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Toll hike puts Route K back on track

The increased cost of driving along Route K has not put drivers off using the hugely indebted toll road.

Usage of Route K by car drivers dropped by only 2 per cent last month, despite the council increasing the toll by 50c on January 1 - the first increase since the road opened in 2003.

Route K - File

Route K - File

Instead of a predicted worst case scenario of the new $1.50 toll driving away 1000 cars a day, the actual reduction averaged 88 vehicles.

Comparing last month with January 2011 showed that 2723 fewer cars used Route K but additional revenue of $58,200 was generated - up 47 per cent.

Route K's financial performance was further improved by a 15 per cent boost in the number of heavy trucks compared with last January, rising to 20,730 trucks and generating tolls of nearly $83,000.

Once 1170 light trucks were added to the equation, Route K's total revenue for January hit a record $264,100 - an increase of $65,000.

If the rest of this year's figures go up by the forecasted 8 per cent growth in traffic, then the council will be approaching halfway to where Route K needs to be to have more money flowing in than going out.

The debt burden currently sits at about $60 million.

Council's transport development engineer Helmut Marko said the toll for cars was increased because Route K needed to be a viable business in order for the New Zealand Transport Agency to take over ownership of the road.

He was "pleasantly surprised" by January's figures because it was always going to be a balance between increasing tolls and not losing too many customers.

The picture would become clearer by March after a period uninfluenced by the holiday season.

"We look more at trends rather than getting hung up on one month because there are so many factors," Mr Marko said.

He said there had been few complaints from motorists about having to find the extra 50c coin for the toll.

Many people were using a toll card or the new quick card to avoid handling cash.

Stuart Crosby told a council meeting this week that they would have a stronger feel for how Route K was performing by March, once school was back and the road had experienced a more average month outside of the holidays.

Councillor Rick Curach said Route K continued to be an uphill struggle but they were running with it as hard as they could.

"This is quite a difficult task - there are quite a few hurdles."

Councillor Tony Christiansen said afterwards that he was encouraged by January's figures because Tauranga's holiday season had been influenced by the Rena disaster and the weather, including a rained-out New Year's Eve.

Revenue for the first half of January had been sitting at 22 per cent below the same period a year earlier but usage recovered in the final fortnight.

The January 1 toll increase was against a backdrop of negotiations to transfer Route K to the Crown - allowing the council to shed a huge liability from its balance sheet. Council deputy chief executive Christine Jones said last year the council and agency had agreed that future arrangements for Route K would include the alignment of tolls with the Tauranga Eastern Link's planned $2 toll.