COMMENT: The National Party released its transport proposals before Christmas. Not policy, but a "discussion document", and it's got some good stuff in it. Congestion charging, for example, which is a far better way to
get motorists to pay for transport than fuel taxes.
And there's some not-so-good.
"We are the party of roads," declared party leader Simon Bridges. And oh yes, why don't we penalise cyclists who refuse to ride in cycle lanes?
Right on, Simon. Who cares if half of all deaths and serious injuries on the roads are caused by motorists running down other people – that's motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists. Motorists should know they have the right to rule the roads, eh?
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Meanwhile the Government has released its own transport document, a high-level statement of purpose from the NZ Transport Agency called Keeping Cities Moving. It's all about "mode shift": getting drivers out of cars and onto public transport.
NZTA is partnering on this with local councils, and just before Christmas we got another document, called Better Travel Choices, which outlines how the strategy can work in Auckland.
Transport will be an election issue, for sure. But what are they really offering?
At first blush, the Government and the Opposition are driving in opposite directions. The core idea for National is to get back to work building "Roads of National Significance". The core for the Government is, supposedly, growing the capacity and quality of public transport.
But National says its proposals will drive up public transport use. As for Labour, it announced a $12 billion new infrastructure spendup late last year, of which $6.8 billion is earmarked for transport projects it calls "shovel ready".
We don't know what they are yet, but as NZTA chair Sir Brian Roche told a parliamentary select committee, it is "fair to say" the list his outfit provided to the minister includes at least some of National's road projects which the Government shelved two years ago. Will it now bring them back?
On both sides, the whiff of electoral panic hangs in the air.
The problem for the Government is that it has discovered, to its dismay, just how long it takes to set up new projects, especially if they are brand new, like Auckland's proposed light rail network.
It's an object lesson in the difficulties of making change in this country.
There are lots of processes involved when you build something. Legal, political, environmental, financial, and that's all before you get to structural, the actual job of building the thing. If you're building a road, it's relatively easy, because everyone knows exactly how all the processes work.
It's also robust. The processes have been developed and stress-tested over time.
If you're building something that hasn't been done before – at least, not here, not in its modern form and not for a hundred years – everyone starts from scratch. The politicians, analysts, economists, engineers, urban planners and lawyers, not to mention the entrepreneurs, finance companies and banks, all have to decide, how will this work?
And in this case it's not just light rail itself that's new: the proposal by the NZ Super Fund to finance, build, own and operate the system also throws up immense new challenges. A public-public partnership.
And that's before you get to the blocks put up by officials who don't want the project anyway – which happened with light rail – or who are out of their depth and therefore can't work out what to do.
And that's before you get to the political blocks: the coalition politics; the reluctance of some senior ministers to embrace transformational change. Both of those have been in play too.
And there's more. The proponents of light rail have faced a barrage of criticism from the start – much of it ignorant, petty, and antagonistic not just to the proposal itself but to the very idea there might ever be new and better ways of doing things.
For growing cities in the age of climate change, building a viable mass transit network is the central challenge.
It's about environmental issues and land use: where people will live and work. And it's especially about transport itself. You can't build roads to solve congestion: more roads encourage more people to drive, so they perpetuate the problem and eventually make it worse.
You have to take some of the users off the roads, by making the alternatives more appealing. How you do that is worthy of debate. But reducing that debate to ridicule of "Twyford's tram set" is absurd. Some National MPs are among the worst offenders.
The Keeping Cities Moving strategy has identified 35 "interventions" that can help. They range across three main strategy areas: where and how the city grows, making shared and active transport modes more attractive, and influencing travel demand and transport choices.
That last strategy, as it happens, covers National's proposal to fast-track congestion pricing. In a revenue-neutral move, the party wants to scrap the Auckland regional fuel tax and phase out all other fuel taxes, in favour of charges on all motorists using the busiest roads.
It's good thinking. Petrol taxes have a limited life because hybrids and electric vehicles will see petrol use dry up. Congestion charging offers a fairer and more long-lasting way to have motorists fund transport spending.
But it's not a new idea: when the regional fuel tax was introduced the Government and Auckland Council both said it should be an interim measure and that congestion charging would probably offer better options in the future. GPS makes that future very close.
The beauty of congestion charging is that it's a dynamic system: it can be changed, moment by moment if you want, to reflect demand. Using the motorways at peak times will cost more than at other times, using the fast lane could cost more, there could be a fee for entering the inner city. Sudden congestion at Sylvia Park? Raise the cost of using the motorway at that point.
But what should drivers do if they don't want to pay? Stay off the motorway and clog up Great North Rd, Great South Rd and all the other arterial options instead? Should those roads also have congestion charging?
The whole system breaks down if it simply transfers congestion to other roads – especially if it makes those roads more dangerous.
National's transport spokesman Chris Bishop gets it. He says congestion charging will encourage public transport use.
That's true, or it should be. But it's also where Bishop's party's proposals fall short. Calling yourself "the party of roads" doesn't encourage public transport use. It sends a clear signal that everyone can keep on driving.
Congestion charging can only work well if there's a strong commitment to public transport, which means a massively increased spend on mass transit – rapid buses like the Northern Busway and, almost certainly, light rail.
National has not committed to that spend. But it can't have it both ways.
As for Labour, the PM is expected to reveal very soon which big projects are getting those extra billions. Light rail probably won't be included because, see above, it's not "shovel ready". But several parts of Auckland's slowly growing rapid bus network are. I'm holding my breath.