On Thursday we will see whether the Auckland Transport Board lives up to the promises of Chairman Lester Levy and radically changes the proposed 10 year transport budget from what staff have put in front of them.
I’ve had sincere apology from AT chair Lester Levy for internal “budget” document mistakenly made public. The doc certainly doesn’t reflect my conversations with @phil_goff and @AklTransport board and our shared commitment to building a modern transport system for Auckland.
— Phil Twyford (@PhilTwyford) January 25, 2018
In the meanwhile it’s perhaps useful to take a deeper look into how this mess happened, in particular how on earth Auckland Transport managed to come up with a proposed budget which does the following:
- Slashes the cycling budget by 90%
- Ranks light-rail as the 83rd highest priority project
- Cuts rail operations
- Ranks a bunch of fairly dubious road projects at the top of the priority list
As I said on Friday, the bulk of the document is actually generally OK and provides a fairly compelling story about what needs to occur to improve Auckland’s transport system. However, it’s important to note that it is the story of what happens if the entire proposed transport programme was to be delivered. This is the programme that still has an unresolved $6 billion funding gap. While the proposed regional fuel tax goes some way towards filling this gap, it doesn’t close it fully, meaning that prioritisation becomes really important.
It is the prioritisation process that sits behind the scenes that sees the cycling budget get slashed and light-rail getting ranked way outside the funding envelope. This is why the table below is so key, unlike the rest of the RLTP document this table shows what’s actually within the funding envelope:
The process of prioritisation is detailed on pages 21-23 of the draft RLTP and is summarised in the diagram below:
Essentially there are committed and discretionary projects. Like the name suggests, the committed projects are ones which already agreed to be funded, such as projects which are carrying on from previous funding cycles. For example, the next batch of electric trains have already been committed to and funded by council so are included regardless.
The discretionary projects end up being ranked, with only some of them ending up within the 10 year funding envelope. This is a decent process and is the same as what was used in the 2015 RLTP. What therefore becomes critically important is how the ranking process occurs, how do we go about assessing whether Project A is better than Project B?
This is where a tool comes in that they call the “ITP calculator”. It uses a variety of criteria to seemingly measure a project’s value and these are shown below.
Once again at a high level this generally seems okay, although I do have a few concerns:
- The housing growth criteria is bizarrely weighted towards greenfield growth which seems to completely contradict the Council’s growth plans that push for most growth to occur in brownfield areas. This probably explains why some projects based around supporting sprawl rank surprisingly high?
- Some of the criteria could result in double counting which would benefit some projects over others, especially as many of them feed into the value for money calculations
It’s also strange that walking, cycling and safety have been missed off the “most significant challenges” list when ATAP says this (note the importance of paragraph 8):
At this point the question of “weighting” becomes really important. We have four “challenges”, seven “ATAP strategic approach interventions”, seven “reduce adverse effects” and an overall cost-benefit analysis. Are these 19 elements all weighted equally as the accompanying text seems to suggest?
So looking at all of this I think it’s possible to figure out how the prioritisation approach went wrong and ended up spitting out the bizarre outcomes of a 90% cut in cycling funding and a roads-centric priority list:
- Walking, cycling and safety should have been included in the first (blue) column to reflect paragraph 8 of ATAP, but for some reason this didn’t happen. Because of this mistake, the cycling programme likely scored poorly because it had no clear “problem” to score itself against.
- Because there is equal weighting, there’s enormous risk of double-counting across the different criteria. It’s pretty easy to see how something like Lincoln Road would have ticked a lot of boxes, even though it is an horrifically ugly and overblown roading project that will miss a huge opportunity to redevelop Lincoln Road as a more people friendly area.
- Because of the inexplicable priority given to supporting greenfield growth, these projects (normally roads) have ended up quite high up the list.
Fortunately, it should be fairly quick and easy to fix up this mess. It seems the ITP calculator’s weightings just need be adjusted to reflect the direction of the Government and the Council more strongly, by more strongly weighting PT, walking and cycling.
Given the importance of this prioritisation tool, it’s surprising that the RLTP doesn’t provide more detail about how it works and it’s also surprising there hasn’t been any public information on the tool made available. Do Councillors even know how it works and how different weightings might change project rankings? Does the Auckland Transport board even understand this process and how it inevitably led to last week’s mess? Where was the oversight in developing the tool?
As I said last week, the real issue that the RLTP mess highlights is one of oversight and governance. Given the huge amount of transport planning progress that’s occurred over the past few years in Auckland and the strong political alignment between the Council and the Government, there should be mechanisms in place to stop parts of Auckland Transport from going rogue like they have so obviously done here. I certainly hope what comes out of this is a long and hard review of how this happened and some potentially big changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again.