Bipartisan politics is a rare beast in New Zealand nowadays. It is even harder to spot when political parties are shy to sponsor necessary policy changes that might arouse public backlash at first.
That seems to be the case with congestion pricing, which charges drivers with higher road user rates at peak times in overcrowded routes.
Fortunately, this thorny-but-effective policy solution to our increasing traffic woes could still materialise based on recent bipartisan developments.
Last week, the National Party launched a discussion paper on their economic policy platform for next year’s election. Hidden in the document was a brief mention of “exploring pricing mechanisms” to deal with car congestion clogging our major urban centres.
That is refreshingly similar to the Labour-led Coalition government’s Policy Statement on Land Transport, which also recommends new road pricing tools as “part of the solution to the [congestion] problems in high growth areas – particularly in Auckland”.
The case for congestion pricing is not new, with close to a hundred years of academic research backing it and plenty of international case studies validating it.
Among transport experts, there is widespread agreement that congestion pricing is the single most effective way to deal with traffic bottlenecks while also providing additional incentives to increase public transport use.
In New Zealand, both the Tax Working Group and the Productivity Commission have proposed congestion charging as an efficient way to modify behaviour and improve environmental quality.
So what is holding us back?
Partly behind the political caution in launching this time-tested, cost-effective transport policy is the public’s misunderstandings and fears about the new system.
To address these concerns, political leadership must be resolute and clearly communicate the gains against the status quo, including how New Zealand drivers are paying congestion charges anyway through lost hours idling in traffic.
Also, it is good to remind voters that variable peak/off-peak rates are already part of our daily lives, from electricity bills to bus fares to cinema tickets.
Most importantly, politicians must dissipate public fears of congestion pricing being “just another great big tax on everything”.
In this regard, National’s commitment to a revenue neutral system is commendable. Every net dollar raised through congestion charges shall be offset by, say, a dollar less through property rate collection or lower fuel taxes.
We might be at the threshold of a promising start towards a bipartisan solution to fix our congested roads, improving productivity growth and community interaction.
Let us hope our political leaderships can clear the roads to success.