Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Buses have had free ride

Commercial tourist operators have free access to Mt Eden. Photo / Greg Bowker
Commercial tourist operators have free access to Mt Eden. Photo / Greg Bowker

Commercial bus operators would have been smarter not to kick up a storm over the temporary closure of the Mt Eden summit road for pre-Rugby World Cup maintenance.

Their complaints have highlighted the free ride they enjoy at ratepayers' expense on the slopes of the Auckland tourist magnet.

Council officials have assured the bus companies the road will reopen on August 27.

But there's a delightful sting in the tail from Auckland Council parks manager Ian Maxwell, who says the possibility of a ban is likely to resurface next year after the passing of legislation providing for Maori co-governance of the volcanic cones.

My question is: Why wait so long? The cone's local guardians, the Friends of Maungawhau, have for years been arguing the case for charging commercial users. Acting chairman Kit Howden is disappointed the temporary closure will not be made permanent or that commercial operators will not be charged for a permit to cart World Cup tourists up and down the mountain.

"Surely if the buses are going to use it, they could put 20 or 50 cents per passenger back into the mountain."

In February Mr Howden expressed outrage at the absence of any plans to cope with the influx of World Cup tourists on the mountain.

Hundreds of millions were being spent on rebuilding Eden Park and upgrading Queens Wharf and Wynyard Quarter for tourists, he said, but when it came to the city's single most popular attraction, one overlooking Eden Park, not a penny of spending was planned.

Since his outburst, Mr Howden says more upkeep has been done on the mountain than was done in 10 years under the old Auckland City Council, so he doesn't want to knock the new council. But it's still not much.

In a letter to one of the bus operators, the council's manager of regional and specialist parks, Mace Ward, outlined what is being done.

He listed replacement of the old cattle grids - redundant since the removal of cattle - with asphalt speed humps, and some "additional road marking to emphasise the road is also a popular pedestrian zone".

As well, there would be a tidy-up of the kiosk building and grounds, and replanting of 16 planter troughs with specimen trees and native plants.

Instead of just tarting up the outside of the old kiosk, it would have made sense to open it as a tourist information centre. But obviously there was no money, from the council, or the bus operators, for that.

Mr Mace ends his letter by warning bus operators that after the World Cup "we still need to work with the tourist operators regarding the role buses have to play on Maungawhau-Mt Eden and at other sites".

Why is made clear earlier in the letter. A traffic study this year showed that "even when the site is not busy there are safety issues between vehicles and pedestrians ... "

He says, "The summit road is more of a narrow and tight sealed track than a road, which struggles to sustain the traffic it experiences."

Cycles, prams, joggers and pedestrians had to share the space with buses and when the road is "typically gridlocked" it "leads to a spoiled experience for everybody".

The Friends have been arguing this for years, concerned not only about the spoiled visitor experience, but the damage the huge buses do to the mountain.

The solution's not hard. There's plenty of open space suitable for bus parking next to the kiosk. As Mr Mace points out, at the moment buses drop passengers below the roadworks, and they are walk the 150m uphill to the summit. None seems to have died, or been rushed to hospital.

For most travellers, it will be a pleasant break from being cooped up in a tour bus. For the infirm, no doubt provision could be made for a road train vehicle, paid for by permit fees that bus-owners using the parking lot will have to pay.

The buses have had a free ride up Maungawhau for long enough. It's time they shared the limited space with local pedestrians - and the operators shared a little of their ticket take for the upkeep of the resource they've been milking for free.

- NZ Herald

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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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