Council accused of fixing bus fares

JIM CHIPP
Last updated 14:57 08/05/2014
Tony Randle
JIM CHIPP/FAIRFAX NZ
WHISTLEBLOWER: Tony Randle says the calculations justifying fare increases have unfairly penalised bus users.

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Bus advocate Tony Randle says regional council staff have cooked the books to justify bus fare increases, but council staff have refuted the accusation.

Randle said some costs were included in bus fare calculations, but left out of train fares.

NZ Transport Agency subsidy rules require councils to recover at least 50 per cent of operating costs from fare-paying passengers, but capital costs are not allowed to be included in the fare calculation.

In the council's books, expenses that appeared as infrastructure capital spending on buses last year, and were left out of fares, were accounted for as operating costs this year, and included in fares.

Randle, who lives in Johnsonville, said it made about a $5 million difference to bus costs, which was all that had justified the council's proposed fare increases.

"They have essentially shifted who is funding those costs from the ratepayer to the traveller. It's creative accounting," he said.

The increases will hit single- zone travellers paying cash particularly hard, with an increase from $2 to $2.50.

Without the cost transfer, the increase was unnecessary to maintain the council's 55 per cent cost recovery target, he said.

Randle said the accounting change was not transparent and ought to have been clearly spelled out in the council's consultation documents in its draft annual plan consultation.

Council public transport manager Wayne Hastie denied any creative accounting.

"In fact, all we did was include in the calculation some infrastructure and maintenance costs as it was increasingly clear that most of these costs were directly related to the day-to-day running of bus or rail services," he said.

The costs included the lease of Wellington Railway Station, station cleaning and maintenance, station and depot security, bus shelter cleaning, bus shelter maintenance and signage maintenance, he said.

Hastie also denied claims of a lack of transparency, saying the council spreadsheets were very technical and detailed documents and were made available to Randle and others under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

"All the information that Mr Randle has requested has been made available except for some elements that were commercially sensitive," he said.

Randle objected to the costs of renewing the buses' overhead wiring system being counted as operational and included in fare calculations, whereas maintenance and replacement of trains' overhead wiring was considered a capital cost and left out of the fare calculation.

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Council acting public transport manager Angus Gabara said the cost of renewing the trolley bus overhead network was capital expense for the owner of the overhead network - Wellington Cable Car Limited - but operating costs to the regional council, because it did not own the network.

The equivalent cost for rail network renewal was included in rail operating costs and fare cost recovery calculations, but the costs of maintaining rail rolling stock and station assets were excluded because they were capital expenditure as council assets.

The regional council will hold public hearings on its annual plan, including fares, in late May.

Councillors will make final decisions on fares at the council meeting in June.

- The Wellingtonian

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