A change of government within the next week is a possibility. Transport has already been quite a high-profile part of the election campaign, and a change of government could mean fundamental change for the transport sector in areas well beyond just the headline large flashy projects where much of the attention gets directed. Let’s take a look at the ways in which a new Government could really change things, and how that might play out after September 23rd.
Government Policy Statement
The Government’s main legal document for setting the strategic direction for transport is the Government Policy Statement, or GPS for short. This is an incredibly important document as it sends a clear message to NZTA about the key outcomes Government wants from the billions of dollars a year spent on transport, as well as setting some clear financial parameters for the balance of investment the Government wants across state highways, local roads, public transport, walking and cycling, road safety and more.
The current Government released the draft GPS for 2018-21 in March this year and it’s fair to say we weren’t particularly impressed as it continued a very lop-sided approach to transport investment that focuses on state highways rather than local roads, public transport or active modes. The graph below gives a good indication of how state highways are taking up an ever larger part of the overall transport budget – at the cost of everything else:
We would certainly hope to see a significant “re-balancing” of the transport budget under a new government. Polling suggests that this would also be extremely population with the public:
The funding bands themselves are also potentially due for significant change – many of the major rapid transit projects that Auckland needs don’t neatly fit into the current band structure. Are they state highways? Are they public transport? It’s also a no brainer to allow rail projects to get funded through the normal transport budgeting process rather than have to compete against all government priorities for funding. It was only an ideological decision in 2009 that excluded rail from being funded through this normal process. The ATAP process ended up describing rapid transit projects as ‘Strategic Public Transport” which is a good way of thinking about it so at the very least, perhaps changing the State Highways band to Strategic Transport and corresponding changes as to what can be funded from it would be useful.
Beyond just the funding bands, the GPS also needs to be the key tool Government uses to establish a change of direction. The current GPS focuses on supporting economic growth and productivity, improving road safety and achieving value for money. Arguably these are pretty good focus areas, even if the actual detailed policies and funding priorities which have been implemented have been woeful failures (value for money is down because the RoNS have low BCRs, congestion is grown rapidly, and the road toll has increased substantially in recent years). A new Government would probably want to raise up a fourth priority area around reducing the environmental impacts of transport, especially if it was serious about mitigating climate change. Inter-city passenger rail would also clearly need to be pushed through the GPS, with funding commitments.
Of course we would hope the GPS would actually spell out a clear and successful path to achieving its high-level goals – which would be a marked change from the current GPS which (as noted above) has arguably failed at achieving any of its high level goals as congestion has grown, the road toll has grown and value for money has plummeted. This probably means it would need a major rewrite.
Reviewing or Replacing ATAP
After years of bickering over transport, the current Government and Auckland Council finally worked together on the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), which was published last year and then updated recently to reflect higher than expected population growth.
As we said at the time ATAP was released, despite often trying to answer the wrong questions (very focused on congestion and a “predict and provide” methodology) it generally came to the right answers:
- We can’t build out of way of congestion
- A major expansion of the “strategic public transport network” is required
- Auckland’s motorway network is basically now finished (and also that scope for further widening seems quite limited)
- The Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing really isn’t needed for a long time
- We need to move to a comprehensive, better pricing system – which ATAP calls “smarter transport pricing”. It suggests it could take a decade to work though the details before it became a reality.
While generally sound at a high level, ATAP arguably struggled to do the very task most required of it – make some tough decisions about which projects should and shouldn’t be a priority for Auckland. Instead (and particularly after its recent update added in Mill Road and Penlink) it seems ATAP largely took a compromise position of “just do everything and tweak the timings”. With a new Government likely to have a much greater aspiration for investment in a a public transport programme in Auckland, either some major new revenue sources are going to be required or some tough decisions are finally going to be necessary in terms of not building some of the lower value roading projects included in ATAP. Labour’s position to review the East West Link project seems like a really good step in the right direction.
It will be interesting to see whether a new Government would want to make these changes through a review/update of ATAP. A review/update could give ATAP a good shake-up and embed greater aspiration into it while also adding robustness so it doesn’t need to be updated every 6-12 months. Alternatively they might just want to undertake this through normal planning and funding plans. If the Government wants to move quickly on some of its key priorities, a quick update of ATAP to swap in light-rail and swap out East West Link (and potentially others) might be necessary, followed up by more lasting change…
Updating the Land Transport Management Act
…which brings us to the area that will probably take the longest to change, but could have the most important lasting effects – updating the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA). This legislation guides transport decision making, especially the various roles that NZTA plays in the transport planning and funding process. There are a whole variety of changes that could be made to this legislation, but some obvious areas to start would include:
- Enabling a Regional Fuel Tax
- Requiring a long-term nationwide transport strategy (NZTA has essentially had to quietly create their own version of this, the gaping hole is so obvious)
- Integrating transport funding decisions with land-use planning much better. It is crazy what a tiny impact the transport implications of planning decisions have on how those decisions are made, and vice-versa.
- Bringing road safety into line with other Health and Safety legislation (i.e. based on a zero harm or vision zero policy)
- Providing much clearer legislative guidance to how rapid transit networks are developed, probably through clearly identifying NZTA as the lead agency for developing those networks, regardless of mode.
Overall, if the Government does change on September 23rd it could have quite a massive and long-lasting impact on the transport sector.