Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in August 2011.

With a general election later this year there should hopefully be some good debate about transport matters. A lot of this will inevitably revolve around projects: City Rail Link of Puhoi-Wellsford? In Wellington, Basin Reserve Flyover or light-rail to the airport? But should we perhaps take a step back from these debates and give a bit more thought to the fundamental way in which we allocate transport funding? What are the flaws with our current system and how could that be improved? These are all interesting questions that should be explored by the transport policies presented to us later this year – particularly by opposition parties.

Whether there are flaws in our current system of funding allocation obviously depends on what you think of the current government’s decision to prioritise roading projects, particularly building new state highway projects. The proposed Government Policy Statement shows how building new state highways will dominate funding allocation over the next six years:

At first glance, it doesn’t seem particularly smart for us to have one aspect of our transport funding so much higher than everything else – but maybe that is simply because I don’t think we should be spending so much on new state highways. Would I feel the same about such a huge focus on say public transport infrastructure? Well good question – these are all political issues, whether one thinks that we should have more of a roads-focus or a public transport focus.

Obviously one would expect political parties to have transport policies that reflect their particular political bent. But there are some elements of funding allocation which seem obviously open to improvement – regardless of our particular political position. At a broad level, I think these are:

  • Giving the regions more say over how transport money is spent in their area. In other words, providing some level of “bulk funding” to local government and leaving them to decide how they spend it. The main justification for this is that local governments are likely to have a better idea about what’s needed for their area than central government and that people tend to vote on transport issues more in local government elections than in national elections (meaning that giving them more spending power is quite democratic).
  • Allowing all transport projects to compete against each other for funding. At the moment the GPS splits transport funding into various “activity classes” as shown in the different bars of the graph earlier in this post. An upper and lower band of possible funding levels are outlined in the GPS, with projects within each activity class effectively competing against each other for funding – but crucially not allowing projects across the activity classes compete against each other for funding. So we can end up with very cost-effective projects missing out on money because that activity class has been exhausted, while other low-quality projects still get funding because they have a bigger allocation in the GPS. This seems fundamentally a very inefficient process, and I would prefer simply to see the whole National Land Transport Fund being available to any project each year, with the projects ranked for funding regardless of type.
  • Ensuring that all project funding is adequately “risk assessed”: By this I mean that all projects should be assessed based on higher, lower and mid-level fuel prices in the longer term, as well as other sensitivity testing about slower or faster traffic/patronage growth than expected.

These three changes to the funding allocation system seem fairly obvious and independent of political ideology, except perhaps the issue of how much direction central government should give to transport policy and how much should be decided on by local government.

What other changes could we make to the process of allocating transport funding? Obviously some decisions will always depend on the political situation (as it should in a democracy, hence the desire to give more power to local government as that’s often where transport is more of an issue in voters’ mind) but there are probably other ways of improving the effectiveness of how we spend transport dollars. NZTA spend around $3 billion a year on transport, how can we better make sure that money is allocated in the smartest possible way?

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  1. There needs to be a way to get level crossing grade seperation in Auckland completed in a timely fashion. Establishing a priority list of crossings and timeline requiring the completion of say two per year, and making it somebodies KPI to get it done would be a gtood start. Between the govt and council the money is there. The work has to be done and it gets more urgent and more difficult to complete as time passes.
    Reducing dwell times and increasing acceleration/deceleration to Singapore/China/etc. levels should also be made somebodies KPI to get done.

    1. Throwing millions into grade separation of the Auckland railway network will not have any effect on dwell times and only a minor (probably negligible) effect on overall transit times which could be achieved without grade separation anyway.

      The benefactors of grade separation are automobiles. After all: Cars give way to the trains.

      1. Wouldn’t Grade separation enable the trains to stay at Line speed for longer and help reduce some signals that are needed to protect current crossings? It will also help reduce the risks of trains hitting cars and pedestrians that are on the Rail corridor when they shouldn’t be.

        For those reasons alone Grade Separation is a good idea and should be encouraged. As to which Funding stream it should come from it should come from the Road side of the funding stream with Rail only part paying if the Rail grade needs to be lowered or raised.

        1. Grade separations will cost MILLIONS.

          Yes, on the Auckland network, because whoever selected their safety system is clearly an imbecile, the trains are subjected to speed restrictions over level crossings. But it’s not much.

          What is the actual accident rates at these crossings? One a year or every two years? Given that these crossings have loud warning bells and barrier arms; aren’t they usually the fault of the victim?

          How about instead prioritise that money that doesn’t grow on trees on PT projects which are needed and will give financial returns and do the grade separation on a need-to basis?
          That need being; if a crossing is creating a traffic bottleneck? There are so many more worthy things that could be funded before this.

        2. There are 31 level crossings left in Auckland, these are the difficult ones that haven’t been done yet.

          In all likelyhood grade separating all of them would run into the billions, because they would trigger rebuilding bridges, stations and long sections of track.

          Pick your battles. Sarawia St was done because it was a big problem due to it’s proximity to Newmarket junction. Others, not so much.

        3. Count up the true costs of every train slight slow delay in going through a non grade separated crossing.
          There is also the huge disruption & cost to all involved after a more likely death, injury or even small incident due to non grade separation. Let alone the personal tragedy side of things. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, it happens more on level pedestrian and/or vehicle crossings. The more activity we are getting on these lines, the more important it becomes.

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