Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Drop the dreams, we need reality

Transport boss’s ‘statement of imagination’ looks suspiciously like a vision of a shift to the political side

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

In the Auckland Council's brief existence it has inspired enough "visions" to rival the Vatican's 2000-year-old collection. Queen's Wharf, coastal walkways, sewers, volcanic cones - scratch the surface and you'll find a corny vision to go with it.

Auckland Transport chairman Dr Lester Levy has now gone one better. He's presented a "statement of imagination" to his political masters. It's a close-your-eyes, heavenly vision of the perfect Auckland transport system. An imaginary world where "you can turn up at a train station, bus shelter or ferry terminal and go". An Auckland where "your bus is comfortable, clean, air-conditioned, reliable, punctual" and where "a resilient real-time system keeps you advised of any alterations".

As a dream, I can't fault it. It's one every public transport user would share. But having dreams is not what we pay Dr Levy and his cast of thousands of transport professionals to indulge in.

Under the governance system hammered out for the new Auckland Council, it's for the voters and politicians to dream.

It's for Dr Levy to bring these dreams to fruition.

Under the Super City, the business functions of the council were parcelled out into council-controlled organisations, governed by their own "expert" boards.

It was all about stopping politicians interfering in the day-to-day operations of enterprises such as Watercare, the Port Company and Auckland Transport (AT).

The interface between the politicians and the CCOs was through a negotiated statement of intent setting out the ratepayer-owners' requirements for the coming year. The annual process took place on Wednesday, and Dr Levy's "statement of imagination" was tacked to the beginning of AT's statement of intent.

Only councillor Cathy Casey voted against. She said later: "I don't want to sprinkle fairy dust and wave a magic wand to get good public transport. I want a statement of intent rooted in the here and now."

I couldn't agree more.

Why other councillors let it through is a mystery. CCOs are quick to resist any interference from the politicians; why aren't the politicians equally wary of a CCO chairman straying into the political realm?

Perhaps they're not aware that, behind the scenes, Dr Levy has been lobbying hard to get rid of the two councillor appointees on the AT board.

Under the Super City legislation, parliamentarians agreed that, because so much ratepayer money was involved, AT would be the one CCO to have two councillor representatives on its board in the interest of accountability.

Both the councillor board members, Christine Fletcher and Mike Lee, have deep knowledge of the subject. Mrs Fletcher was the Auckland mayor responsible for inaugurating the Britomart Transport Station. Mr Lee was chairman of the Auckland Regional Council when electrification of the urban rail system got the green light. Both have played an integral part in sparking the transport revolution that will, eventually, realise Dr Levy's dream.

But in his "statement of imagination", Dr Levy doesn't have much regard for those who went before him. After setting out his dream scenario, he asks, "is it possible to translate this imagination to reality - yes it is". Then comes the kicker. "But this will not happen if Auckland Transport keeps doing what has been done in the past and slavishly adheres to legacy thinking, decisions and projects."

He ignores the fact that Auckland's transport revolution began well before his arrival on the scene in September 2012. Electrification, integrated ticketing, route restructuring, the city rail tunnel, new trains - all ingredients of Dr Levy's dream - were already in train thanks to legacy thinking.

Dr Levy signalled his intention to produce a statement of imagination in April at a public meeting featuring one-time New York commissioner of transport, Janette Sadik-Khan. To me, it's one statement too many.

His statement is a political manifesto, not the business plan required. It's the perfect handout for Dr Levy, mayoral candidate perhaps. His demands for "realistic funding" to enable his imagination to unfold "into reality" and calls for people to have the "courage to make decisions" make him sound the politician, not the board chairman he's supposed to be.

Dr Levy's been in charge of transport for nearly two years. That's long enough to have stopped having visions and started producing results. That "resilient real-time system" that he - and I - dream of would be a good starting point.

- 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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