The Prime Minister has fired the first shot on the road to September's election with an $8 billion package of highway upgrades, rail improvements and smaller sums on health and education.

On the day after announcing the election date for September 19, Jacinda Ardern abandoned Labour's freeze on new highways and announced the Government was ploughing $5.3b into roading projects, many of them multi-lane highways started by National.

The roads are part of a $6.8b transport package and includes $1.1b on rail being promoted by Labour's coalition partners, NZ First and the Greens.

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Green light expected for new roads in $12b spend-up

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NZ First leader Winston Peters said New Zealand has suffered under "a malignant, derelict, brainless policy of running rail down to sabotage a key strategic asset in this country" which the Government is restoring.

The Government is holding back $4b from a $12b infrastructure package announced in December, and now called the New Zealand Upgrade Programme.

Yesterday's announcement included $300m for health, including $96m for mental health and addiction capital works, and $4.8m for schools to switch from coal-fired boilers to clean energy.

Ardern said nothing has changed about Labour's position on roads, saying it started out in office focusing on road safety and regional roads. Now debt was down and low cost borrowing is available the Government could hasten other projects on its books, she said.

Focus Live: PM Jacinda Ardern address Business NZ lunch.

"We maintain that focus on safety. We have to get our road toll down. This is an addition," she said.

The "addition" is roads, including seven highway projects in the North Island costing $4.63b to be built over the next five to eight years. The seven projects represent nearly 70 per cent of the $6.8b transport package.

Asked if Labour was now the party of roads, Arden said it was the party of infrastructure.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said the Government has seen sense and restarted the previous National Government's plan that was put on ice in 2018.

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"After two and a half years Jacinda Ardern's Government has realised it has no infrastructure ideas of its own that it can deliver on, so it has copied the plans I put in place when I was Transport Minister.

National Party leader Simon Bridges says the Government has seen sense and restarted National's Plan. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle
National Party leader Simon Bridges says the Government has seen sense and restarted National's Plan. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle

"It's quite flattering, really. It's just a shame that an entire term of Government has been wasted by tearing up these plans and putting them back together again," said Bridges.

The Government's infrastructure programme received a mostly positive response.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, whose city receives $3.48b from the $6.8b transport package, was positively fizzing at the extra money.

He said it will bring forward projects in the Auckland Transport Plan, including the $411m Penlink road between Whangaparaoa Peninsula and SH1, the $1.3b Mill Rd highway to provide better access for 120,000 new residents in South Auckland and $371m for electrification between Papakura and Pukekohe.

A big surprise for Auckland was the cost of the SkyPath and SeaPath project, renamed the Northern Pathway, ballooning to $360 million after being costed at $67m in 2018. NZ Transport officials put the new price tag down to complex engineering works on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Tauranga residents have been calling for better roads. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Tauranga residents have been calling for better roads. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

The Automobile Association's principal infrastructure adviser Barney Irvine said motorists would welcome major roading projects being resuscitated, saying new highways in Tauranga, SH1 between Otaki and Levin, and SH1 between Whangarei and Marsden Point had been some of the highest risk roads for decades.

"If you look at crashes on those two sections of SH1 as well as SH2 from west of Tauranga to Katikati, they had 35 fatal crashes and 62 serious crashes between them over five years," Irvine said.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the extra spending on roads would be positive for business, while Road Transport Forum chief executive Nick Leggett said the $5.3b to improve roads - "the lifeblood of the economy" - was overdue.

Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford was disappointed the spend-up bypassed the capital city, saying it barely makes it past Hamilton with Wellington receiving no additional transport money.

"Disgraceful" is how Generation Zero Auckland spokesman David Robertson described the package.

"If climate change were a priority for the New Zealand government, then it would not be spending billions on encouraging car dependency and increasing road transport emissions," he said.

Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw. Photo / Herald
Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw. Photo / Herald

Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw also found himself defending the multi-billion dollar spend up on roads, saying if the Greens were holding the pen on the whole package it would be different.

He said there is $1.8b in the package devoted to rail, public transport, walking and cycling, some of which was attached to highway projects.

"This is a coalition Government and what we have done is influenced the shape of the package overall. We are really delighted there are some significant projects going ahead like the SkyPath," he said.

Greenpeace said spending $5.3b on roads will slow down the development of clean transport in New Zealand.

"If you build more roads, people will drive more. In New Zealand, we have particularly inefficient cars, and increasing their use will only contribute to more of the dirty emissions that are driving the climate emergency," said the organisation's climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson.