Michael Barnett: Len Brown's vision needs funding, ideas and urgency

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Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Natalie Slade
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Natalie Slade

There is much to applaud in Auckland Mayor Len Brown's call for a more efficient, integrated transport system.

He refreshingly recognises that we must begin work on key projects such as improved road links to southeast Auckland, an additional harbour crossing as well as turning the Britomart Terminal into a through rail station as it was designed to be.

I agree the steady increase in Auckland's population accents the urgency for action - but much sooner and faster than Mayor Brown seems prepared to acknowledge.

So yes, I part company in his assessment of the scale of the problem and the time we have left to implement solutions.

First, Mayor Brown's article refers to a $5 billion funding shortfall. This is well below other assessments, including his council's draft Auckland Plan funding shortfall of around $13 billion for major transport projects the plan says are needed by 2030.

Also, the NZ Council for Infrastructure Development estimates a funding shortfall of around $10 billion alone for projects the business community overwhelmingly believes we should be starting to action immediately: the SH1-20 east-west improvements between East Tamaki and Onehunga (about $3 billion) and the inner city rail loop (around $2.4 billion), and the additional harbour crossing (around $4 billion).

Second, the Mayor selectively mentions that we do not yet know how we will pay for the rail tunnel. This is cherry picking from a long list of unfunded projects and ignores the whole story on the funding shortfall which the business community has urged the Mayor to address. The key next step required is to extract the really critical projects from the long list in the draft Auckland Plan and then do an exercise of the funding sources for implementing that package with speed and urgency - that hasn't yet happened.

Worse still, the Government has clearly signalled a significant funding shortfall for Auckland projects.

The delayed release of government funding to allow the Waterview Tunnel project earth works to commence this summer is also of major concern. The project was fast-tracked through a single consent process last year, with intentions of earth works commencing last September. A pre-General Election launch was widely expected. Latest messages have earth works delayed until next summer and tunnel construction not starting until well into next year, with completion slipping out to 2017 - two years behind repeated assurances for the project by previous governments. Ways need to be found to get the completion date of 2015/16 back on track.

Third, Mayor Brown's estimate that we have until 2030 to get an integrated transport solution in place to avoid unacceptable day-long congestion has to be seriously questioned. There are major bottleneck sections in the motorway network - for example at Mt Wellington and Constellation Drive. NZTA commissioned research in 2007 for the east-west corridor indicated that if a strategic solution is not in place by 2020, the whole route will be gridlocked most working days. Yet there are no firm plans or funding to get the project under way.

The point: The economic and social benefits of the major roading investments Auckland has made over the past 15 years will not be realised until these gaps and weak links in the network are tidied.

I agree with Mayor Brown that the important question we must confront is: how do we raise the revenue to service the infrastructure investment Auckland needs? He suggests some traditional options - congestion, network or road user charges, tolls, and a revisit of a regional fuel surcharge. Fine, many other cities, notably Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in our region have materially improved their quality of life and attractiveness to new skills and investment by using direct funding, especially tolls. If Auckland seriously wants to get on top of its major transport problems, we must do as other cities have - or find a new funding solution that is even better.

It is time for injecting innovative thinking and increased urgency into the funding debate.

I am confident Auckland business and the wider community will overwhelmingly support a financial package to ensure completion of an agreed, ring-fenced group of transport projects by 2020, once they have been given all the information.

The stand outs for the package are the east-west link, the rail tunnel through Britomart and faster progress by NZTA and Auckland Transport to complete the Waterview tunnel, address road bottlenecks and commencing a third harbour crossing.

Aucklanders deserve to be presented with the full story - the desired package, the exact size of the funding gap, practical funding options and the benefits it will bring to people's lives and the economy. It is unacceptable and unfair on Aucklanders to have bits of the problem and solution drip fed with no firm commitments to action.

We urgently need to bring to the table central government and innovative private sector ideas for funding a package of next generation "must do" projects, and give Mayor Brown every encouragement to move past the talk feast with a firm programme of action - this year.

- NZ Herald

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