Transport a bandwagon everyone's happy to ride

By Mathew Dearnaley

Transport is a beneficiary this election season of a salvationist zeal for infrastructure spending to maintain the country's money-go-round against global economic contractions.

"We're all Keynesians now," was one National MP's quip to an Auckland regional councillor seeking a commitment to rail electrification from the party of free enterprise.

The reference was to a growing acceptance across the political spectrum of a need for Governments to be more interventionist in tough times, in line with British economist John Maynard Keynes' pump-priming prescription for recovery from the Great Depression and subsequent world war.

National is hitching its transport policy to the infrastructure wagon, despite being accused of a lack of spending on the sector through the 1990s, while Labour justifies its hefty rail and busway investments as partial catch-up on a highway construction boom already in progress.

But transport is a voracious beast, forever demanding more investment, even as the Government claims to have boosted its share of gross national product to 2.15 per cent - against 1 per cent in 1999 and an OECD average of 1.3 per cent.

Although National made an early election commitment to leap-frog that by borrowing $4.5 billion for extra infrastructure over the next six years, it sliced off $800 million after the Government forecast a decade of Budget deficits.

Reserving $1.5 billion for broadband leaves just $2.2 billion extra for transport and other infrastructure, almost a quarter of which the party has allocated for its first "road of national significance", the partly built Waikato Expressway.

Even then, National's promise of $790 million over 10 years for bypasses around Rangiriri, Huntly and Hamilton leaves big gaps elsewhere on the expressway - past Ngaruawahia, Cambridge and Te Rapa.

Neither do the party's infrastructure policy documents mention public transport, a matter of concern to Auckland Regional Council in its struggle against paralysis by car.

Party leader John Keys told truck operators he made "no apologies for the fact roading will play a significant part in National's transport plans.

"National knows economic growth and demand for efficient road transport are linked," he said, before promising to overhaul the Resource Management Act in his first 100 days in office to hasten resource consents for priority projects.

Transport spokesman Maurice Williamson insists National will honour commitments to electrify rail between Papakura and Swanson - despite his opposition to a regional fuel tax to pay for that, and a preference for targeted infrastructure bonds.

That is in contrast to National's pre-2005 opposition to electric trains.

But Mr Williamson, whose advocacy of road tolls of $3 to $5 appears to have stymied his return to the transport portfolio, has poured cold water on other rail investment hopes such as the central Auckland loop tunnel backed by Labour and the Greens.

Although claiming not to rule these out, he told a Campaign for Better Transport rally to be "very, very careful" about such plans "because rail is a huge investment relative to even quite large volumes of patronage".

"Buses run on roads, and a proper roading network with dedicated bus lanes in my view is way, way more justified," he added.

Labour is not shying away from roads either, despite fears about the future affordability of running private cars for everyday use, and the shrinking availability of urban space.

Although the Government has set a target of halving per capita greenhouse gas emissions from domestic transport by 2040 it has issued a policy statement outlining five times more state spending on roads than on public transport in a land transport budget of $8.2 billion over three years from next July.

Neither was Labour coy about firing the starting pistol this month on $415 million of new Auckland motorway projects, the replacement Newmarket Viaduct and the Hobsonville leg of the western ring route.

But extra to the land transport fund, the Government envisages about $2 billion in rail investments in the next five years, half to upgrade the national tracks and rolling stock after the $690 million KiwiRail buyback.

The rest covers the Government's half-share of the $1 billion Auckland electrification project, courtesy of the new fuel tax, and third-generation electric trains for Wellington.

Both main parties are considering public private partnerships (PPPs) to stretch the transport budget, and an associated possibility of road tolls.

But Mr Key promises the most PPP action, starting with changes to the 2003 Land Transport Management Act to make it easier to channel private funds into transport projects.

That has raised alarm bells with Transport Minister Annette King, who is awaiting advice from officials on whether a PPP would be feasible for building Auckland's $1.89 billion-$2.14 billion Waterview motorway tunnels.

Although Mr Key says National would not impose road tolls with no free alternative routes, Ms King recalls his party's opposition to the inclusion of that restriction in the legislation.

She accuses it of a secret agenda to abolish the free route requirement.

The Green Party also wants more infrastructure spending, but on public transport only. It says "dead-end" spending on new motorways will hinder economy recovery by increasing dependence on costly imported oil.

It wants unemployed tradespeople hired to build more state houses close to improved rail and bus services, thinking not dissimilar to that of Act leader Rodney Hide in his plea for better co-ordination between land use and transport planning.

- NZ Herald

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