Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: AA misreads its members' views in opposing council's rail loop plan

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The last time I started weighing up the need to subscribe to a car club I never used, my car heater blew a hose and filled the interior with smelly steam and suddenly my Automobile Association card didn't seem so dispensable after all.

So I won't tempt fate by revisiting the issue after this week's call from the AA for Auckland Council to abandon plans for the city rail loop. But I was sorely tempted.

AA spokesman Simon Lambourne said my organisation supported additional investment in Auckland public transport, but money was short and it was time to be realistic and prioritise.

"The AA believes buses are a very affordable public transport option, trains are not."

He said a focus on buses, rather than expanding the rail network, would give many more Auckland motorists a "realistic alternative to using their cars".

He claimed membership support for this view, based on a survey of 6030 Auckland members last May in which 65 per cent had ranked bus services as the most important public transport mode and 65 per cent said they'd use a bus if they could not drive.

Buses services are Auckland's main mode of public transport. But leaping from that to the suggestion that AA members wanted to put improvements to the rail network on the back burner, is a leap too far.

Last year's membership survey showed overwhelming support from AA members for "three key rail projects" proposed for Auckland.

Asked how they felt about "a city-centre rail link to open in 2021 costing approximately $2 billion", 76.7 per cent of members supported the project, and more than half of those in favour expressed "strong" support.

More - 82.5 per cent - supported a rail to the airport link costing about $2 billion, and 71 per cent backed a North Shore rail link.

Even more to the point, the questionnaire said that "planning is under way to change the current strategy for transport in Auckland" and asked "If the strategy is changed, on which parts ... would you like to see more [or less] emphasis put?"

Train services topped the poll, with 45.3 per cent of AA members wanting "much more emphasis" and another 35 per cent wanting "more". Added together, a resounding grand total of 81.4 per cent.

Buses came next, with a combined total of 74.7 per cent, then way behind, motorways, on 59.1 per cent.

Despite the membership's enthusiasm for improved rail services, the AA's subsequent submission to the Auckland Plan was lukewarm on Auckland Council's "decision to prioritise rail expansion ahead of improving the region's bus services" arguing that "the primary focus for public transport should be on upgrading the existing rail and bus network".

Now the AA has gone further, declaring Auckland "can't afford the cost of a $2.94 billion inner city rail link at this time" and "cannot support the current proposal to build the project by 2021".

As a long-standing member, I don't regard the results of last year's survey as giving backing for this anti-rail stance in any way. If anything, the survey results do the reverse.

Of course the AA's proposal to upgrade existing public transport services is already well under way, with the radical rebuilding of the train system, a redesign of the bus network and the introduction of integrated ticketing. But with Auckland's rapidly growing population, more buses is not the ultimate answer.

In a rebuttal of Government sceptics of the rail project last June, Auckland Transport said that without the rail loop, by 2041 Auckland would need exclusive busways, four lanes wide, running out of the city to get people home at night. A report predicted that "in many circumstances in Auckland this would take the entire width of the roadway and effectively stop all general traffic from using those roads".

One can imagine AA members in 2041 not being very happy with their leaders when they discovered who backed the pro-bus policy that had led to cars being forced off the road altogether.

Also, Auckland Transport says total construction costs, including land acquisition, is between $1.87 billion and $2.03 billion, not the $2.94 billion the AA claimed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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