THE LAST MILE - In the steps of Baldrick

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Some may recall the television series Blackadder and Blackadder’s faithful servant Baldrick. One of Baldrick’s often used sayings was “I have a cunning plan”. I am convinced that some within our government circles, both national and local, must be great fans of his and are in tune with his cunning plan theory, especially when it comes to extracting money from road users.

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear from one official or another telling us that traffic congestion is bad, and this is what they are going to do about it. Of course, telling us what they intend to do and doing it are entirely different things; like railway tracks, they are most unlikely to ever come together. Under the cunning plan theory traffic congestion is good, unless you happen to be stuck in it. By creating situations that create congestion the officials are making people use more fuel; more fuel means more tax, and if you are unfortunate enough to have to buy fuel in Auckland, you are also stung with the regional fuel tax. If you are one of these officials, why would you want to stop people buying fuel? You simply wouldn’t; you are not likely to be overly active in cutting off a source of income.

But of course you cannot come out and say that you are encouraging congestion because it would not be the right thing to do, so what you do is to sit around in meetings and pontificate on what you can do to create situations that give the impression you are doing whatever you can to reduce congestion, but which you know will have the opposite effect. Let’s look at some examples of these. Reduce speed limits to make the roads safer for other road users; a noble gesture but one that hides the fact that many roads have deteriorated now to the point where it is a travesty to call them roads. Introduce dedicated bus lanes to ‘speed’ up the passage of public transport. That these lanes reduce the lanes available to lesser mortals, further aggravating congestion, is but a minor inconvenience, and the extra income it derives from fuel tax is not to be sneezed at.

Reduce the availability of parking in the city. In cunning plan theory this will force people onto public transport when you know that the public transport system is failing, and people will have to revert to private means just to move around. Exempt one section of the motoring public from paying a fuel tax contribution towards the upkeep of the roads, even though they can still use the roads and contribute to congestion. Let’s disguise this under decarbonising our transport network; people will buy into it, but more fuel will get used and more tax received. Let’s get even more cunning and increase enforcement on those roads where we have reduced the speed limit in the name of road safety, and we can increase our income from this source as well. A further example of cunning plan theory is embedded within the Land Transport (NZTA) Legislation Amendment Act 2020, which provides for the NZTA to establish new mechanisms to fund its regulatory functions. You don’t have to have a degree in public policy to understand what that means. Those of us who pay to use the roads have been paying for the regulatory function for many years; a function that used to work, but the cunning plan came along to syphon some of this money off to other projects, such as building cycleways, happy in the knowledge that there would be not enough left in the piggybank to operate an effective regulatory system and the system would run down. Eventually it would be on the verge of collapse and would require new money to build it back up and make it work.

The application of the theory goes something like this: we need money to build cycleways, so syphon off some of the funding that was used to support the regulatory function. This function will diminish to the point of being virtually ineffective, but that’s okay, we can go to the government to provide a mechanism to get more money to rebuild the function we robbed from in the first place. A quote from Abraham Lincoln says: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. Appropriate guidance I suspect, for those who are paid from the public purse. 
The accidental trucker