It was a big day for transport last Thursday. Auckland Transport’s report to an Auckland Council meeting was in parts cheering, parts farcical and parts deeply disturbing. The council itself decided to try to seize control of transport planning from the Government.
And while it was doing that, 40 minutes down the motorway at a road construction site in Drury, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Transport Minister David Parker were announcing their transport spending priorities for the next three years.
The best news in their new Government Policy Statement (GPS) is that they will upgrade the bus priority route now under construction on the Northwest Motorway. It’s to become a full rapid transit Busway, just like the Northern and Eastern Busways.
This means it should definitely happen, because National wants to do the same thing. The worst mistake in the city’s transport planning for decades – canning plans for a Northwest Busway when they built the Waterview interchange and tunnel – will finally be made right.
In fact, in respect to most major projects in Auckland, the two major parties are now aligned. As well as rapid bus transit to the east and west, and from Botany to the airport, both want to extend the motorway north to Whangārei and build road tunnels under the Waitematā.
And while they both like to talk about reducing carbon emissions and congestion, neither has a fast-track solution for either. Labour is keen on congestion charging, but despite years of analysis and planning, it hasn’t made it happen. National avoids talking about it.
The one big project that’s different is light rail, which Labour wants to build from the city centre to the south and to the north.
Hipkins and Parker both said last week they haven’t decided whether the airport line will be tunnelled or above ground. In fact, tunnels were announced as the preferred choice on January 28, 2022.
The surface option would be cheaper, faster to build and more emissions-friendly, so this rethink is good news.
The worst transport news of the week was that deaths and serious injuries (known as DSIs) on Auckland roads have risen 22 per cent, year on year to July. “This is obviously pretty grim,” AT executive Stacey van der Putten told the council.
It sure is. We’d be up in arms if that happened from any other cause.
But the National Party, mayor Wayne Brown and others continue to insist the priority for transport planning should be to speed up travel times. No reductions in speed limits, they say, no more attempts to calm traffic with raised tables at pedestrian crossings and intersections, no more protected cycleways.
Brown said he wants AT to limit itself to “sensible safety improvements”. He seems to mean: do nothing that will impede the passage of a speeding vehicle.
AT’s farcical news was that ferry sailings on the Birkenhead/Northcote, Bayswater, Gulf Harbour and Half Moon Bay routes will be reduced for the next 14-18 months.
Fullers360 is short of drivers and the ferries are needed to train up new ones. This looks like a foreseeable problem where the planners went to sleep.
Intriguingly, the company that built Wellington’s East-West electric ferry made a presentation to the same council meeting. They were ready and keen to build e-ferries for Auckland, they said.
AT already has its own e-ferries under construction with an Auckland boatbuilder, but the Wellington Electric Boat Building Company reckons they could do it better. Fullers’ passengers are likely to think some competition would be very welcome.
Good news that won’t strike everyone that way: parking fees will rise by $1 per hour. It’s the first time they’ve risen since 2010 and was suggested by mayor Brown as a revenue generator.
Not that it will provide enough income to cover AT’s most difficult news: The agency does not have the funding it needs to do the work expected of it. Blame budget cuts and the unbudgeted demands of this year’s big storms.
AT itself has shrunk: in the words of chief executive Dean Kimpton, it has saved money by “letting 142 people leave”. Interesting euphemism.
New projects and upgrades under threat include the Midtown bus stops, dangerous level crossings, unsealed roads, the local board priorities and cycleways.
The council has asked AT to report back in September with a list of projects at risk over the next three years and a ding-dong row is brewing over which, if any, should be saved.
The Government Policy Statement, in contrast, sets out a three-year spending plan for a record $20.8 billion worth of projects nationwide.
Nearly half the money will go to road maintenance and upgrades, with only 6 per cent for rail upgrades and a mere 2.4 per cent for cycling and walking.
Labour has fully signed up to the National obsession with roads, not just in Auckland and Northland, but in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Nelson and Canterbury.
Parker was happy to say in Drury that everyone knows you can’t build your way out of congestion just by adding more lanes to the motorways. But that’s what they’re doing.
Perhaps because the two parties are so closely aligned on their spending plans, there’s been a fevered response to something that does differentiate them: Labour’s decision to raise fuel taxes to help pay for the work.
What they propose is a stepped increase each year for three years, starting with 2c a litre.
Prices vary by more than that from station to station and week to week, but this didn’t stop National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown declaring “Labour unleashes pain at the pump”.
His colleague, finance spokesperson Nicola Willis, suggested they would probably also need to put fuel taxes up, but leader Christopher Luxon shot that down. Parker claims National’s transport plans are “at least $1.4 billion short for the first three years”.
There are some yawning credibility gaps around transport in this election. The two major parties believe voters want the roads to be as easy to drive on when the population was half the size, so they imply they can deliver that.
They know voters don’t want taxes or prices to rise, but we do want new infrastructure and we do want climate action. These things are not unreasonable but they are inherently contradictory.
AT’s acting chair Wayne Donnelly made a frustrated speech to the council touching on this.
He said the potential of Auckland’s existing rail lines is being squandered for lack of investment. “Every improvement in rail produces better patronage than expected,” he said. But: “It is disappointing there’s a lot of talk about harbour crossings, when there’s a mega-project sitting there, called heavy rail.”
The harbour crossings that National and Labour both promise have never had a good business case, and still don’t. And Donnelly is right: The existing rail networks, local and regional, could become much more efficient for passengers and freight with just a fraction of the money the main parties want to spend digging those tunnels.
To its credit, Labour has promised a start on rail from Avondale to Southdown, a long-designated rail corridor with real potential for freight. And AT’s really good news? Auckland no longer has a bus-driver shortage and the massive challenge of the Football World Cup was met with hardly a hitch. Congrats to all on both those fronts.
After the council meeting, the mayor put out a message that said: “Myself and the Council’s Governing Body have unanimously agreed to support legislation that would put Aucklanders back in charge of the city’s transport system.”
“Myself” is talking a big game here. Does he want the council to make all the decisions while Government simply pays the bills? Taxpayers in the rest of the country will have something to say about that.
It was a meeting of the council’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee, not the Governing Body, but we’ll let that pass. What it agreed was that it wants “the lead role in preparing and approving the Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), which sets the strategic direction for transport and the allocation of funding in support of that direction”.
Technically, Auckland Transport has this role, but the process is effectively steered by Wellington. Brown is right, the wishes of the council do get ignored.
The most obvious example is that the RLTP largely ignores the council’s Emissions Reductions Plan, although I doubt this is what the mayor is annoyed about.
Still, he wants a more functional partnership. That’s an excellent idea and long overdue.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.