Could congestion charging ease Auckland’s roading woes?

A summary of The Congestion Question report and its findings, by Sarah de Zwart

Central government and Auckland Council officials have been working together for several years on a project called The Congestion Question (TCQ). The purpose of the project is to undertake a thorough investigation sufficient to support a decision on whether or not to introduce congestion pricing on part or all of Auckland’s road network.

Congestion pricing is a method used to ease congestion by directly charging road users at different times or locations, depending on how congested the roads are. The goal is to encourage some users to change the time, route, or method of travel — or they could choose not to travel at all. This is known as “demand management” and results in better use of the road network.

Released in late 2020, TCQ’s report found a congestion pricing system could reduce congestion in Auckland by around 8 to12 per cent when fully implemented, similar to travel experienced during the school holidays.

Officials have found that a larger “strategic corridors” scheme would be the most beneficial option for congestion pricing in Auckland, and could be phased in. Initially starting in the city centre, it could be expanded in stages to align with planned public transport service improvements and infrastructure investment over the next ten years. The first phase, based around the city centre area, could be introduced to coincide with the opening of the City Rail Link (CRL). Then, over time, the congestion pricing scheme should be introduced along the most congested corridors, with the implementation timetable informed by the Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP).

Two potential sources of efficiency gains are identified:

1. Deadweight losses: static classical models of congestion show that road pricing can reduce the deadweight losses (also known as excess burdens) that arise from excess demand and the resultant congestion externalities.

2. Monetisation of delays: dynamic bottleneck models of congestion show that congestion pricing monetises delays and encourages drivers to adjust departure times.

Figure 2: Indicative phases of an Auckland congestion pricing scheme
Please note that boundaries are indicative only

TCQ research, supported by extensive traffic modelling, indicates that congestion charges should vary by time bands, starting with a lower charge to travel during the shoulder period ($1.50), rising to a higher charge for peak period travel ($3.50). As a comparison, the proposed peak charge aligns with an adult two-zone public transport fare using an AT HOP card. There would be no charge for travel during the inter-peak or off-peak periods and charges would apply only Monday to Friday, excluding public holidays. Motorists would incur the highest charge detected within a two-hour “journey window” to recognise the multi purpose nature of many trips. Heavy vehicles would pay double the charges incurred by light vehicles. Emergency vehicles, buses, motorcycles, scooters and unpowered vehicles would be exempt from the charge.

The report mentions that no decision has yet been made about what the revenue from a congestion pricing scheme would be used for, although it is likely it would be used to fund the operation of the scheme and invested in transport infrastructure and services for Auckland. It has been suggested that the scheme could potentially replace or subsidise the Regional Fuel Tax.

Mitigation measures

Daily charging caps could apply so that no motorist faces a daily charge greater than twice the highest peak-period charge. Financially vulnerable users should be provided with a discount on the congestion charges they incur. TCQ identified that the Community Services Card could be an appropriate existing mechanism for identifying those users. Additional mitigation measures could be introduced following implementation, depending on the scheme’s observed social and financial impacts.

How might it work in practice?

Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras and supporting software have already been proven by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency for open road tolling, and this type of technology could be readily applied for congestion pricing. Smartphones, while not a feasible option for vehicle identification and charging, can provide a user-friendly channel for payment and account management. A future move to utilise global navigation satellite system (GNSS6) technology could be made once current challenges with the technology are overcome.

Business trip impacts

Consistent with international evidence, the social assessment modelling exercise suggests that business related trips would enjoy a net $20 million benefit from the congestion charge. This is because reduced congestion on the road network generates travel time savings to businesses that exceed the costs of paying the congestion charge.

CLICK HERE to read the report in full.

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Bernadette Robert

Bernadette Robert