The Government Policy Statement (GPS) for transport is a very important high-level document outlining what the government wants to achieve from investment in the transport network over the next three years. The current GPS was released in May 2009 – and unfortunately was a document stuck in the 1960s when it came to much of its thinking about transport investment. Many of the issues that we’ve had over the past few years about funding shortages for public transport projects have arisen out of decisions made in the preparation of the 2009 GPS – which, in the words of the Minister, ‘effectively capped funding for public transport’.

The GPS has a three-year timeframe, so unsurprisingly thoughts are now shifting to the shape and form of the next GPS – due to have effect from 2012-2015. The Transport Committee of Auckland Council have been brought up to date on this process in an agenda item to their upcoming March 1st meeting. Here’s the executive summary of the agenda item:

The last GPS caught me by surprise a bit – at that time I was still getting my head around how all our different transport plans, strategies, policy statements, programmes and so forth fitted together. I didn’t quite grasp the importance of the GPS until it had become operative. So I’m glad that the Auckland Council has jumped in early when it comes to informing the Regional Transport Committee about the process for putting together the next GPS, and I’m also quite pleased with the recommendations that are being established around what Auckland Council’s feedback and input into the next GPS should be.

Ultimately, there is a big gap between Auckland’s transport priorities and those of central government. The Auckland Council, Mayor Len Brown in particular, was elected on a general platform of focusing on improving public transport – whereas the government is mainly interested in building its road of national significance (RoNS): mostly motorways on the edge of our metropolitan areas. The clash between these two approaches is inevitable, and I think that arguments over the extent to which the GPS should reflect Auckland’s transport priorities versus the extent to which Auckland’s transport priorities should reflect the GPS will be interesting to see over the next few months.

In addition to the points raised above, I would hope that Auckland Council focuses on three additional issues that need to be addressed in the GPS:

Auckland’s population growth compared to the rest of the country:

The next GPS should reflect Auckland’s enormous dominance of the country’s population growth. With Auckland having over 60% of the country’s population growth over the next 20 years, and around 75% of the country’s growth over the next 40 years I think merely saying that Auckland should “get back what it pays” is underplaying the need for investment in our transport network. While it may not go down well in parts of the National Party’s traditional homeland, when it comes to new transport infrastructure, it seems pretty obvious that Auckland is where the bulk of investment needs to be: simply because that’s where the bulk of population growth is. To put it slightly crudely, the roads of Gore probably aren’t going to need too much widening any time soon.

In the past few years Auckland has started to get a better deal when it comes to the amount of transport money spent in the region (whether or not we’ve spent it well is a whole different question). But with Auckland adding the population equivalent of a Wellington City (the city council area, not the whole region) around every eight years, it should be obvious that we’re going to need an even bigger ‘slice of the pie’ in the future.

NZTA must be allowed to fund rail infrastructure projects:

One of the most frustrating and illogical things the current GPS does is effectively ban NZTA from funding rail infrastructure projects. Under the current policy framework, even though the CBD Rail Tunnel would benefit road users enormously by reducing congestion, we can’t ask road users to help pay for it (through their petrol taxes, which get spent by NZTA). As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, each peak time rail user in Auckland generates $17 in decongestion benefits for road users – so it’s obvious that if road users benefit from a rail project, they should also be required to contribute. Allowing NZTA to spend money on rail infrastructure projects, should they provide road user benefits, would not only be fair – it would also create a desperately needed ongoing funding stream for rail infrastructure upgrade projects, which suffer at the moment from having to go begging to the government for each project. At a time when the government’s finances are obviously stretched to an enormous degree, enabling NZTA to help fund rail projects would be a giant leap forwards.

Allow projects of different types to ‘compete’ for funding:

One completely illogical way in which transport funding is allocated in New Zealand is through setting aside different ‘funding pools’ for different types of projects. A certain amount of money is allocated to state highway improvements, public transport infrastructure, public transport subsidies, walking and cycling improvements and so forth – then different projects within those broad categories ‘compete’ against each other for funding.

The problem with this approach is that you inevitably end up with some categories having a huge number of project that ‘stack up’ well, but there’s not enough money available to fund them. Similarly, if you put enough money in the state highways budget then projects like the holiday highway can end up being funded, even though they perform far worse than smaller local road improvements, or new cycleways (or big projects like the CBD Tunnel). It would surely be much more logical for these funding pools to either not exist, or for the transfer of funding from one pool to another being much easier. Allowing all projects to compete against each other for funding will surely mean a better quality of transport expenditure.

There are probably many other things the council could say about the GPS at some point along the consultation process. Questions like how it responds to higher petrol prices, how it links in with economic development strategies, how it connecs with the Auckland Spatial Plan and so forth – but I think if the council focuses on these three matters to start with, hopefully we might see some useful improvements (assuming the government is willing to listen to the country’s biggest council).

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  1. There is a case for saying that public transport infrastructure should not be funded directly from road users because the infrastructure, per se, does not deliver the benefits. The services using them do. So any subsidies to reflect road user benefits should be on payments for services, which includes sufficient to pay a contribution towards the infrastructure (which after all, has a very long life so can be amortised over many years). I’d argue that roads should be paid on an amortised capital basis, so the whole upfront costs is not paid by road users during construction, which is another story.

    Paying for a rail tunnel when a future council may drastically curtail services or whatever (anyone who looks back in transport history will see umpteen big capital projects that ultimately got closed. Far better for the capital costs to be recovered through the service providers (so subsidies include contributions to infrastructure capital) than to be a sunk cost.

  2. I think you must have missed the table above that says road users benefit hugely from more people using passenger rail.

    Furthermore, I’m not aware of a single rail tunnel built in the last 30 or so years that has been subsequently closed due to lack of use.

    1. “I’m not aware of a single rail tunnel built in the last 30 or so years that has been subsequently closed due to lack of use”

      It wasn’t closed, but the Channel Tunnel went seriously bust and had to be bailed out at huge expense after it was found to be completely uneconomic.

      Which is a shame. It was always my preferred option crossing the Channel and a seriously cool bit of engineering. However the ticket cost and the long waiting times to board Le Shuttle meant that it was often easier to just jump on a ferry.

      1. The thing that I find odd about the Chunnel is the limited services available. Why can you only catch a train from London to Paris or Brussels? Why not Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Moscow and so on? It’s like building an airport and then limiting the flights from that airport to only two cities – stupid.

        1. Differences in rail standards adding complexity. PBKA services run at high speed between Paris, Brussels, Cologne, and Amsterdam. “All of the trains are quadri-current, capable of operating under 25kV 50 Hz AC (LGVs and a part of the French lignes classiques), 15 kV 16,7 Hz AC (Germany, Switzerland), 3 kV DC (Belgium) and 1.5 kV DC (the Netherlands and the remainder of the French lignes classiques).”

          You’d also want to consider demand. London to Paris is about the same by high speed rail and air when you consider check in time. But rail from London to Berlin is going to lose all the business traffic to air. Especially when flights probably depart every 30 minutes or so.

          And cost. I first arrived in Europe in 1990 and wanted to see some communism before it disappeared. Even pre-HST, the ticket price for rail from London was much more expensive than a cheap flight. Intercity rail is a luxury product and many people can’t afford it. I certainly couldn’t at the time. I still haven’t been on a TGV, though I regret not doing so since they look brilliant.

        2. Rail get’s you into to town not out at some distant airport. Heathrow to de Gaulle is one thing but St Pancras to Gare de Nord is a whole different thing…. flying is a far poorer option especially over shorter distances, you need to factor the cost in both time and money of getting from the airports to the cities themselves. The wonderful thing about the 19Century stations is that they right in the centre, no comparison. Isn’t Deusche Bahn now using the tunnel too? Germany to UK now direct-

          Also Obi the business going under is a bit like Whitcoulls here; its all about the debt structures of the equity games up at fantasy money level…. not a real reflection of the actual operating realities.

        3. Patrick… Cities like London are large enough that almost everyone isn’t near to either St Pancras or Heathrow so you lose most of the proximity benefit. St Pancras is more central, but on the other hand there are airports at Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, London City, and Stansted. With the exception of Luton where there is a bus link to the nearest train station, all are well served by public transport and at least one of those is going to be closer to most people. Especially if you live on the outskirts of the city or in the surrounding counties.

    2. Some road users will benefit. Others in Auckland (including this one) will find that it has no effect whatsoever. No doubt there would be others with varying degrees of benefit.

  3. Hmmm and when you travel to Paris you just love to hang at Charles de Gaulle airport… the numbers are against your view of people’s priorities: 75% of air and train travel between London and Paris is by Eurostar.

  4. I think cycling is the best example of projects that have awesome BCRs and huge environmental and health benefits but that are completely starved for funding because they get less than 1% of the NLTF. So there are all these awesome projects competing for a tiny amount of funds – meanwhile, the motorways are rolling in money (if transport projects can roll 🙂

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