Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Farcical road money politicking

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David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard
David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard

Ye olde politicians had it easy. They could swan around the country promising voters what they wanted to hear. In Auckland they could joke about greedy cow-cockies and promise to divert rural roads money to the big smoke. Then they'd jump aboard the steamer and head south to the rural wop-wops to bad-mouth the grasping, unproductive, urban centres, promising to pour money into the heartlands.

In the days before the electric telegraph, such trickery worked. But Labour leader David Shearer was chancing his arm on Wednesday by telling Nelsonians - and, thanks to the internet, Aucklanders - that the rural/provincial heartland was "where the economic strength of New Zealand lives".

He then opened up his Santa bag and hinted at more regional roads under Labour - roads that were not being built under the present Government "because the money is going into new motorways like the one from Puhoi to Wellsford".

Mr Shearer added, "I can't express it better than the Mayor of Ashburton, Angus McKay, who said: 'We are frustrated that the Government appears to have chosen to focus their expenditure on city motorways at the expense of the rural areas that generate a significant proportion of income for the country."'

What the Labour leader forgot to mention was that since replacing Helen Clark as MP for Mt Albert in 2009, he has been telling Aucklanders that under Labour, the lion's share of the Puhoi-to-Wellsford Holiday Highway cash will be siphoned off to help pay for Auckland's inner-city underground rail loop.

Still, when it comes to politicking with our road taxes, Mr Shearer's a mere tenderfoot compared with the present Government. John Key has just plucked $75 million out of nowhere to bribe Wellington voters with a new War Memorial Park. To be exact, the $75 million is only to put Buckle St - the small stretch of State Highway 1 that runs in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - underground.

As well, there is $10 million from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage's World War I centennial celebration fund to create the park.

Wellingtonians will have to scrape together a miserly $2.11 million as their contribution.

On Monday, when the Prime Minister was joined by Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee and Arts Minister Chris Finlayson to launch the project, it wasn't clear where the money was coming from.

NZ Transport Agency Wellington state highways manager Rod James now says the Government is contributing $50 million from "non-transport" funds and that NZTA will cough up the difference. He also says the cost of putting Buckle St underground might be nearer $70 million.

In other words, the Government has purloined only $20 million to $25 million from road user funds and not the full $75 million cost of this new tunnel. Which still doesn't explain why NZTA is putting up a cent for a roading project it is still officially rubbishing on its own website.

For some years now, putting Buckle St underground has been part of the debate over transport improvements around the Basin Reserve. In several publications over the past two years, NZTA ruled out tunnelling, saying "it would have been expensive to build and provided minimal transport benefits". Because of these "minimal transport benefits", it was excluded as an option in last year's public consultation.

Yet on Monday, NZTA declared it was "delighted" at the thought of a new public park, but made no reference to its transport benefits.

Yesterday, Mr James told me the new underpass "does have some transport benefits, but it never had sufficient transport benefits to justify full funding from the National Land Transport Fund". Funny how "minimal" can become "some", worth around a third the cost of the project.

It's all so different from the saga of the Auckland rail loop, which the Government keeps rejecting on the grounds the cost-benefit analyses don't stack up. At least there are some. Yet in Wellington, to create another war memorial in a country already awash with the things, the Government finds $75 million of scarce funds, even though the "independent" NZTA says the project has "minimal transport benefits".

It's $75 million that won't be going into rural roads, but is Labour upset? Just the opposite. Mr Shearer's deputy, Grant Robertson, is gushing with "delight". Of course, he is also MP for Wellington Central.

- 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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