Unless Greater Auckland's transport institutions get around the table and learn to work constructively together, public transport service, quantity and quality issues will continue to plague the region.

After several years of idealistic talk about how regional passenger transport governance might be integrated, and whether competition could deliver benefits, it is time for pragmatic institutional solutions that will ensure reliable bus, ferry and train services.

Apart from the odd problem with dotterels, the North Shore busway project is generally regarded as a success. The Minister of Transport has turned the first sod and the money is in the bank for a dedicated high-speed bus corridor and several expensive stations built alongside State Highway One.


But behind the scenes lurk significant problems. Unless North Shore City implements substantial bus-priority lanes along key city roads, the busway could be empty of buses when it opens in three years.

Without priority lanes to gain access to the busway, full feeder buses will be stuck in queues of congested general traffic. This is a local co-ordination problem that I hope will be managed by the North Shore City Council. But other problems are outside its control.

For example, last month the Auckland City Council decided it did not want North Shore bus diesel fumes in Queen St, and unilaterally realigned what is known as the central transport corridor to run along Quay St, up Anzac St and into Lower Symonds St.

The Auckland City Council's decision highlights the lack of integration between city councils in developing a regional service. The decision rang alarm bells with the project funder, Infrastructure Auckland, which made grant money available based on route and patronage expectations.

Funding for the busway had been justified by forecasts which assumed busway trunk services would gain access to the Auckland city centre up Queen St, along Wellesley St and so on through to Newmarket. This problem remains unresolved.

As well as infrastructure project integration and co-ordination problems, there are bus service problems. The Auckland Regional Council has the duty of negotiating service contracts with private bus operators who will provide the services along publicly owned bus lane and busway corridors. Such contracts are deemed commercial if they are sufficiently lucrative, and non-commercial if they need a regional council subsidy.

The tendency for operators to "cream skim" and take commercial routes only is at odds with the North Shore City Council's desire to ensure a uniform level of service for whole areas of the city.

The slogan runs, "The busway is as near as your bus stop". This vision of service provision can be delivered only when operators are required to provide integrated services for whole areas of the city, using a mix of commercial and non-commercial routes.

There are risks with contracts for highly patronised services on the $200 million busway. For example, unless contracts are tight and revenues subject to disclosure, or unless there is very effective competition, operators will be laughing all the way to the bank.

And unless contracts are able to specify service levels down to how many people can be permitted to stand, what standard the buses should be cleaned to, what frequency of service is required, what integrated fares must be available to interconnect with ferry and train services and so on, service provision on the busway will not be satisfactory.

Under present legislation, the regional council is simply the purchaser of passenger transport services. It is consulting the public over its transport rate, which will be used to buy transport services from bus, ferry and train operators.

The contract process is regulated by the Transport Services Licensing Act, which was enacted at a time of great faith in the ability of competition and the market to deliver economic efficiencies.

I am advised this act means that the regional council negotiates with bus operators on behalf of the public with one hand tied behind its back. In the region one dominant operator provides most bus and ferry services. There is limited competition.

It is like a Telecom in the telecommunications industry; a regulator was necessary. Much stronger regulatory powers are crucial in Auckland's passenger transport market. The law needs to be changed.

Commuters in other major cities around the world benefit from properly regulated passenger transport services delivered by private-sector operators. Operators compete for franchises to provide services within specific geographical areas. This enables competition by benchmark comparison, and through competitive bidding.

Defined service levels are monitored for quality. Penalties are payable for non-compliance. In many cities, farebox revenues are disclosed to ensure subsidy fairness. The emphasis is on providing integrated and reliable services.

There is pressure from the Auckland City Council to subsume all aspects of public transport governance, regulation and management into a corporate structure, such as the Auckland Region Transport Network (Artnl) local authority trading enterprise. But this pressure does not appreciate the different visions across the region's cities, and does not appreciate the difference between network governance and service management needs.

The Waitakere City Council is in the middle of a visionary land use planning project which envisages medium and high-density development at stations along the rail corridor that connects it with Auckland City.

But, as for North Shore's busway corridor, the utility of Waitakere City's rail corridor will depend on how well it meets the needs of those who do not live within walking distance of it.

Rail stations will need to be supplied with commuters using local bus feeder services. These bus services will need to be integrated and interconnected with train services.

The region is in the midst of a series of workshops to agree on a regional passenger transport governance structure. At present the regional council is responsible for rating and funding passenger transport services. City councils are building different and isolated public transport infrastructure.

The need is to ensure integration, co-ordination and interconnection, and operator contracts need to be stiffened. Councils need to work together now. A joint committee appears to be a pragmatic option.

* Joel Cayford chairs the North Shore busway project and the North Shore City Council's works and environment committee.