Corridor, and Christchurch residents want a Southern Motorway, and Northlanders want the Puhoi Bypass, then go for it! But if not, then as a nation let’s do something else with the money (including leaving it in our pockets).

    1. Jonno that’s all fine, and I agree about funding projects in other regions; we should, where they stack up. I’ve always been puzzled by anti-Auckland attitudes I’ve experienced elsewhere as I’ve always considered us all in this together, yet the common theme I’ve met [and I travel a lot within NZ] essentially boils down to the idea that somehow they are New Zealanders but Aucklanders aren’t. It’s never quite put like that because clearly that’s absurd, but that’s the guts of it. Nutty.

      But the context of Matt’s post is this idea that somehow Auckland is recipient of the rest of the country’s money. Which isn’t true. Furthermore Auckland wants something too, the CRL, which by your same logic we should have funded from the same collective pot just like those other projects you list…. Generally we would argue that there is a better case for the CRL than for Transmission Gully say. But if that is unacceptable to the denizens of WellyPalmy we are just as happy to defer the equally worthless Puford boondoggle instead.

      1. Heck, I’m agreeing with you again Patrick. I’ve said previously that I have no problem with the CRL being partially funded with petrol taxes, if the project stacks up as you say, but nationally not just regionally. After all, part of the argument is that [local] road users will benefit from reduced, or at least constrained, congestion.

        1. I would suggest that should be the case with all projects. The region is given bulk funding based on a calculation taking into account current population and growth. They can spend it how they like and if that means blowing it all on motorways then so be it.

          1. That would need to be over quite a long term horizon though. The small size of NZ means that might only be able to do 1 or 2 large projects at once (well without large petrol tax raises!). So naturally some regions would benefit some years, while others paid for them, and vice versa.
            Same principle for North Shore. Sure they won’t be huge users of the CBDRL, but about 2030ish they will be getting a new Harbour Crossing (hopefully rail!) so will all balance out.
            Also they seem to have forgotten in last 15 years they have had huge Motorway extensions, the Northern motorway finished at Greville Road until 1999, Dairy Flat highway main road until then.

  7. Well the point of the post is to point out that Auckland isn’t the black hole of transport spending that some believe it to be. I don’t object to much to more money being spent on a per capita basis outside of Auckland as long as over the long term it roughly balances out. What does annoy me is that when we have projects that we really do need, the city gets treated like it is some parasite sucking the life out of the country.

    Which leads to the relative merits of the various projects. If Wellingtonians wants a Northern Corridor, and Christchurch residents want a Southern Motorway, and Northlanders want the Puhoi Bypass, then go for it! But if not, then as a nation let’s do something else with the money (including leaving it in our pockets).

    Every region always wants as much money spend on projects in their area as possible so they are never going to campaign against something like a RoNS.

  8. BTW here is a different take on that graph above, those dots in the first image compared directly

    Also who thought when reading the title of the post it was me having a go at Aucklands Motorways?

      1. Last step, click on Total NZ by Territorial Authority. This gives cities 2006-2031:
        42% Auckland (Rodney+North Shore+Waitakere+AkCity+Manukau+Papakura+Franklin)
        45% Tauranga
        35% Hamilton
        27% Wellington (Kapiti+Porirua+Upper&LowerHutt+Wellington)
        17% Christchurch
        6% Dunedin

          1. Courtesy of last year’s big shake, not accurately we don’t. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that there can be educated guesses made, but in the absence of the Census they’re only guesses. We’ll have a better idea late next year once the earliest data feeds out of the Census start to arrive: the population counts are far and away the easiest ones for Stats to build and deliver, and they’re also the ones that are needed most immediately because there’s a huge amount of capital spending that’s relying on that data.

      2. That still doesn’t give the best data though because some of Waitakere’s population, for example, would have been within the urban area of Auckland and some outside the urban area. Same for Manukau, Rodney and I guess even Auckland City if you consider the Gulf Islands.

  9. The Rudman quote is a textbook example of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. That Auckland paid twice as much in petrol taxes than it recieved in transport-related expenditure is entirely to be expected as almost half the petrol tax went to the government. Auckland was in the same boat as every other region, except Northland, Gisborne and West Coast which actually did get back all the money they were paying in petrol taxes. Most importantly there were four regions that were doing as badly or even more badly than Auckland. Southland, Taranaki, Waikato and Canterbury which, not surprisingly, were the regions that had to lose even more to correct the problems caused by the government taking half Auckland’s petrol taxes.

    Perhaps the next myth you can tackle is “Auckland has been paying for everybody elses roads for decades”

    Incidently, retail distribution and the international airport could both benefit from the two RoNS connecting Auckland with places international tourists want to visit so there is economic benefit for Auckland from paying for those projects, as indeed there was benefit from subsidising Northlands roads for all those decades. I’m not sure if its possible to estimate how much benefit Auckland may have received for the amount invested.

  10. Matt L, why do regard Puhoi to Wellsford not really an Auckland project, but consider the Kapiti Expressway as a Wellington project when that is well outside the Wellington Urban Area (as defined by Stats NZ)? Same goes for a significant portion of the Gully route too. If you’re going to count Kapiti as part of Wellington then at least add its urban population to Wellington’s (giving a total of 435,900 using 2012 estimates)…

    1. Kapiti is definitely part of the Wellington metropolitan area and part of the commuter belt, like Orewa is part of Auckland. Puhoi to Wellsford is well beyond the pale however, the equivalent would be something like Otaki to Levin. If they get to that stage then it would be fair to say that wasn’t really a Wellington broject.

    2. Sorry that number in the comment is just a paste of the top main urban areas but it is taken account of in the circle, Same with Auckland which the number doesn’t include Pukekohe.

      As for why include the Expressway or Transmission Gully, it is because my feeling is that those projects are much more supported down there than P2W is up here. With T Gully especially there are always people going on about how much it is needed as another exit out of Wellington and that it has been promised for decades etc. You don’t hear that about P2W

      1. After some digging and an email to the Mayir, I believe P2W became an Auckland project when AC determined that Warkworth was to become a satellite town of 20k. Without the rail link that Pukekohe has, this will pretty much ensure the P2W project happens.

        1. Hard to fathom…. but anyway that doesn’t explain doing the road first: Unless its role is to promote such dispersal. All those traffic planners claim that they are merely responding to demand but here it seems it is in order to create such demand…?

          1. “Mayor” of course :-). Anyhow, the growth is projected to take place over 30 years so urgency to build a 4 lane motorway hardly exists right now. And, I suspect, the growth will be based not just in Warkworth, but around it (Matakana etc).

          2. Did CBT get any traction from ARC / AC on the ‘Operation Lifesaver’ presentation? Has anything been done since?

            With this in mind and having just today driven to Warkworth to see family, I had a look at Google to get a better idea on terrain. From what I understand the NZTA version of Puhoi – Warkworth section is relatively cheap in comparison to the Warkworth – Wellsford section. Is this right? Can savings be made if it built to ‘expressway’ standards (most rural roads don’t have street lighting so why does a motorway?)

            Does anyone have any idea if they have looked at splitting the road at Perry Road with SH1 carrying on around the Kaipara Flats (western) side? Maybe follow the rail line and then bypass Wellsford. The terrain appears to be much easier to build a road on than over Dome Valley (still only needs a 2 lane road but make it divided) and the 4 lane road would be reduced to 2 lanes east (to Wellsford and Northland) and 2 lanes west (Warkworth, Matakana etc) before Warkworth. The fuel savings could be substantial over a period of time and this will be important in coming years. It would be more expensive than the CBT presentation but, (without professional training about such things) I expect it would be much less costly than the full NZTA motorway but need some input from people with more knowledge than me on these things.

            Is there anyone still trying to get NZTA and the govt to take an alternative view? Have the locals accepted it or are they still fighting it?

        2. Build a park n ride/kiss n ride at Kaipara Flats – and your only 13 km from Warkworth. Not too different than those living in Patumahoe being Pukekohe Station 10km away. But again probably not that helpful to key and co’s holiday homes.

          For 1% of Puford I suppose you could put in a spur line into Warkworth itself.

          1. As much as I would love to see the Northern Line used, I think the time for a rail trip from Kaipara Flats to Auckland would be well outside of the average person’s acceptable limits.

        3. It is a case of:
          1. NZTA says P2W will be built regardless
          2. AC saying, well if it is going to be built we might as well make use of it so lets schedule some growth around it.
          3. NZTA saying AC wants some growth there so we better build a motorway for it.

          Effectively they turn it into a self fulfilling prophecy.

  11. You can’t expect a rational result if you include RONS, which are by definition stupid projects. Take them out, and most motorway construction is in Auckland. As it should be, But the point should be that the cost of new construction is much higher than the average cost of providing roads. The cost per peak vehicle kilometre of extra capacity in Auckland in the last 10 years works out at between $5 and $10 (excluding waterview). The fuel tax you pay per kilometre (which represents the New Zealand average cost) is about 5c. Yes the money may in fact be coming from other Aucklanders, but it is this huge difference between cost and revenue that screws our transport systems and our land use planning.

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