Sunday, March 15, 2009

Farewell regional fuel tax?

So National may scrap the appalling regional fuel tax before it happens.

Good.

I opposed it before. The regional fuel tax was backed by United Future as well, so be interesting to see how Peter Dunne responds to this.

The arguments against regional fuel tax are very clear:
1. The geographic regions are largely based on water catchment areas, so have no basis in difference in cost or demand for transport projects. Ask why motorists in Pukekohe, Helensville or Warkworth should pay for electrifying Auckland's rail network which extends only to Waitakere and Papakura? In Wellington, why should motorists in Carterton pay for a rail upgrade in Kapiti, or in Canterbury motorists in Temuka paying for a road in Christchurch?
2. Regional fuel taxes severely disadvantage service stations inside the regional boundary because they are at a price disadvantage compared to those on the other side.
3. The fuel tax also taxes diesel, which means that half of all of that tax needs to be refunded as much diesel is used on farms, on private roads and in boats. One reason road user charges exist is because of this.
4. The tax was used to raise money for regional councils to use to pay for projects with no objective criteria of appraisal, like economic efficiency, to decide how best to pay for the project. It was a tax to pay for regionally decided pork.

All this makes most of the arguments of Idiot Savant complete nonsense:
- He claims it is a de facto environmental policy, but gets two out of three of the projects listed wrong. Upgrading the Johnsonville line and new trains for Wellington is being paid already from money dedicated from the last government's Wellington transport package (indirectly from nationally collected fuel tax).
- He says it is a de facto carbon tax, which of course it isn't as it only applies to regions wanting extra funding for transport projects, so Taranaki, Southland and Nelson are unlikely to ever pay it. In addition, with refunds for off road fuel use, it is a tax on road transport only.
- He claimed it would be fair, except that he ignores the boundary issues I mentioned above, ignores the new burden on farmers and other off road diesel users to apply for refunds, ignores that most of what the money would be spent on wont benefit those paying and ignores that there is no objective criteria being used to decide on how to spend the money.
- There is NO local accountability for a tax when a reasonable number of those paying are NOT local.

He is worried councils have committed to spending money that hasn't been collected yet, which of course is nonsense, just pure posturing. In short, he doesn't know what he is talking about.

However, the government has since announced it will be using your money to buy new electric trains for Auckland. Presumably the ARC will need to rate Auckland property owners to pay for the electrification of the infrastructure, because electric trains can't run on non-electrified track. Taxpayers in Nelson, Taupo and Kaitaia, none of which have a railway or ever will get one, might ask what they get from this.

That's money down the drain, and also a lost opportunity to make Auckland councils think about a user driven transport strategy instead of the failed "Smart Growth" rail fetish that has done nothing to relieve congestion in US cities.

David Farrar thinks it should mean that roads are funded down a specific cost benefit ratio, but he's wrong - that approach to allocating funding from the National Land Transport Programme has largely slipped by the wayside with Labour. National should move substantially back to such an approach, because it would be far more transparent than Ministers casually talking to Land Transport Agency board members about projects that are important to the government - without actually breaking the law about directing them.

I'd like to see some renewed evaluation of large projects that the Land Transport Agency hasn't yet approved, that ranks them by cost/benefit ratio. In other words, lets figure out if all existing fuel taxes are being spent well, and delay or drop projects that are poor value. Drop sea freight funding for example, and tighten up on public transport funding, much of which is very poor value. Drop gold plated projects and seriously review Transmission Gully when the design work is finished.

I am NOT convinced that the government spends its transport funds as well as it could - it would be timely to spend a good 6 months doing some decent appraisal of that.

So Steven Joyce, here is one thing to request. Ask the Land Transport Agency to produce a long list of cost benefit ratios for ALL major road projects. Ask for some independently auditing to be sure, and for confidence ratings for the BCRs. Ask for the optimism bias for the project costs, and if you get a blank look, tell your officials to look at what the UK government does.

Then consider whether you want more spending on transport, knowing that to get it you either have to raise taxes on motorists, use direct tolling or just let the private sector go for it.

5 comments:

john-ston said...

"Presumably the ARC will need to rate Auckland property owners to pay for the electrification of the infrastructure, because electric trains can't run on non-electrified track."

Liberty Scott, the government was always going to pay for the infrastructure part of electrification, and the contract was signed before the election. The ARC were only ever going to pay for the units.

libertyscott said...

Thanks John-ston. Auckland gets what some there always dreamed of, a central government funded electric railway, like Wellington got in the 1940s and 1950s.

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