Comment by Simon Wilson
How embarrassing. The board of Auckland Transport (AT) has rejected the draft of its most important planning document, prepared for it by AT staff. The reason? The recommendations in the draft ignored AT's own policies. They also ignored the policies of Auckland Council, which AT is supposed to answer to. And they ignored the clearly stated wishes of the new government, which has a say because it co-funds so much of the city's transport programme.
Will heads roll? Unlikely, but possible.
It started last week, when AT published, under the signature of Shane Ellison, its brand-new CEO, the draft of its new 10-year plan. Nearly half the funding for commuter rail was gone, light rail was ranked so low it would not get any funding at all, and the cycling and walking budget was slashed by 90 per cent.
Cue immediate scrambling for cover. The chair of the AT board, Lester Levy, even rang the Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, to apologise. Twyford tweeted: "I've had sincere apology from AT chair Lester Levy for internal 'budget' document mistakenly made public. The doc certainly doesn't reflect my conversations with @phil_goff and @AklTransport board and our shared commitment to building a modern transport system for Auckland."
Well, good. But this was not some simple "mistake".
The document was a new draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), which is written anew every six years and refreshed every three. This is a refresh year, although with Labour and the Greens determined to keelhaul National's transport planning, the right time for a full rethink by AT is now. The document even says as much, although without doing it.
What did it get so wrong?
One, it ignored Auckland Council's guidelines, which are also AT's own priorities. Through a "Statement of Intent" agreed with council, AT has prioritised public transport, active transport (cycling and walking), road safety and carbon reduction. The draft RLTP just set all that aside.
Two, it ignored the government's own signals. Twyford and associate minister Julie-Anne Genter, who looks after active transport and safety, have both been clear. In particular, they've told us light rail will be a priority and some of National's expensive new roads (including the East-West Link from Penrose to Onehunga) will not happen. The draft RLTP, however, effectively pretended Twyford and Genter don't exist.
Three, the draft wasn't leaked or released casually. It was an official public document prepared for the AT board and posted online in what is usually a carefully managed process. Damningly, it was signed off by CEO Shane Ellison and two of his senior executives.
Four, it included a fabricated "introduction" from Levy. He didn't write it, which isn't uncommon, but nor did he see it before publication. That's astonishing: who releases a statement by the boss without getting it cleared by the boss?
In a lengthy conversation on Wednesday, Levy told me he was especially upset about this and "I have made that very clear to the CEO".
I asked him if it was humiliating to have to apologise to the minister. He said, "Yes. I spend a lot of my time having to apologise for things I didn't know about. This is the job, and yes it is embarrassing." (Levy is also the chair of Auckland's three health boards.)
The offending draft had two main parts. One was what Levy calls a "narrative": it described the work of AT in language very much in line with other recent AT documents and with the thinking in council and the new government.
"Our priorities actually align very well with what we know of the Government's," Levy told me, and he repeated that at the board meeting. "This government has got some great aspirations," he said.
But the second part was a list of all the transport projects, both underway and proposed. It ranked them and recommended specific levels of funding for each. It was the guts of the document. Free of rhetoric and wishful thinking, it appeared to reveal what the officials who wrote it think AT should do.
When it got to the AT board yesterday afternoon, Cynthia Gillespie, head of strategy and one of the document's signatories, attempted an explanation. AT has 320 projects it could be working on, she said. If they did them all, over 10 years they'd cost $19 billion. So obviously they're not doing them all.
To help choose the best they have a "calculator", a piece of software that assesses each project against a set of objectives. The calculator reflects the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), an agreement about transport priorities signed by the previous government and the previous council. Gillespie blamed the calculator for scoring light rail and cycling very low.
ATAP is now out of date and under review. And yet AT officials used it produce recommendations that would have suited the old government but were profoundly out of line with the new one, and with council, and with AT itself.
To the board's credit, they threw them out.
Still, they had a problem. By law, AT must adopt a new draft RLTP, put it out for public consultation and sign it off by the end of June.
But the government will not produce its official transport policy statement until late March. If AT has to wait till after then to produce the new RLTP, the public input phase will suffer.
Board member Sir Michael Cullen saved the day.
"We are pretending we don't know what we really do know," he said. He listed various projects Twyford and Genter have said they want prioritised and added, "I don't think it would be improper for staff to prepare a new draft RLTP that reflects what we can reasonably expect will happen."
They will now write a new plan, in the expectation it will align with the government's policy statement when it arrives. Which is what should have happened in the first place.
Meanwhile, Lester Levy still wants to know how all this happened.
I asked if he felt let down by some of the senior management. "I don't know but I will certainly let you know when I find out."
He also said, "We have given our new CEO a mandate to deliver culture change in the organisation."
That's very good to hear.