One of seven Government "roads of national significance", a $2.3 billion highway north of Auckland, has been placed at the bottom of a list of regional transport priorities.
The proposed 34km four-lane link between Puhoi and Wellsford was listed behind 14 other transport projects in a staff report to the Auckland Regional Transport Committee, which is working on a blueprint to keep the region moving through the next 30 years.
Top of the list is the $1 billion rail electrification project, for which the Government has yet to allocate money for new trains, followed by a central Auckland rail tunnel and integrated public transport ticketing.
The list - which measures projects against eight factors including economic development, urgency, safety and integrated transport and land use - gives the Puhoi-Wellsford road a score of 11 out of 40, against 27 for rail electrification.
Rodney District mayor Penny Webster sees it as part of campaign by the regional committee, which includes representatives of transport user groups as well as Auckland's eight territorial councils, to kill off the road.
"They are trying to limit money spent on roads north of Auckland," she said.
Mrs Webster said six people had been killed this year on the existing Puhoi-Wellsford road, and urgent improvements were needed to make it safer.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce has also questioned the gap between national and regional priorities.
"It is one of the challenges for the new Auckland City and councillors to make sure they represent the whole city," he told the Herald after turning the symbolic first sod for a $98 million rail link for 2km between the main trunk and central Manukau.
"On one hand it is very important that we have public transport in the central area, but we also need transport links to the Rodneys and Franklins of the world," he said.
"There is also the question of inter-regional links - and it's not really for Auckland to say we don't give a damn about that."
The proposed road has been dubbed by Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee as a "holiday highway" being contemplated in defiance of more immediate needs of Aucklanders struggling to move freely within their region.
But regional transport committee chairwoman Christine Rose said yesterday that the priorities list was compiled by officers measuring projects against rigorous criteria, and denied it was politically motivated.
It was prepared in the absence of any known benefit-cost assessments of the Puhoi-Wellsford project by the Government's Transport Agency, which had yet to decide whether the road would be based on an existing alignment or built along a new corridor.
"[Unlike] the regional priorities that have been objectively identified and refined through the years, it hasn't been on the table and hasn't been assessed as delivering the best benefits, given its costs," Ms Rose said.
"So we are having to work around something that takes funding from other identified priorities that have been through robust processes."
At the same time as the Transport Agency was preparing to spend $103 million on investigations and property purchases on such an "ill-developed" project, Aucklanders were still waiting for the Government to allocate money for electric trains against an arbitrary funding cap.
Ms Rose denied her committee was ignoring outlying districts, and said state highways were siphoning money away from rural roads, including 700km of unsealed stretches through Rodney District for which no Government subsidies were available this year for upgrading.
She had also heard an Invercargill councillor complaining on radio about a lack of money for rural Southland roads "because we are swallowing it up on our motorways - Auckland is getting the blame for bleeding the rest of the country dry".
Papakura representative Caroline Conroy told the regional committee last week that the priority list was not unbalanced, noting that western ring route and the Auckland-Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative shared fourth place as predominantly roading projects.
"Hopefully the minister will get the message," she said.
"We are not talking about roads or rail, we are talking about transport and he needs to consider the needs of the Auckland region when he writes his Government policy statement."
1. Rail electrification
2. Central Auckland rail tunnel
3. Public transport integrated ticketing
4= Western ring route
4= Auckland-Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative
6= Airport rail loop
6= Panmure-Botany-Manukau City centre rapid or quality transit network (dedicated busway or light rail, or priority lanes on roads)