Most of the decisions that have made New Zealand an efficient economy are made one step away from politics, by agencies appointed to keep their eye on the national interest. None is more important than the NZ Transport Agency.
Its new chairman, Sir Brian Roche, fills a vacancy left by Michael Stiassny who quit in April — just a year into a three-year term — for reasons that were not well explained.
Stiassny is credited with uncovering and repairing the agency's failings in regulating issuers of vehicle warrants of fitness. He told media his work was done, having "repositioned" the agency to focus on the Government's priority, road safety.
But that work is just beginning. The task of setting lower speed limits on most of the nation's roads is going to be fraught with arguments local and national for some time yet.
Whatever the reasons for Stiassny's sudden departure and that of chief executive Fergus Gammie in December, they deserve more attention.
For NZTA's primary job is very much more important than warrant of fitness checks or even setting speed limits for that matter. It receives the money vehicle owners pay in petrol taxes and road user charges and allocates it on objective criteria to transport infrastructure around the country.
It is hard to think of decisions more vital to the efficient functioning of the whole economy. It is also hard to think of decisions more vulnerable to politics, both of the "pork barrel" and — more threatening today — the "visionary" variety.
Visionaries challenge the principle that best test of the economic value of anything is the willingness of voluntary consumers to pay for it. They don't much care that trains or trams or cycling cannot attract enough freight or travellers to pay for their dedicated infrastructure.
They want all these things to be subsidised from the fund of petrol taxes and road charges allocated by the NZTA.
Roughan: Punt on wellbeing ignores growth at its peril
Secrets of the Beehive: Intoxicating but not for the faint of heart
From Muldoon to Key: Journalist John Roughan reflects on 45 years in the middle of it all
They have succeeded with cycling and walking. Cycleways and pedestrian bridges over motorways have appeared, seldom with a user in sight.
A cycleway on the Auckland Harbour Bridge was originally proposed by enthusiasts who thought it could pay its way. When their financiers backed out they must have done the sums. Regardless, the present Government has ordered NZTA to pick up the project.
If some in the Government got their way, road users would be paying for rail infrastructure too. The Green's post-election agreement with Labour stated: "National Land Transport Fund spending [that's NZTA's] will be reprioritised to increase the investment in rail infrastructure in cities and regions."
Well, so far railways are still being subsidised from general taxation and the appointment of a new NZTA chairman carries a hint that is not about to change.
Roche, is already chairman of City Rail Link Ltd, an entity jointly owned by the Crown and the Auckland Council that is digging the big hole under Albert St.
The announcement of Roche's appointment said he would continue in both roles and expects no conflict of interest to arise. By contrast, he has resigned from the board of Wellington Gateway Partnership which is building the Transmission Gully highway north of the city and did present a conflict.
That can only mean there is no prospect of the NZTA being asked to fund the CRL or any part of it for the three years of Roche's appointment, which a relief for the agency's properly costed and prioritised Auckland road building schedule.
But whoever pays the bill, the CRL will be a heavy cost on New Zealand's economy and it will not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Auckland's surface lines will still be slowed by level crossings and blocked every time a train has a mechanical fault.
Even Transport Minister Phil Twyford sounds more interested now in light rail which, since it would run on streets, is within NZTA's remit.
It is in the interests of motorists who fund roads that light rail faces rigorous tests of its ability to reduce congestion.
The agency's evaluation of tramlines to Mangere and Westgate has been complicated somewhat by an offer from the NZ Super Fund to fund light rail in partnership with a Canadian counterpart.
If the sovereign funds think light rail can earn enough fares to pay them a return, their offer should be welcomed. If they are looking for a Government guaranteed return they should be disappointed.
If light rail would be as attractive as its advocates believe, it is hard to see why it could not pay its way. At the very least, its backers should bear the risk.
Failing that, the NZTA has to work out the most efficient use of motorists' money.
Relieved of regulatory trivia it could concentrate on the decisions that matter.