One of the many things the recent catastrophic weather events have laid bare is the vulnerability of New Zealand’s infrastructure.
Many of our transport, water, communications and other networks were dealt a blow they simply couldn’t withstand, and it’s become clear a massive infrastructure resilience catch-up effort is required.
But resilience is just one chapter in the bigger story of an infrastructure system that is not fit for purpose. Sustained under-investment has generated an enormous infrastructure deficit, and addressing it is one of the most important challenges our nation will face over the coming decades.
We need our leaders to respond with real urgency, and we need robust, informed decision-making.
There are multiple once-in-a-generation decisions to be made, and those at the helm need to get them right.
What we’ve seen to date gives us little confidence that this will happen. All too often, we see infrastructure decisions made on the basis of politics and pet projects, rather than evidence-based analysis and a focus on the outcomes that our cities and regions need.
Few voices are being heard that challenge the orthodoxy with compelling alternative arguments. This is deeply concerning to the business community and should be of concern to all New Zealanders.
The Northern Infrastructure Forum has been formed to help address this vacuum in leadership. It brings together a range of businesses and industry groups that design, build, own and utilise New Zealand’s infrastructure. They know what high-quality infrastructure can contribute to our productivity and liveability, and they want to see the potential realised. Our role will be to provide high-quality, independent analysis, shaped by international best practices. The objective is to help lift the standard of infrastructure policy-making in New Zealand and drive a world-class infrastructure programme.
The upper North Island is the logical focal point, given the concentration of people and economic activity, and the increasing interdependency and opportunity across cities and regions.
We will focus predominantly, but not exclusively, on transport infrastructure, and here are five burning issues we will look to tackle.
The state highway network
It’s no coincidence that the fully upgraded section of State Highway 1 North (Auckland-Puhoi) stood up well to record rainfalls, while the likes of Dome Valley and the Brynderwyns (where upgrades are still a long way off) were severely compromised. Nor is it a coincidence that the number of deaths and serious injuries has tumbled since the new road was built, as it has on the Waikato Expressway.
What would the wider benefits be to the economy and society — through increased productivity, road safety, and resilience — if population centres and supply chains across the upper North Island were joined up by highways of the same quality? The benefits need to be quantified and used to guide a comprehensive state highway upgrade programme.
Congestion is crippling Auckland, and centres like Tauranga are fast following suit. How are the international cities we compare ourselves with dealing with the problem? How do they balance the need for road capacity, public transport and walking and cycling, to ensure they’re able to attract and retain talented people in an increasingly competitive global market? Congestion charging is a very difficult sell during a cost of living crisis, but sooner or later it has to be part of the mix. How, when and where should we be introducing it?
Additional harbour crossing
Our forum will typically focus on principles rather than projects, but the strategic importance of the next Waitematā Harbour Crossing means that it needs special treatment. The Government is holding up its current set of options as “congestion-busting”, but everything we’ve seen previously suggests that the de-congestion benefits will be minimal, at best. Is that a good enough return on what’s likely to be the biggest single transport infrastructure spend in New Zealand’s history? What would the cost be of an option that could truly shift the dial on congestion, and are we willing to go there? These questions need to be asked as part of an approach that has bipartisan support.
Reducing transport emissions
The approach to reducing transport emissions needs to be much smarter — it can’t just be about getting people out of cars. How are other countries grappling with the problem, and what can we learn from them? In particular, what do we need to be doing now to prepare for massive growth in the electric vehicle fleet (which is surely where the greatest opportunity lies to make progress on emissions reduction)?
Funding and financing
Whether it’s roads, rail lines or cycling facilities, the scale of what is needed means we need to find new ways to pay. In particular, we need to move away from pay-as-you-go funding (which is like making extensions to a house one room at a time) to a scenario where we borrow significantly more for truly transformational solutions, and pay debt back inter-generationally.
We also need to be much more open to the opportunities private capital can provide for delivering high-quality infrastructure that we otherwise couldn’t afford. Now is the time to let go of ideological opposition to public-private partnerships, and look at how they’ve been used well around the world, by governments of all persuasions.
If you’re reading these pages, it means you care about infrastructure as much as we do. We look forward to being part of the debate with you.
Simon Bridges is chairman of the Northern Infrastructure Forum and CEO of the Auckland Business Chamber.
- The Auckland Business Chamber is an advertising sponsor of the Herald’s Project Auckland report.
- The Northern Infrastructure Forum members are Auckland Business Chamber (convenor), EMA, Ports of Auckland, Wilson Parking, Civil Contractors NZ, Stantec, AA, National Road Carriers (Inc) and Maven.