Key Points:

Better bus services for Auckland, provided by commercial operators, are the aim of the Auckland Regional Council and its transport subsidiary, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, through changes sought to the legislative framework under which they operate.

Currently, commercial public transport operators get some $94 million in subsidies from the Auckland Regional Council and through government agencies. That is money from ratepayers and from taxpayers.

Currently, services also often act in competition with, or duplicate, other services, making it difficult to achieve the integrated routes and ticketing commuters want. In addition, operators can cancel or abandon services at short notice, leaving passengers stranded and the ARC (and ratepayers) held to ransom to maintain existing service levels.

The regional council wants to see much better returns for the money we pay out on ratepayers' behalf.

Both the council and ARTA are focused on ensuring that, in return for the money they provide to operators, the users of Auckland's public transport get the route structures, the services and the frequencies they are looking for and deserve.

In order to achieve this goal, ARTA needs a procurement model in which it is able to operate as the purchaser of services, from private sector suppliers providing quality services.

We need to move to a true purchaser- supplier model to achieve this. The current model is the antithesis of this, representing the tail wagging the dog and failing to be customer-focused.

This is what lies behind the changes the Government wants to make through the Public Transport Management Bill with which Michael Taggart took issue in your columns.

Mr Taggart says that only 40 per cent of bus services in Auckland are commercial in the sense that they pay their own way. In fact, 26 per cent of services are commercial, with 74 per cent contracted.

In these circumstances, the ARC and ARTA believe that in order to get the flexibility required for effectively servicing the needs of our community, we simply have to get best practice operations. We've looked overseas. The best, with growing patronage, emerge in metropolitan London, Melbourne and Brisbane. In each of these cities, all bus operators are contracted by the subsidising authority to supply services that meet public need.

All fare money taken by the bus operators is paid to the subsidising authority. In turn, the contracts made by the authority include incentives for operators to increase patronage through the excellence of their service.

Contracts take account of natural commercial requirements that operators need for long-term security of tenure to justify their investment in buses and servicing. A contract system that doesn't take account of this business security factor will never work.

There is no hidden agenda in the ARC or ARTA's position, to go back to the days of the ARC owning the region's bus service. However, some civic leaders have been tempted to support public ownership in desperation because they felt operators weren't delivering value for the subsidy money they receive.

Full contracting offers an internationally proven middle ground that enables financial security and profitability for good bus operators and flexibility of quality service for public transport users. A half-way mix of commercial and subsidised operations as we currently have is a recipe for patronage turn-off, as Auckland has proved over the past decade until the ARC and ARTA began to turn the situation around a year ago.

Over recent years, bus services in Auckland have not performed. Patronage has fallen and failed to keep up with population growth because the needs of the public have not been met under a commercial model.

That needs to include integrated ticketing, good value fares, routes where people want to go and an integrated network - everything that ARTA wants to deliver through contracts with private commercial operators.

Where ARTA has instituted fully contracted models such as the Northern Express service on the North Shore and at Sylvia Park, bus patronage has boomed. The public have got the service they want.

It should also be noted that many of the commercial operators ARTA works with have expressed to ARTA a preference for our contracting model.

In addition, currently, for every control on a commercial service, the financial impact on commercial business must be determined - all with no financial or performance data required to be made available from a commercial operator.

Like Mr Taggart, we'll be looking for change in the current Public Transport Management Bill before Parliament. But our aim will be to give the ratepayers, who pay tens of millions each year to bus operators, better ability to get the services they want.

We all desire public services that are reliable, secure and cost effective, following routes which are clear and efficient. Mr Taggart appears to want operators to call the tune over the service they provide in exchange for the money ratepayers spend.

Christchurch, where passenger transport patronage increases year by year, operates quite contentedly under a full contracting model. We see no reason why normal contract for service law should not apply to bus operators in Auckland.

They won't lose the ability to make a satisfactory return on their investment. Some may, however, lose an ability to manipulate the existing hybrid system.

* Christine Rose is chairwoman of the Transport and Urban Development Committee of the Auckland Regional Council.