With all the furore over how best to complete the western ring route through Mt Albert, and the hoopla surrounding the opening of the Mt Roskill section of this motorway, the good news about increased public transport patronage in Auckland has been overshadowed.
In the nine months to March 2009, patronage on public transport grew by 3.9 million trips compared with the same period in 2008 - a growth of just under 10 per cent.
The 43.6 million trips taken represented the highest number of passengers in a quarter of a century.
Importantly, the figures demonstrated that where money has been spent on creating a decent service, Aucklanders responded positively. Passenger numbers on the the Northern Express rapid transit busway were up 77.5 per cent totalling 1.09 million trips. On the tracks, rail commuter numbers grew by 14.7 per cent to 5.6 million - the highest rail patronage in a nine-month period since records began in 1955.
As Auckland Regional Transport Authority chairman Mark Ford noted, "to put it simply, where there has been investment, there has been growth on rail and bus". These were 3.7 million trips that were not taken in a private car on our congested roads. Yet our masters still have difficulty grasping the obvious message. Provide decent, reliable public transport and people will use it. At both local and central government level, the penny doesn't seem to have dropped.
Moaning eastern suburbs motorists have already bullied Auckland City into letting cars with just two people in them use the dedicated bus lanes along Tamaki Drive for a so-called "trial period" this year - a trial to cost $355,000. Up the hill on Remuera Rd, motorists have been complaining about 20-minute delays because of the bus lane along that busy thoroughfare. Instead of suggesting that motorists use their heads and jump aboard a bus, transport committee chairman Ken Baguley wants to let motorists use, and no doubt clog up, parts of the busway instead.
If the council's commitment is so half-hearted to the concept of dedicated bus lanes, what hope is there for the $43 million Central Connector busway from Britomart along Symonds St and across Grafton Bridge to Newmarket? What a total waste of money and vision, if, once completed, it's handed back to complaining car drivers.
Equally discouraging is the new Government's lurch away from public transport projects in favour of highway building. Caught in this mire of changing priorities is Auckland's planned $145 million-plus integrated ticketing project which aims to boost public transport patronage further by simplifying the ticketing process for travellers.
Once in place, passengers will pay just one fare at the beginning of their journey, no matter how many modes of transport they use.
Land Transport New Zealand was involved with ARTA officials in designing the system from the beginning. A condition of the government agency's support was that the system could be used subsequently in Wellington and Christchurch. The tender documents reflected this requirement and last October the agency approved its 60 per cent share of the funding. In the meantime, ARTA held an international tender process and from a short list of three, chose, it is understood, the French company Thales as its preferred customer. Failed Wellington applicant Infratil is understood to have been lobbying ever since for a recount.
The Auckland Regional Council approved ARTA's choice, but LTNZ's replacement, the NZ Transport Agency, has been "reviewing" the choice ever since. A government source says the Transport Agency is worried the Auckland model will not be suitable to use elsewhere in the country after all. But given the government agency was involved in every stage of the design through to approving the wording of the tender documents, and agreed in October to fund its share of costs, the true obstacle seems to be political will, rather than shortcomings of design.
Also holding up progress on this and other public transport initiatives is the huge question mark over local funding after the Government's decision to scrap the regional fuel tax that was going to underpin the cost of integrated ticketing, new rail station buildings and other Auckland public transport projects.
More than six months after being elected, the Government has given no indications what alternative funding sources it has in mind to replace the regional fuel tax. Until it does, the great leap forward in public transport that's reflected in the latest figures risks being declared a no jump.By Brian Rudman Email Brian