Northern Gateway toll road no picnic

  • Based on a letter sent to the NZ Transport Agency on 24th June, 2009.
  • Sunday, May 3rd, 2009, was a clear, sunny day in the East Coast Bays. In the afternoon I drove north with my wife and son to see the new motorway extension and have a nice picnic at Puhoi.

    There was moderate traffic and the drive through the lovely bush-clad hills was a pleasant experience. We passed beneath the gantry and saw the cameras that photograph each vehicle. What a technological marvel they are. The computer software recognises number plates on every kind of vehicle, from the front and the back, at all speeds, in all weather conditions and identifies the registered owners, then matches them up with one payment among thousands; all this without human intervention. Marvellous.

    Nice road, but to pay you must stop

    We spent a mere ten minutes driving along a section of motorway that took over four years to construct, emerging from the northern end of the twin tunnels at two self-service kiosks where one can pay the road toll of $2.00. Travelling north, the kiosks are on the other side of the road and we were unable to stop, but we noticed that only one kiosk was in use and some dozen people stood in the queue, so it was probably taking between five and ten minutes to pay. Paying the toll doubles the journey time. Isn’t technology helpful?

    After a nice sunny picnic at Puhoi we headed back to the North Shore. The faulty kiosk was still not repaired and the one in use was busier than before, taking probably 15 minutes to pay. I’d seen something saying we had three whole days to pay so I decided to pay later online and kept driving. For variety, we drove back on the coast route, through Orewa. It was indeed enjoyable.

    That was that. Life went on.

    Ten days later a Toll Payment Notice arrived from a body called NZ Transport Agency thanking me for using the “Northern Gateway Toll Road”. It informed me that the toll had not yet been paid. It listed an “Administration fee” of $2.20, added after three days of non-payment. It gave me 28 days to pay $4.20 or an “infringement fee” of $40.00 would be “incurred” in addition to “other collection costs”. Wow. Heavy.

    I rang their call centre and said I had not been told about a penalty and if I had been, I would have remembered to pay the toll. Please remove the penalty because it is unfair. Oh, that’s not a penalty, sir, it’s an “administration fee” that represents the cost of sending you the reminder notice, sorry sir. I said there were many commercial enterprises in the country who would be very glad of the power to add 110% when a bill became three days overdue.

    I stated that when I had time I would “phone your manager” and “write to my Member of Parliament”, complaining about the “exorbitant penalty” and the “absence of notice”. It’s unfair. Blah blah.

    You must pay us, but it won’t be easy

    A day or two later I was calm again and resigned to paying the bill before they threw in the $40.00 for good measure (needless to say, I had informed neither their manager nor my MP of my troubles). On their web site they recognise neither the credit card I use nor my trading bank. So I couldn’t pay them online.

    I rang their call centre again and mentioned that their two methods of payment didn’t work for me. “That’s a shame, sir.”

    I asked for their account number so I might pay by online banking. “Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t give that out, sir, our accounts department won’t let us,” said the CSO. This was an unexpected impediment; most businesses are pleased to receive online payment, as it gives them instantaneous clear funds. “Why not?” I asked.

    “The accounts department won’t allow it, sir.” I suggested it would be a lot of work, I suppose, to reconcile all the payments? “Yes, sir, it would.”

    “Ok,” I said, “I’ll call in to your office to pay; where is it?

    “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have an office.” No office? This was an impediment I couldn’t predict. I imagined a telephone by the side of the road. Would there be at least a desk? I didn’t ask. I rang off.

    Reconciling online payments with the toll records might be a big job, but they must still do it even if I send them a cheque, only now they must also visit the bank to deposit it. As I see it, that’s more work for them than if they let me bank the money. They have a genius making decisions over there.

    Economic common sense

    A proper public service would have built a system that worked before they opened it. But then, a proper government wouldn’t have foisted a toll road onto its citizens in the first place. Who gets a greater fiscal benefit from the road — the travellers or the owners of the land the travellers can now get to? Consider the land values on Auckland’s North Shore after the harbour bridge was built. Billions were added in the first ten years alone, yet none of the increase went to pay for the bridge that contributed so much to that increase. Imagine the bridge collapsing — would North Shore land values follow it? Of course they would.

    Fifty years later it’s about to happen again — we’re talking about a second harbour crossing and still none of the increase thus caused to the land value will go to pay for that cause. It is the most natural source of finance for a public work, which causes the value of the surrounding properties to rise. Indeed, demonstrating that rise is alone sufficient justification for any public work, yet all the value created by this second crossing will go into the pockets of the landowners.

    Is it any wonder that we struggle to fund investment in public works? Or that we are forced into so-called “public-private partnerships” in a desperate attempt to add vital infrastructure? It is tragic that we overlook this natural public fund for building public assets. But I digress; perhaps another time. Where was I?

    The only way left to pay this toll is to write out a cheque ($0.05 cheque duty), place it in an envelope ($0.25), affix a stamp ($0.50) and post it to Palmerston North (stop at a post box). The cost to me of that Sunday joyride now includes $2.00 for the nice road, a 110% penalty for not paying within three days and extra payment costs of $0.80 for not having the right kind of credit card and for not belonging to the right bank. The original $2.00 has swollen to $5.00, if I don’t count the hour or so spent on the phone and fuming—a 250% increase! And I paid for the petrol.

    I rang the call centre to complain that customers of the National Bank can’t pay the toll online. Alex said NZTA have not admitted the National into the electronic system. Which was kind of interesting but didn’t help. I said so give me your bank account number and I’ll pay you online, like other businesses I deal with. “We can’t give it to you, sir, our accounts department won’t let us.” Before hanging up I told him thanks for listening.

    Rottweiler on two legs

    But I’d forgotten to mention the part about only one kiosk in use so I rang Alex back to add it to the complaint he had promised to pass on. But it was impossible to transfer a call to a specific person. (I guess with no office it’s hard to find people.) I asked to speak to a supervisor, but she couldn’t put me through so I had to tell my story all over again from the beginning. Then I tried once more for the bank account number. “We can’t give it to you, sir, our accounts department won’t let us.” Why not? “Our accounts department won’t let us, sir.” Yes, you said that, but why won’t they? “Our accounts department won’t let us do that, sir.”

    After the politeness of the CSOs, this supervisor was rude. Not so much what she said, but the way she said it. It was all my fault. That’s why I’m writing this, because she made me so angry. I said the penalty was ferocious. She said you did forget to pay the toll. Sir. I said you only waited three days and you are being unkind as well. She said you did forget to pay the toll. Could I be right? It never crossed her mind. She was a rottweiler on two legs. I presume she had two legs, though I was tempted to imagine her with four. In three calls, I spoke with six people; five were nice. She was disrespectful.

    She said: “Did you know that under the legislation you actually have to pay the toll before driving on the road?” Thank goodness she told me this. I was glad to hear her explanation — glad that they had given me those extra three days to pay, even though it wasn’t required under the law. By golly, I’ve been lucky here, I thought.

    It’s not the money, it’s the principle. It should be easy for everyone to pay them. They must fix it.

    Richard Treadgold

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