"Very low-value projects with low traffic volumes…they simply don't stack up."
That's how Transport Minister Phil Twyford last week described the 12 state highway projects around the country which the Government has recently decided to down-scale and postpone, as part of a shift in investment priorities away from roads and towards public transport and rail.
It's also how he justified his decision not to heed calls by the Business Advisory Council to build those roads (up to their original specifications) to help stave off a looming "infrastructure crisis."
The AA doesn't believe these projects are of low value, and nor will many of the people in the regions that are set to miss out.
The 12 projects were originally put forward because they respond to very real safety and congestion challenges. They encompass some of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country, and some of New Zealand's fastest-growing areas.
That's why the Transport Agency, in recommending down-scaling the projects, has made it clear that much of the new roading and safety infrastructure that the projects encompass will need to be delivered – and delivered soon – if the Government is to achieve its own goals for safety and congestion.
This is going to cost $1.3 billion over the next decade.
The Ministry of Transport expects the amount of driving done on New Zealand roads to increase by around 15 per cent by 2028, yet investment in new roads is set to fall by nearly half.
Possibly the most concerning thing is that the Government is now saying there's no money in the kitty for these changes.
We don't think this is good enough, particularly for a Government which has clearly identified road safety as the number one transport priority.
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It's important to bear in mind that, for a number of these projects, planning was well down the track before the decision was made to re-evaluate. In 2017, people in Northland were told by NZTA that work would start on Whangārei to Port Marsden this year.
The affected communities have been given no information on when they'll see a lasting solution.
We don't expect that all 12 roads will be built in full, immediately. In many cases, some down-scaling will be justified.
But the people travelling on these high-risk highways cannot be forced to wait. In the short-term, the Government needs to find space in the transport budget to get these urgent safety projects happening.
In the longer term, there are serious questions about whether the Government has got the balance right in terms of infrastructure investment. The Ministry of Transport expects the amount of driving done on New Zealand roads to increase by around 15 per cent by 2028, yet investment in new roads is set to fall by nearly half (from $1.63 billion today to around $860 million). This can only mean bad news for road safety and congestion.
No one is questioning the value of investment in public transport and rail, but it can't come at the cost of adequate investment in the road network. New Zealand desperately needs both.
• Barney Irvine is the principal advisor on infrastructure with the New Zealand Automobile Association