Auckland Council under-spent its budget on new transport projects by $268 million in the first year of a regional fuel tax, which was introduced to boost spending on traffic congestion.
Aucklanders were repeatedly reminded in their rates notices of a $1.025 billion budget for transport projects, but when the last financial year wrapped up just $757m was spent.
The shortfall has been played down by a spokesman for Mayor Phil Goff, who introduced a regional fuel tax of 11.5 cents a litre at the pump as a key plank in his 10-year "Build-it Budget" to address underinvestment in transport.
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The spokesman said the multi-year nature of major infrastructure work means it is not uncommon for there to be under and over-spends in any 12-month window.
Aucklanders want to see outcomes from investment in transport over 10 years and are less interested in when the money is spent, he said.
Automobile Association principal adviser for infrastructure Barney Irvine said the result was a kick in the guts for Auckland motorists, a view shared by councillor Daniel Newman who said every last cent of the petrol tax should be going to shovel-ready projects.
The $268m shortfall came about because Auckland Transport (AT) spent $665 on new transport projects against a budget of $744m, the council budgeted $235m for the City Rail Link and spent $92m, and a $46m budget from a new Government investment vehicle for infrastructure projects never materialised.
AT's 2019 accounts show motorists were short-changed on the roading budget by $150m. The council-controlled organisation budgeted $442m for new roads and spent $290m.
On a positive note, AT boosted spending on public transport from a budget of $103 million to $169m. Work started on the long-planned $1.4b Eastern Busway and the Puhinui Station interchange.
AT chief executive Shane Ellison said the last financial year was the start of a new direction in terms of prioritising capital projects with the 10-year budget, regional fuel tax and changes to central government policies and plans.
"That can take some time to adjust to and we were pretty pleased to be able to deliver 90 per cent of our capital programme," he said.
Ellison said variations to the budgets for public transport and roading - which includes cycleways and road safety - mostly related to timing.
AT under spent on new cycleways, but is making good progress this year on Karangahape Rd, Victoria St, New Lynn to Avondale and other cycleways. Two big roading projects that did not get started, a $24 million upgrade of Lincoln Rd and the Matakana Link Rd, were delayed to respond to community feedback and are now progressing well, he said.
Two roads to cope with growth - Murphys Rd in Flat Bush and the long-awaited Medallion Link Drive in Albany - were unable to get started last year but are now underway.
Ellison said the public transport overspend came about by bringing forward spending on a number of projects, including a control system for trains, Northern Busway upgrades and the race against the clock on downtown projects for the America's Cup.
A number of projects were also completed from the previous year, including rail crossing and rail station upgrades, the Albany Station park and ride and removing obstacles for double-decker buses on Dominion Rd.
Goff's spokesman said AT is consistently spending around 90 per cent of its capital budget each year, and the annual capital spend is trending upwards.
AT is forecasting this year's capital expenditure to be around 20 per cent higher than last year, indicating progress is being made to deliver infrastructure plans for Auckland, he said.
"Given that the council and government's infrastructure programme for Auckland involves $29 billion of investment over a 10-year timeframe, the point in the project life cycle at which money is spent matters less than the outcomes of that investment and the successful delivery of the projects.
"That's what Aucklanders want and what we're focused on delivering," the spokesman said.
Council's group chief financial officer Matthew Walker said the $235m budget for the City Rail Link was based on the "best information" from City Rail Link Ltd at the time budgets were set some months before the start of the financial year.
Council ended up spending $92m on the 3.4km underground rail project, $143m below the budget.
"It is not uncommon with projects of this size for the timing of expenditure to vary between financial years. While CRLL experienced a period of expenditure being less than budget last financial year, we understand that expenditure is likely be in line with the budget this financial year," Walker said.
CRLL chief executive Dr Sean Sweeney said the $470m budget for the 2019 year ($235m each for council and the Crown) was based on the main contract for the tunnels being awarded in May 2018, but this was delayed until July 2019 for a number of reasons, including Fletchers withdrawing from the tender process.
He said the work programme is accelerating and this year's spending is likely to exceed the budget. The CRL is still on track to be completed in 2024, Sweeney said.
Irvine said the council underspend was a disappointing result.
"It's not clear to us how much of it is a case of the Transport Agency failing to stump up with its share towards transport projects in Auckland and how much of it is a problem at AT's end.
"This is not how the Auckland regional fuel tax was supposed to work," Irvine said.
Newman said council is under-spending its transport budget every year.
"We are simply not spending the money we raise ... it is quite dishonest," said Newman.
He said Aucklanders are being short-changed through their rates and at the petrol pump "where every last cent should be going to shovels in the ground".
The combined spending by the NZ Transport Agency and AT on transport projects in Auckland during the 2018-2019 financial year was $1.63b, of which NZTA's contribution was $1.16b. NZTA fully funds state highways and provides subsidies to most AT projects through the National Land Transport Fund.
Not surprisingly, the biggest spend-up by NZTA was $233m on SH1 improvements on the Southern and Northern motorways. The agency also spent $35.3m on the east-west highway through Auckland's industrial belt that the Government wants scaled back for a lower-cost option. Most of this cost was for a property purchase it is obliged to make along the route of the project.
NZTA also spent $10.3m preparing a proposal for light rail, or modern-day trams. The agency and a New Zealand Super Fund-led proposal are competing to deliver the project for the Government, which is expected to make a decision next month.
The Government has not said how the multi-billion dollar project will be funded, but Auckland ratepayers will not bear the cost.