Why not let Chinese companies fast track New Zealand's infrastructure needs?

Winston Peters might not be too happy but God knows Aucklanders need a circuit breaker.

Traffic in the past few weeks has been horrible. The city has been in gridlock for all sorts of allegedly exceptional reasons.

Sorry, commuters, but the students are back at university ... a popular British singer was performing at Mt Smart Stadium ... it rained a lot and, ironically, there is a lot of infrastructure work going on.


The bad news is the work - whether it is the Waterview Tunnel, the underground city rail link or the endless widening of small sections on the Southern Motorway - isn't going to solve our traffic problems.

It's not even going to come close.

Auckland's population is growing by nearly 50,000 a year. According to Statistics NZ it will hit two million by 2033 but that seems conservative and based on immigration rates that have already been surpassed.

Last week the Productivity Commission dropped its 500 page report on urban planning.

The commission's charts show traffic congestion actually improved slightly in Auckland between 2003 and 2012 but that it has been on the rise for the past five years - hardly surprising given the population growth.

All-day traffic - as opposed to the morning rush - is where traffic flow has really deteriorated.

As most Auckland drivers already know, the rush hour is stretching further and further in both directions of the day. Abnormally bad traffic is becoming the norm.

The commission highlights a 2013 study estimating road congestion is costing Auckland as much as $1.25 billion a year.


Based on the congestion charts, that cost is likely to have risen sharply in the past four years.

Business lobby groups like the Employers and Manufacturers Association are hot on this and have lobbied local and central Government on infrastructure spending - with some success.

For the wider public it's easy to write the economic costs off as a dent in corporate profits, a worry for big business.

But spare a thought for all the tradespeople, owner operators, contractors and small business people in this town.

The extra hours they spend stuck in their van or ute each week is money straight out of their pockets.

It's also extending the time it takes to complete their work, adding costs to renovations and, more importantly, vital new home building.

It's a vicious circle.

The Productivity Commission highlighted planning flaws, funding restraints and New Zealand's low use of public transport as contributing factors. It recommended councils were given better funding options - including the capacity to raise more debt or the means to apply congestion charges and tolls.

The extra hours tradies spend stuck in their van or ute each week is money straight out of their pockets.

It also backed Mayor Phil Goff's idea for targeted rates on new housing developments to fund the infrastructure - including roads - which they will require.

This is all good stuff, but good for incremental gains at best.

We need to think much bigger to resolve the problem. And if we really want to get there, let's look to China.

Our close economic buddies have built more roads and railways in the past decade than New Zealand has in its history.

Consider Hamilton and Tianjin - satellite cities to Auckland and Beijing respectively, and both roughly 130km from the larger metropolis.

Getting to Tianjin from Beijing by bullet train takes 33 minutes.

Imagine that kind of transport link running north and south of Auckland. Imagine the housing solutions it would create.

Opening up Northland, by road or rail, would also change the game. We could move the port out of Auckland's CBD and create new wealth for one of the country's poorest regions.

In Beijing the Government has a vision for a Chinese-led trade corridor (called one belt, one road) running from Europe through the old Silk Road trade route to China and down through South East Asia all the way to little old New Zealand.

That vision involves investment in infrastructure through the region to boost trade - which obviously benefits China.

It's hard to see why we wouldn't want to be on the radar for some of that investment.

The real problem is that Chinese construction companies aren't really as keen to come here and build our roads and railways as Winston Peters fears.

There are plenty of closer Asian nations with terrible infrastructure that offer more dramatic economic benefits for investment. New Zealand isn't low-hanging fruit in the scheme of things.

But from a funding point of view there is potential.

The big Chinese banks are also looking to get on board with Beijing's vision and could be private partners in New Zealand infrastructure.

China Construction Bank's local deputy chief Lloyd Cartwright recently told the Herald the bank, the world's second biggest, wants to become more involved in funding New Zealand infrastructure.

We'll help our case for Chinese investment in infrastructure if we can put a clearer structure in place for private public partnerships.

Chinese companies have to be able to see a return on their investment, but the beauty is they are prepared to take a long-term view - much longer than many Kiwi investors and ratepayers.

We need to keep on with the incremental stuff. Let's keep building cycle-ways and pushing public transport.

Many Aucklanders don't have fixed ideological views on the issue; they just want the issue fixed.

It's time to admit we could use some outside help.