The Bridge Tolls Battle and Me - by Don Campbell
Our big banner said:
YOU HAVE NOW PAID
$100 MILLION IN TOLLS
FOR A $23 MILLION BRIDGE.
It was 7 30 a.m. on Friday 21 July 2000 and we – six men from the Tolls Action Group – stood with this sign near the Tauranga Harbour Bridge toll gates as the traffic streamed slowly past.
The weather was atrocious, wet and wild, and I was soon cold and soaked. But I was excited and glad to be there. I had never before been in a protest demonstration, not even during the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, yet here I was involved in this protest over bridge tolls.
I was passionate about this cause because of the unfairness. I believed these toll gates ought not to have become a cash cow to enable the Tauranga District Council (later Tauranga City Council) to fund other roads. The message that this was unfair had to be told.
It was clear as we stood there, from the constant tooting, that our message was getting across to the thousands of drivers going past. And these, the regular day by day bridge users, most of whom were unfortunate enough to live on one side of the harbour and work on the other, were the victims. It was their dollar-by-dollar tolls that made up the bulk of the big profits from the toll bridge. Profits which the Council now wanted to apply to the extensions to the Waikareao Expressway.
Most ratepayers were at the time in favour of this. It was economically good for the city, and it kept rates down. And, after all, the Council said it had the legal right to do this. Few up till now had spoken out against it, but now the Tolls Action Group members (TAG), at least 50 in number, thought it was morally wrong and should stop and were saying so frequently and forcefully.
We had arrived at the toll plaza at 7.30 a.m. and we stayed until 9 a.m. The Bay of Plenty Times covered it well in that afternoon’s paper. One photo showed me holding one of the poles. Me! An elderly law-abiding retired school teacher and businessman now involved in public protest.
I got a bit of good-natured ribbing about it, but most of my friends were not surprised. I¹d been involved in this cause in one form or another for three years, mostly through lots of letters to the editor, but I had also made two submissions in person to Council.
I was not alone in this cause. Others had also cried, “Foul play!” through letters to the editor for many years. But it was not until TAG was convened through Rick Curach’s initiative that most people became aware of the issue. Rick was TAG’s first chairman and I succeeded him briefly while he was away. The big well-worded banner and its message was Rick’s project also. But in the closing stages of the campaign it was Ross Linney as Chairman who carried on the final stages of the battle, and did so superbly.
Ross was also responsible for probably TAG’s most important move: obtaining legal opinion. This was prepared for us by Kate Barry-Piceno of Holland Beckett Maltby. It said that Council did not have the legal right it claimed to use the bridge tolls for the other purposes proposed. Tauranga District Council (TDC) said “Yes, we do!” but never produced its own legal opinion to prove it.
Arguments for TDC to continue the bridge tolls were strong. Firstly, that TDC had the legal right; and secondly that “if the bridge tolls came off our rates would go up”. And there were other arguments, such as “tolls make visitors pay for wear on our roads”. But in all this argument and discussion I never once found anybody who contended that it was morally right to continue to use bridge toll money for additional roading purposes.
Thanks to TAG’s relentless efforts, using every opportunity to proclaim the unfairness of continuing the bridge tolls, and thanks, too, to the many others who voiced their concerns, public opinion came our way relatively soon. TDC Councillors also had a change of mind. This may have been because of upcoming local body elections but it was more probably because of the Council’s apparent impotence over non-paying bridge users. For in the final months of the toll bridge battle hundreds of motorists began to avoid paying the toll as they drove through the toll plaza.
Some motorists tailgated, a dangerous practice that was never encouraged by TAG. Then some motorists, led by a few TAG members, just refused to pay the toll charge on the grounds that its imposition was illegal and that too much had been paid already. . Soon hundreds of motorists were doing likewise, but I did not. The Council continually threatened to prosecute, but never did so. Maybe it was unwilling to have the legality of the issue tested in a court of law.
One comical aspect of this non-payment was when the Council started paying the toll with a $1 donation for motorists who refused to pay “to enable them to do so”. Until this bizarre practice got on national television!
On 22nd July 2001, one year after our wintry protest, the last toll was paid and the barriers came up and have stayed up. But even so, we knew that with the need for a second harbour bridge tolls would be back before long.
Then the miracle happened. The Honorable Winston Peters, as leader of the NZ First Party, concluded an agreement with Labour after the 2005 election so that in return for his party¹s support the second bridge and the Chapel Street flyover would become the government¹s responsibility.
And that’s what has happened. Bridge tolls are off in Tauranga, hopefully for ever. And I¹ll never have to stand at the Toll Plaza with a protest banner again.Date of EventJuly 2000