There has been an impression over the past while about how the government has adopted a more conciliatory approach to transport in Auckland. In some respects this is true, as they’re no longer getting in the way of quickly progressing the City Rail Link, they stumped up the Urban Cycleway Fund which is delivering some fantastic projects, and through ATAP there’s now alignment between the council and government on Auckland’s future transport needs including expanding the rapid transit network and a more open mind to road pricing. These are all very good things that are a big step forwards from where we were 4-5 years ago.
However, in other respects it seems that relatively little has changed. We still see crazy boondoggle motorway projects being announced before a proper business case has been done. We still see the highly sensible proposal for a regional fuel tax being knocked back for no good reason. And, when it comes to the Government’s most important transport document – the Government Policy Statement (GPS) – we still see a very State Highways focused strategy for transport.
This is the fifth GPS created since legislation was changed in 2008 requiring the document to be prepared. Only four of those have ever actually taken effect though, as the GPS released by the Labour government in mid-2008 was quickly replaced in early 2009 by the new National government. Each GPS provides a variety of strategic directions, objectives and measures, but where the GPS really has “teeth” is in defining upper and lower bounds for how much NZTA can spend on different funding areas – known as “activity classes”. By way of example here are the “funding bands” in the 2015 GPS (we don’t yet have the full 10 year bands for the current Draft GPS):
The real impact of these “funding bands” is that they prevent NZTA from continuing to spend in an area once that “allocation” has been used up, regardless of the merit of that potential investment. So, for example, even if a public transport project had a fantastic cost-benefit ratio and aligned really strongly with the strategic direction outlined in the GPS (and how NZTA gives effect to the GPS through more a more detailed framework), if there are too many PT projects in any given year then NZTA will be unable to fund them.
Given that this is the 5th GPS to be released, we can track how the proportion of investment in activity classes has changed over time. This task is made a bit more difficult as some of the activity class names have changed (for example PT services and PT infrastructure used to be separate but were then merged). To get around this issue and to also simplify it a bit, I’ve narrowed things down to State Highways (both improvements and maintenance), Local Roads (also both improvements and maintenance), Public Transport, Walking & Cycling, Road Policing and Other. While GPS’ are 10 year documents, we only need to consider the first three years as that’s how often the GPS is refreshed. I’ve summed the upper and lower bands for each three year period which is shown as the lighter shade. The (L) and (N) signify a Labour or National Minister of Transport who released the document:
What immediately stands out is how massively State Highway investment has grown over the course of time, nearly doubling from under $4 billion in Labour’s 2009 GPS to over $7 billion in the most recent draft. This has primarily been to fund the government’s expensive Roads of National Significance. Other areas have either remained fairly similar (road policing), grown slowly (local roads) or declined (public transport). Public transport funding is only just getting back to the level originally proposed in 2009 by Labour in the new Draft for 2018-21.
What’s also important to remember is that the overall size of the NLTF grows each year, so it’s worth looking at how the proportions have changed over time. For this I have used the “upper limit” of the funding bands as they are the most crucial in determining what NZTA can and cannot fund.
The most stark change is for State Highways, which have gone up from 42% of total investment in the 2009 GPS to around 55% in the most recent. Public transport, on the other hand, has declined from 14% in the 2009 GPS to 10% in both the 2015 and 2018 documents. Even Local Roads investment has declined, from 25% in 2009 to 22% in the 2018 plan.
Regardless of arguments about modes, it seems like we have a strategic approach to transport funding that is continuously putting more and more eggs in the basket of State Highway improvements. Many of these large State Highway projects have struggled to generate good cost-benefit ratios (another way of saying they’re pretty crap value for money) so it seems odd that we keep shovelling more and more money into them.
Over the next few weeks we will gather some key submission points and put together something to help you make a submission on the draft GPS. Feedback closes at 5pm on March 31.