Wellington, March 10 NZPA - Concerns about SuperGold cardholders' free use of off-peak public transport exceeding the scheme's allocated budget are premature, says Transport Minister Steven Joyce.
Figures released by the New Zealand Transport Agency for the four months until the end of January show patronage under the scheme has steadily increased from 585,842 in October, to 667,594 in January.
It equated to monthly expenditure growing from $1.242 million to $1.524m over four months -- or $5.549m in total.
A 2008 government budget allocation of $18m a year over four years was made to fund the scheme, which was created by NZ First and enacted as part of its support deal with the Labour government.
While the figure is under budget for the first four months, a continued increase in uptake could see it stretch beyond $18m in the first 12 months.
Mr Joyce said today the budget was on track, but it was difficult to predict how public transport usage among cardholders would play out during the winter months.
"We're just keeping a watching brief on it to see how it evolves."
He said it would be a case of "crossing that bridge when we come to it" if the budgeted level of funding ended up being exceeded.
Labour Party transport spokesman Darren Hughes said there was a continued charge against the scheme from the ACT Party and that National needed to give the elderly an assurance it would endure.
He said it was a success and had enabled elderly people to connect or re-connect with people around them.
Comments from Mr Joyce about monitoring the scheme closely would be concerning for those who used it, he said.
"It's crucial the scheme is not put in jeopardy just because it is so very successful."
Mr Joyce said the scheme was serving its purpose well and there were no indications it would be changed.
"The commitment is there for four years and at this stage we're not concerned it will exceed that."
Meanwhile, Green Party transport spokeswoman Jeanette Fitzsimons is pushing for the introduction of reduced fares all-round for off-peak travel to try and lift patronage during those times and get people out of cars.
Ms Fitzsimons said an initiative of introducing $1 off-peak fares would only help fill seats that would otherwise be empty and such a scheme was unlikely to require a public subsidy.
At peak times, public transport was running at capacity, but cheaper fares may entice commuters to travel later and help spread the load.
"The more people use public transport, the more congestion eases, relieving the costs on the business and the wider economy from congestion."
Mr Joyce said such an initiative was "not on the table".