Last week, as the new government were being sworn in, Infrastructure New Zealand (INZ), the lobby group representing infrastructure builders and financiers, were holding a conference about …. infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, INZ and many of their members have been some of the strongest supporters of the previous government’s massive road building programme and from reports were quite glum last week.
INZ are also the group that said the $4-6 billion harbour crossing wasn’t big enough so pushed for it to be linked to the reanimated corpse of the eastern motorway. They’re also the ones recently shot themselves in the foot by comparing one of their favourite projects, the East-West Link, to a corruption ridden project in Russia.
But they did have some advice for the new government.
The new government has been told it must not chop and change practices to have any hope of meeting ambitious development goals set for New Zealand in the election campaign.
Contracting companies at a conference organised by Infrastructure New Zealand said consistent policies would contrast with years of politically motivated flip-flops that often left businesses high and dry.
The comments at the conference – which started in Wellington yesterday – came on the day the new government was sworn into office pledging to electrify rail and build 10,000 houses a year.
Infrastructure New Zealand said more development like this was a good idea.
But chief executive Stephen Selwood said for that to happen, New Zealand had to put politics-based boom-bust practices behind it, once and for all.
“Projects are suddenly sprung up on the industry unexpectedly,” Mr Selwood said.
“There is a boom while that goes through and suddenly there is no money or priorities change and the tap is turned off.
“What that means is the industry gears up for boom-bust cycles.”
Mr Selwood said to develop New Zealand infrastructure, companies needed to order materials, train staff and sign contracts long-term, and for that, they needed a secure pipeline of projects stretching into the future.
But that was not how things were done by many companies in New Zealand.
“They don’t invest for the long term, they gear themselves so they can ramp up staff as needed on short-term contracting methods, and then drop them off when the bust comes through.
“If we are going to go forward, building a long-term pipeline of projects is essential.”
I think it’s more than a bit disingenuous to infer that the new government’s focus is politically motivated but that the previous government’s infrastructure policies weren’t. In some ways, I think we’re seeing the pendulum swinging the other way to the degree it is, simply because it was so hard to get even good urban transport projects off the ground.
As to the main point, I don’t disagree that a steady pipeline of work is a good idea but this isn’t a new issue. I suspect that is in part because of the piecemeal way we tend to build infrastructure, breaking programmes down into smaller projects that are each tendered out individually with no guarantee subsequent sections will actually happen.
The desire for a pipeline of work, combined with the announcements Phil Twyford has already made about Light Rail got me thinking though, perhaps it’s time we looked at how we deliver these differently.
Our Congestion Free Network 2, which has been adopted by the government, essentially contains three main light rail projects:
- City to the Airport
- City to the Northwest
- City to the North Shore, upgrading the Northern Busway (which will likely be needed within 10-15 years).
So how about we create a pipeline of work to deliver this light rail network over say a 10-15 year period with the idea of delivering say 5-10km of the network every few years? Most of the first section from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill is also apparently fairly easy to consent as is within the existing road corridor so could help in getting it underway relatively quickly while planning work works though other sections.
There are obviously plenty of other projects that need building over that time frame too, but having a steady programme of work churning out planning and then delivery of light rail every few years sounds exactly what the infrastructure industry are after.
If we really want to be a bit bolder, we could even tie in the construction of housing so that as vastly improved transport options are created, we also increase the number of people who can access it.