By GEOFF CUMMING

Why is Auckland, a modern city of a mere 1.1 million people, hamstrung by traffic problems normally associated with much bigger and older metropolises?

The answer lies in four decades of neglect of public transport - a product of Government indifference, policy blunders and Auckland's tangled political and bureaucratic web.

Since 1963, millions have been spent on transport studies which generally reached the same conclusion - an even-handed approach of motorways and mass transit was the ticket.

The plans and reviews of plans now gathering dust and politicians now departed warned of future gridlock unless the two proceeded in tandem.

* "We expect a fivefold increase in vehicle trips ... between 1963 and 1986" - De Leuw Cather report, 1965.

* "No conceivable motorway is going to cope with that traffic. We have to consider rail for the main arterials" - the Mayor of Auckland, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, 1976.

* "The predicted growth in travel demand in the major travel corridors by the year 2001 will require major investment decisions ... in the next five years" - 1986 Auckland Comprehensive Transportation Study update.

But while motorways were built, public transport languished. In the meantime, the cost of the mass-transit schemes has soared.

Since the early 1970s, frustrated bureaucrats and civic leaders have struck the same obstacles: lack of money and political divisions.

From Sir Dove-Myer Robinson's rapid rail, through 1980s O-bahn (guided buses that could run on railway lines and roads), to light rail in the 1990s, funding was always the excuse to shelve the costly projects.

Yet money was found for motorways and roads.

Retired Auckland Regional Authority transport planning manager Derek Pringle says that while roading has long had a guaranteed source of funds, passenger transport - without a fund of its own - has had to battle for the scraps.

Roading has been king since the 1950s, when the National Roads Board was formed with annual funding from road-user charges and petrol taxes.

Former urban transport committee head Jim Holdaway says successive Governments failed to correct the funding imbalance for public transport, which has had to argue a case for money from the roading kitty.

Rules included a cost-benefit formula based on the immediate benefits to road users. It therefore penalised public transport schemes that offered a longer-term payback.

Local politicians also blame the funding squeeze on the diversion over the years of roading taxes to general state spending, and of taxes raised in Auckland being spent elsewhere in the country.

They have found money hard to come by, not just for major capital works but for small-scale boosts to services - such as new bus routes and increased frequencies.

Two Government decisions rankle most with long-suffering Auckland officials.

The first was the Muldoon Government's shelving of rapid rail in 1976.

The second came in 1993, when Finance Minister Ruth Richardson handed Tranz Rail control of the rail corridor for a $1-a-year peppercorn lease.

Alec Aitken, district commissioner of works from 1973 to 1981, says the 1972-75 Labour Government was committed to building rapid rail.

Championed by Mayor Robinson, rapid rail with underground city lines was recommended by consultants De Leuw Cather in their forward-looking 1965 study.

Thirty-five years on, the Comprehensive Transportation Study remains the blueprint for solving congestion. One half of the equation, a 175km network of ring motorways and arterial roads, is more than two-thirds complete (although more than 10 years late).

The other half, a rapid-transit system based on the western and southern railway lines and supported by feeder buses, is still being talked about.

Rapid rail, including a subway loop linking the city and Newmarket, was originally estimated to cost $42 million, with supporting bus operations costing $6 million a year.

A directorate and project team of engineers undertook detailed design work from 1973 until 1976.

But it was derailed in the face of rising costs and a change of Government.

"I am very sorry that it didn't go through," says Mr Aitken. "It would have meant there was an alternative available.

"Then they sold our railway system, and that really put the kibosh on everything."

During Mr Aitken's time, tonnes of tarmac was laid on motorway extensions and connections. Earlier, he oversaw work on the Wellington motorways.

"Of all the public works I was involved in, I feel least happy about the Auckland motorways. Technically, they were very well done, but the ramifications at the expense of public transport have been very serious."

Motorway expansions worked so well that they stalled public transport plans, he says. The car was king and was increasingly affordable.

Mr Aitken says the pro-roading lobby, including road carriers, the motor vehicle industry and farmers, has proved a very powerful voice in Wellington. Allowing used-car imports in the 1980s only accelerated traffic growth and the demand for roads.

Motorway extensions have directed growth and development away from the city centre, leading to the dispersed travel patterns of today which work against public transport.

Dave Stanley, Auckland Regional Council director of transport in the 1980s, says decentralisation gained official favour in the 1970s after rapid rail was shelved.

A 1976 review of the De Leuw Cather study, undertaken with the economy in the doldrums, supported completing the ring motorway network envisaged in 1965 but deferred rapid rail because of its high cost.

Mr Stanley laments the snowball effect of decentralisation, increasing access to cars and decisionmakers' growing nervousness about the high capital and ongoing running costs of mass-transit schemes.

"It then became more difficult to grapple with when you saw the falloff in public transport patronage ... there was this fear people were never going to switch to public transport."

A researcher on the rapid-rail project, fresh out of university, was Jo Brosnahan - these days chief executive of the Auckland Regional Council, which manages the region's public transport network.

She says today's plans for a rapid transit network based on the rail corridors and Northern Motorway are "not too dissimilar to what we were looking at then, although not nearly as grandiose in the inner-city area."

Efforts to get rapid transit in place have been her life's work, she says.

"The day we actually run the trains is the day we celebrate. If I retire and it's still not done I'll feel a bit depressed."