By JOHN ROUGHAN
If, like me, you are finally getting around to filling in the local body ballot papers this weekend, I'd like a word. It concerns Aucklanders mainly, but not entirely. If you are a national taxpayer, listen in.
There will come a time, maybe in 10 or 20 years, when it will be apparent this election was the last chance to prevent a minor disaster and we might wonder what we were thinking of in 2001 that we didn't stop it.
There were, we will remember, one or two greater disasters happening at the time, so possibly the voters of 2001 will be forgiven. But every time we drive past one of those light rail things we will wonder at our capacity for collective folly.
By then we will be accustomed to regular bulletins on the operating losses of the Auckland metro. Somehow we hadn't thought of those when a billion-dollar windfall from regional services gave us the capital to set it up.
By then we will have heard the successors of Phil Warren, Christine Fletcher, Bob Harvey and Barry Curtis lament the burden on their budgets as, year after year, they explain another rate rise.
The cost will be felt equally in the national accounts. Auckland's public transport will be taking an ever-greater slice of national roading subsidies. Future governments will tell taxpayers that, regrettably, the burden is just too much for the Auckland region alone.
Messrs Warren, Curtis, Harvey and the rest - if they can still be found - will protest that they never denied the ongoing costs of the scheme. And they haven't. The small print of all promotional material has mentioned that the system will probably need at least double the present operating subsidies for the region's public transport.
A Herald report last weekend put the cost at $80 million a year, on top of today's $45 million, which is shared about equally by taxpayers and regional ratepayers. It now looks likely the bulk of the rail scheme funding could fall on taxpayers.
This week, when the Government announced its renegotiated price to buy back the lease of the Auckland tracks from Tranz Rail, it did not ask councils to share the $81 million bill.
Back in March, when Michael Cullen announced he would try to get a better deal than that negotiated by Auckland's city fathers and mothers, Mr Warren and Mrs Fletcher were immensely satisfied. Their mission had been to bind the Government into the scheme. They have succeeded beyond their dreams.
That news could stick in the craw of taxpayers in Tauranga, Rotorua and other centres that lose their inter-city rail services after this weekend. Their local politicians took a realistic view of rail patronage and decided not to subsidise the service.
Auckland's planners and public rail enthusiasts are not at all embarrassed at the subsidies they are expecting. They are unmoved when the Automobile Association and others point out their modest estimates of passengers and the negligible reduction in motorway congestion.
To the enthusiasts, the unprofitability of the plan is a measure of its social responsibility, environmental righteousness and the daring of their vision. When you hear that vision, you begin to realise the scale of the mistake Auckland is about to make.
If, 20 years hence, our children can track down Mrs Fletcher or Mr Harvey and ask why they are lumbered with this little-used railway, they will hear a remarkable story of what was supposed to happen.
The shape and character of Auckland was supposed to change. Once the council began running trains and provided clean stations with ample carparking, people were supposed to stop driving to work.
Initially at least, they were expected to park and ride or catch a bus to the station and, unless they were among the mere 11 per cent going to the central business district, get off the train and on to another bus to get to their employment.
Did anyone ever honestly see Aucklanders doing that?
Well, today's mayors will explain in their dotage, there was going to be more to it. And they will rummage in a back room and return with a dusty document called the Regional Growth Plan 2000.
In it, their incredulous interviewer will see how lovely, languid Auckland was supposed to turn away from the beaches and coastline that draw most people to it, and grow inwards, upwards and more dense.
People were supposed to come and live near the stations. Places like Morningside, Ellerslie and Glen Innes were to become thriving centres of medium-density urban life, attracting sufficient residents and workplaces to make a frequent rail service worthwhile.
The provision of a tidy, reliable train every few minutes would in turn attract ever more people to the city and suburban centres where regional and city planners were determined to concentrate population growth.
That was the plan. Planners never learn. There are periods when they realise it is better to go with the flow of public behaviour, but they soon relapse. Their instinct is to refashion behaviour if they can.
They are wasting their time and our money. And they are neglecting - wilfully one suspects - the need for more and wider motorways.
Auckland is a car city and always will be. Its people much prefer their own cars to any form of public transport and, contrary to the claims of the rail lobby, there is plenty of room for more roading.
There should be no mystery about the appeal of the private car. With a car you are mobile and free. You may not use it all day, but you want it there. You want to know you can go where you want, when you want.
Most people are prepared to pay a high price for that in the form of congestion, although they shouldn't have to.
For those who really prefer public transport, or cannot drive, Auckland has a perfectly adequate bus service. One of the little ironies of the rail scheme is that it will largely draw passengers from the few profitable bus routes, rendering the whole system less economic.
Fortunately, there are candidates for the Auckland's regional and four city councils who have their priorities right. The advertisements and website of Roads before Rail (www.cityofsnails.co.nz) tells you who they are.
Despite everything, it may be that most Aucklanders want a metropolitan railway they will never use. After all, every self-respecting city seems to have one. If so, Auckland alone should expect to pay for it.
Let's hope the voters have their eyes open to the cost.
By JOHN ROUGHAN