Of the $46 million of Government spending for Northland announced last week, the most significant for the long-term future of our region was the $500,000 for a business case looking at a rail upgrade for Northland and a new line to Northport.
As is proving standard with this Government, they're keen on getting advice before making decisions. Work on Northland's rail won't start tomorrow.
This approach has some objective merit, but it's also part of a strategy that allows the three parties ― Labour, NZ First and the Greens ― to move ahead together, with the political windfall (or fallout) for each party negotiated along the way.
Read more: Vaughan Gunson: Ban single-use plastic bags now, then move on to the other bad boys of the plastic world
Vaughan Gunson: Time for rallies, nationwide strikes to bring back fairness in society
Vaughan Gunson: Talk of compulsory te reo Māori got me thinking
What was curious about the announcement last week was the absence of the Green Party. You'd think they would be all over any proposed rail upgrade.
Instead, it was NZ First that was most visible alongside the Prime Minister.
The currently low polling party might need Shane Jones, or even Winston Peters again, to win one of Northland's seats to stay in Parliament and remain a potential coalition partner for Labour.
I suspect any work on a rail upgrade and go ahead for new spur line to Northport will be timed to have maximum impact for NZ First leading up to the 2020 general election.
This political strategy explains the emphasis given to the economic, rather than environmental, impact of investing in rail. This plays to NZ First's hoped-for political appeal, not the Greens.
Labour's Phil Twyford and Minister for Transport, reinforced the economic focus by talking about rail unlocking Northland's export potential.
Dr Shane Reti and the National Party make similar arguments when advocating for a four-lane highway between Wellsford and Whangarei. Same rhetoric, different means.
It will be interesting to see whether National keeps pushing the four-lane superhighway, thus conceding to NZ First all the political kudos for the popular advancement of rail. It could be that Northland's 21st-century transport opportunities are linked to the survival of Winston Peter's party.
Personally, I hope the future of rail in Northland doesn't stand or fall with the political fortunes of one party.
Let's hope the business case is not geared towards short-term expediency and that the Greens, for one, have substantial input into its terms of reference.
In looking at the viability of rail, you have to factor in likely peak oil scenarios over the coming decades. Oil prices will be volatile, spiking and then falling back down again, but with the general trend always upwards, with some analysts predicting that around 2030 supply will decrease dramatically.
In the not too distant future, rail looks like the only option.
But even right now, the case for rail would be enhanced if mega-trucks were removed from our roads.
That policy decision, sensible on so many levels (reducing roading costs, carbon emissions, congestion and fatalities) would tip the balance immediately towards rail and away from road freight.
It's this kind of thinking that needs to be included in the business case. The terms of reference, in fact, should be made public before any work commences, so that it's open to being contested and potentially refined.