As public transport’s torch bearer, Len Brown can’t let budget cuts threaten the one thing vital to city’s future
Mayor Len Brown has carefully avoided this moment the whole of his first term, but sometime over the next 12 months, he's going to have to stand up and be counted.
Having jumped aboard the public transport revolution that had already left the station, and ridden it to victory to become first mayor of the new Super City, Mr Brown is now going to have to prove himself a true believer. It's crunch time.
Over the next 12 months, the mayor and council have to trim back the wish list that is the city's proposed long-term plan budget for 2015-2016. And the only item big enough to provide the massive savings required is the transport budget.
The current LTP contains the assorted wish lists of the various legacy councils that became part of the Super City. Added up, the proposed capital expenditure would be $21 billion, which would equate to an average annual rates increase of 4.9 per cent from 2015/16 for the next decade. The problem is, Mr Brown was re-elected on a pledge to hold rates rises to 2.5 per cent.
Being one of the unfortunates who has faced annual rate increases of 10 per cent for each of the past three years, regardless of mayoral promises, I'd be more than happy with a 4.9 per cent increase. But Mr Brown seems stuck on 2.5 per cent and to achieve that, he'll need to lop $2.8 billion from the existing budget.
In the documents circulated to councillors this week, there were all sorts of cuts suggested such as trimming a few million dollars here and there by cutting back library hours, mowing parks less and the like. But that sort of tinkering will achieve little but upset myriads of voters for little real return.
As one document highlights, of $21 billion proposed capital expenditure, 50 per cent is for transport, 23 per cent is water supply and wastewater. Well back on 10 per cent is parks, lifestyle and community. As far as rate savings are concerned, we're told "water and wastewater are funded by user charges so do not impact on the rates".
So it seems the transport budget is where the big savings will have to be made. In his first term, Mr Brown was very fleet of foot, a passionate advocate of public transport, including the vital City Rail Link, but also a supporter of the new roads and highways that the well-established road lobby demand.
Now it's time for Mr Brown to show his true colours. In the "transforming Auckland" notes to councillors, they're told "For Auckland to become the world's most liveable city" - which we all know is one of the mayor's slogans - "far higher levels of public transport use and a much higher quality system is required. The Auckland Plan sets a target of doubling public transport boardings to 140 million by 2022."
The message is clear: if money is to be rationed, then after 60 or more years of gorging at the public teat, it's time for Mr Brown to finally wean the road hogs and give public transport a belated turn.
But he seems to be hanging on the vain hope this Government, or the next, will let him levy local road-user charges, tolls or congestion charges to help fund the road cost blowouts. He's even revived the road-user dominated Consensus Building Group which provided moral support for congestion charging last year under a new name - the Independent Advisory Body. For all the good it's done, the mayor could save a few dollars and disband the committee.
Unfortunately, Labour's transport spokesman, Phil Twyford, gave the mayor a straw to grasp this year when he endorsed an extra charge for Auckland road users. If I were Mr Brown, I wouldn't shape my budget around this promise. Even if Labour did surprise us all and head the next Government, their Green allies are unlikely to back the proposal.
Of course, the $2.8 billion blip in Auckland Council's 10-year budget is nothing compared to the $12 billion to $15 billion shortfall still to be addressed in Auckland Transport's proposed 30-year "integrated transport programme".
This is the grand plan which, if followed to the letter, will leave the next generation of Aucklanders stuck in worse traffic jams than we have now. By 2041, volume/capacity levels on most of our arterial roads will exceed 100 per cent. The mayor has painted himself the public transport champion. It's now time to put up.