Wading through the idiot's guide to Auckland's transport woes, prepared for new Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee by his bureaucratic advisers, I wondered if he'd had that awful Eureka moment when it suddenly dawned on him that the billions of dollars poured into upgrading the region's road network in the 15 or so years up to 2017 will have been in vain.

"The performance of Auckland's road network ... is expected to deteriorate after 2021. The improvement achieved by the current investment programme would be eroded by around 2031. Congestion will increasingly affect the midday period ..."

And the solution the wiseheads of the Ministry of Transport offer? To continue with the failed policies of the past 60 years. "Roads," they enthuse, "are critical to the efficiency of urban centres, with private motor vehicles and buses providing transport modes for most people. This importance will continue."

They dismiss rail's role as "supplementary", sniffily noting that by 2041, just 4 per cent of peak commuter trips in Auckland will be by train, compared with less than 2 per cent now. With the priests of the road in charge, how surprising is that.


No one expects bureaucrats to have a revolutionary change of heart within the pages of a ministerial briefing paper, but continuing to salute King Road as the one true religion flies in the face of the evidence and the wishes of Aucklanders. While Aucklanders' love affair with the motorcar is far from over, we want to embrace the benefits of commuter rail as well.

The document sets the scene.

The continuing concentration of economic growth in northern centres, particularly Auckland, "presents a challenge for a nationally funded transport system ... Auckland alone is forecast to account for 60 per cent of population growth to 2030". The writers say "achieving an efficient transport system for Auckland is central to improving the contribution the city can make to the national economy". The completion of the motorway network and the upgrading of commuter rail is forecast to reduce congestion by 14 per cent by 2021, despite population growth of 22 per cent, but then it's downhill again. The report refers to this as "a short breathing space before decisions need to be made on the next generation of major projects".

In this breathing space, the Government will be pressing Aucklanders to come up with new ways of taxing ourselves to pay for the inner city underground rail loop, which it's refusing to fund. A better debate would be exactly where a rapidly intensifying city, already looped and bisected by motorways, will find room for any more roads and cars.

Last year, Auckland Transport modelled the consequences of adopting the Government's preference for buses over rail for public transport. It concluded that without a rail loop by 2041, the Auckland CBD would need exclusive busways, four lanes wide, running out of the city. "In many circumstances in Auckland this would take the entire width of the roadway and effectively stop all general traffic from using those roads."

Even the biggest petrol-heads in town seem to concede that continuing to squirt bitumen back and forth across the isthmus to accommodate more and more Japanese imports is not an answer. Mayor Len Brown campaigned along these lines and was overwhelmingly elected as the first super mayor. The Government's reaction has been to tell Aucklanders, if you want more rail, pay for it yourselves.

The region has been short-changed for decades as far as transport - or more correctly - roads funding is concerned. In 1991, during an unsuccessful fight for a new light rail service, regional councillors calculated that Aucklanders paid $150 million a year in petrol taxes but got only $84 million back in the way of roads. More recently, Green Party researchers calculated that in the 15 years to 2005, Aucklanders paid $7022 million in fuel taxes, road user charges and car registration fees, but got back $3222 million - less than half - in transport-related expenditure.

Since 2006, a degree of catch-up has taken place, but it's only been a token of the true debt. Not that anyone's demanding a day of reckoning. All Aucklanders want is for Wellington to concede there might be a better solution to traffic congestion than building more roads.