On Tuesday the long-awaited review of Auckland’s Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) was released. While the headlines focused on the proposed merger between ATEED and Regional Facilities Auckland, there are also some important changes to how transport decisions are made, especially in the way that Regional Land Transport Plans are developed.

The final report from the CCO review runs to over 100 pages so for now I’ll just focus on what seems like it could be important for how transport decision-making happens. A quick read through the later sections on accountability and culture could also have some significant implications, but these are a bit less immediately clear.

Perhaps the most interesting section relates to discussion of how transport strategy happens. The CCO review in general is pretty scathing of Council’s lack of capability in strategy development, but in the transport space it points the finger at legislative changes made in 2013 to the Land Transport Management Act:

Transport strategy

Auckland Transport assumed responsibility from the council for setting the city’s transport priorities in the regional land transport plan when the Land Transport Management Act 2003 was amended in 2013. The changes amalgamated two planning documents, the council’s regional transport strategy and Auckland Transport’s investment programme, into a single document, the regional land transport plan, which Auckland Transport was given responsibility for approving. The change left the council in a unique position among local authorities of having no statutory role in developing the transport strategy in its jurisdiction.

This amendment, in our view, was wrong in principle and at odds with the intent of Auckland’s local government reforms, which was to give the CCO responsibility for preparing a regional transport plan and the council responsibility for approving it to ensure consistency with its own land use planning as well as central government legislation and policy. We did consider whether to recommend a legislative change to bring about this intent, but we concluded a non-legislative approach could achieve the same outcome more quickly and simply. This would involve Auckland Transport and council staff working collaboratively to develop the regional land transport plan, which the governing body would endorse before going to the CCO’s board for approval. Auckland Transport said this approach would help create a “single source of the truth” about Auckland’s transport future.

The need for a much greater Council role in developing the RLTP seems like it’s a direct response to the absolute mess that Auckland Transport made of the RLTP in early 2018, when they bizarrely put together a draft document that was stuffed with roading projects and slashed investment in public transport, walking and cycling. This RLTP, which fortunately was never approved by the AT Board (although presumably they had workshopped it with staff before releasing it as a draft), contained the following howlers:

  • Slashed the cycling budget by 90%
  • Ranked light-rail as the 83rd highest priority project
  • Cut rail operations
  • Ranked a bunch of fairly dubious road projects at the top of the priority list

Ultimately, Minister of Transport Phil Twyford needed to intervene:

The RLTP was then put on hold, and a detailed update to the Auckland Transport Alignment Project eventually effectively took over the job of the RLTP to define the 10-year investment programme. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the debacle of the draft 2018 RLTP weighed strongly on the minds of those putting together the CCO review.

Given the transport programme makes up such a large proportion of Auckland Council’s budget, it makes sense for the Council’s Governing Body to effectively have ‘joint ownership’ of the RLTP with the Auckland Transport board. Of note, the recent RMA review suggested merging the RLTP with the council’s parallel Long Term Plan process and if implemented would shift the creation of that to the council.

The next interesting area the CCO review discussed was in relation to how Auckland Transport need to get better at small projects. Given many of the most important changes we need to make to the transport system are collections of relatively small projects (e.g. safety improvements, walking and cycling improvements), it’s critical for Auckland Transport to get better at this job. As I mentioned last week, the lack of progress in the last few years on implementing cycling plans is absolutely unforgivable.

Auckland Transport’s processes for approving small projects are, in our view, simply unsuited to the task. A public transport study Auckland Transport commissioned in 2017 concluded the CCO’s approval process contained unnecessary requirements, and that it also took longer than comparable Australian cities to complete small projects.

The CCO said it planned to look for ways to improve the approval and implementation processes for small projects. It said some of those improvements could include:

  • reviewing its project development processes for small projects, including the time taken to design the work, consult the community on that design and obtain the necessary consents (One frustration of local communities is that Auckland Transport doesn’t usually seek their input until it has prepared a design concept. Admittedly, the CCO often subsequently amends the design after feedback, but as many local board and ratepayer groups pointed out, it makes obvious sense to seek input beforehand. After all, locals often know what will work and what won’t better than a CCO-employed engineer unfamiliar with an area.)
  • review its customer response process – in other words, tell communities or individual ratepayers concerned when it has no budget to carry out work they have requested
  • make more use of local boards as “proxies” for community views to avoid protracted public consultation
  • extend the use of dedicated small-projects teams (the CCO already has some for minor programmes such as maintenance and public safety) to speed up the execution of projects.

All these options are worthy of consideration. Given local board projects are involved in 100 of the CCOs’ 560 projects a year, improving the way it manages them should be one of its top priorities, and the council should monitor its progress in this respect. Even Auckland Transport acknowledges that improving the way these 100 projects are delivered could go a long way towards improving local board satisfaction. We would add another option to this list: share the design of local communities’ transport programmes with local boards. (These programmes include minor works and educational and road safety awareness activities.) Adopting a genuinely shared approach to local transport would, in our view, address a lot of criticisms levelled at Auckland Transport and also greatly improve the CCO’s working relationships with local boards.

Radically overhauling consultation processes that clearly don’t work at the moment must be a top priority, alongside making it far easier and quicker to actually get on with doing fairly small-scale improvements to the transport system. We’ve been calling for change for a long time though, and even as recently as this week we’ve heard of small projects being required to have dozens of staff in project management roles, so I’ll believe it when I see it.

Something else which doesn’t help overly long and complicated processes has also been picked up by the CCO review – NZTA’s tortuous business case and funding approval system. Again, this isn’t exactly news as it’s been obvious for years how completely dysfunctional this process is. The CCO review doesn’t hold back in its criticism:

Auckland Transport described the way it received funding from the New Zealand Transport Agency as a “very significant issue”. It said obtaining the necessary (50 per cent) funding contribution from the agency could take anywhere from three months to two years, even for the simplest of projects, because the approval process was so lengthy and involved. Plus, it said, any project with an estimated cost of more than $1 million required both a detailed business case and an application for funding before the New Zealand Transport Agency would approve funding. (As we were writing this report, the agency increased the value of projects requiring these protracted processes to $2 million.)

Auckland Transport said the agency’s funding process was inflexible and bureaucratic, adding that “it would be difficult to design a more complicated process”. The CCO told us the biggest component of many small projects was the business case and funding approval processes, which diverted scarce resources from where they were really needed. Even the new $2 million threshold was, it said, “very low”. In addition, submitting a strong business case did not necessarily mean approval would be forthcoming – and projects were unlikely to proceed without such approval and funding. Auckland Transport’s submission to us included a case study for dedicated bus lanes (and bus interchange improvements) that showed the process for getting funding approval would take a year, even if fast-tracked.

This situation has arisen because the royal commission’s recommended shift to what it called “outcome-based funding” never came to pass. Specifically, it said the process for approving individual projects should over time “move to an outcome-based model, where strategic objectives in the overall funding envelope are established by the parent organisations, but the tactical decisions on funding priorities are made by the CCO’”. What it meant, in effect, was that the CCO could receive bulk-funding – an amount agreed upon by central and local government each year, depending on the CCO’s strategic objectives – and Auckland Transport would be left to execute projects big or small with that funding. Auckland Transport has estimated that such an approach would produce an efficiency gain of 5 per cent – that is, it would save $500 million over its 10-year $10 billion regional land transport capital programme. It would also avoid the huge effort that currently went into preparing funding applications and business cases.

As hinted at, NZTA have made some recent changes to their processes, but these seem almost laughably ‘tinkering around the edges’, when a much more fundamental review of the way transport planning and business cases processes is required.

The recommended improvements that have been suggested by the CCO review, in relation to Auckland Transport, all seem to broadly make sense:

  • Auckland Transport and the council should jointly prepare the regional land transport plan, the draft of which the council should endorse before it goes to Auckland Transport’s board for approval.
  • Auckland Transport and the council should set up a working group to clearly delineate their bylawmaking powers and its work should culminate in a memorandum of understanding setting out the agreed approach. The council should help Auckland Transport with its bylaw-making activities, given Auckland Transport has acknowledged a lack of capability in this area.
  • Auckland Transport should urgently review its processes for minor capital works, including how it involves local boards and the potential for local boards to share in the design of its annual work programme during the preparation of local board engagement plans.
  • Auckland Transport and the council should explore urgently with the Ministry of Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency how to streamline funding processes, particularly in relation to business case and funding approval requirements.

It will be interesting to see if the Council follows through with all these recommendations.

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38 comments

  1. Safe separated cycling infra should never be considered ‘small’ projects – the network (even if incomplete) should be treated as a substantial item in its own right.

    1. Resource Consent hearing is supposed to be happening for the Te Whau Pathway… not sure if the current Auckland Level 3 situation will delay this or not.

      The key dates for the hearing are:

      Council S42a report available
      Friday 28 August 2020, 5pm

      Applicant’s evidence due
      Friday 4 September 2020 by 12 noon

      Submitters expert evidence due
      Friday 11 September 2020 by 12 noon

      Applicant’s supplementary evidence and legal submissions requested
      Thursday 17 September 2020 by 12 noon

      Submitter’s non-expert evidence requested
      Thursday 17 September 2020 by 12 noon

      Appearance forms returned
      Friday 11 September by 12 noon

      Hearing commences
      Monday 21 September, 9:30am

  2. I thought AT had Delegated Financial Authority up to $5 million from NZTA, the only local authority to have this? Projects $1 million and below fall into low cost low risk across the country which sounds like it’s now up to $2 million.

  3. A great post with more then a few hints of how transport policy structures were either covertly designed to, or became hijacked, to provision roading, rather then holistic transport.
    The cynic in me says too, that the processes were designed to divert, as much spend as possible to the white collar careers of planners, analysts, design, and communication consultants, away from the blue collar doors of the required works.
    All in all, shockingly inefficient systems add unwarranted time and expense.
    Covid has demonstrated that our governance systems do have spectacular ability move quickly, in design and effective implementation. We have got to get away from the mindset that process takes precedent over objective setting, and implementation.

  4. Until the entire team and decision makers working on it are daily rain or shine commuter cyclists (not ebike) I don’t think they’ll have the required perspective of what good safe cycling infrastructure looks like and how much of what they’re doing now is a waste of money, e.g. Anything that looks like the cycleways through Mt Albert shops or the wiggly route south of unitec to NAL

    1. Although not all those on bicycles are commuters – we need to design so that people of all ages can safely ride a bike to their chosen destination – not just design for people to speed through – regardless of their mode.

    2. I’m a daily rain or shine non-E-bike commuter and I wish I had the cycleways that were built on NNR thru the Mt Albert shops on my commute, even though it would slow me down.

      1. I was there on Sunday (and traffic was pretty bad), and yes they’re pretty weird but they kept me safer than I used to be. Also, by being inside the parked cars, it provided a small distance between me and the fumes. Knowing how bad the fumes and how even a small distance makes a difference, this was reassuring.

  5. We often see the team working on a project disbanded after the project finished.

    This make it harder to make continuous tweaks and improvements later on.

    There should be a permanent “product owner” (go to person) for each project even after it has been finished.

    The product owner should be responsible to plan future roadmaps and improvements based on feedback from community and local councils.

    A percentage of funding is “pre-approved” for low cost improvements and tweaks after the project is first delivered.

    This ensures we continue to get improvements after the project is finished.

  6. “review its customer response process – in other words, tell communities or individual ratepayers concerned when it has no budget to carry out work they have requested”

    So many times I have seen AT make up tenuous excuses (sometimes outright insulting my intelligence) when I would have preferred a more honest “we can’t pay for this” response. But the tendency seems to always have been “don’t say that”. It’s like a consultancy telling a client “we don’t have enough people to take your job”. Its always something else instead, lol.

    1. Its particularly bad with consultations on projects where the project manager clearly has NO budget leeway to include ANY suggested improvements to the finalised design they put up. Why even consult then…

        1. And ongoing distrust. I wish organisations would just tell the public that they are informing rather than consulting us. Stop pretending.

    2. The honest response would be ‘we can’t pay for this because most of our funding—notwithstanding our oft-repeated weasel words—is focussed on ensuring motorised vehicle flow’. So, despite this report’s recommendation, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter any truthful explanation from AT in the future, unless, of course, there’s a clear out of the Augean Stable that is AT and I see no Hercules on the horizon.

  7. “Adopting a genuinely shared approach to local transport would, in our view, address a lot of criticisms levelled at Auckland Transport and also greatly improve the CCO’s working relationships with local boards.”

    Caveat – some local boards are either dysfunctional themselves, or their preferences are massively at odds with the stated policies of Council / AT. It isn’t a magic bullet to devolve things more to them.

    1. Agreed. Most people don’t know or care who is on their local board. Turnout for local elections is low. This leaves local boards pretty unaccountable. “Consulting” with local boards would be at best pointless and at worst counterproductive.

      Some people might suggest that the solution is to fix the local board system. I am very skeptical that it can be done. It’d require changes not just to the local government system and local body elections but also incentivising the media to cover what it is that local boards actually do.

      1. And all those improvements should be attempted. But we cannot hang our transport project roll-out processes on the success of such a process. Seriously – it hasn’t been agreed to, designed, started, and it doesn’t guarantee a sufficiently better outcome to be worth any wait.

  8. “This situation has arisen because the royal commission’s recommended shift to what it called “outcome-based funding” never came to pass. Specifically, it said the process for approving individual projects should over time “move to an outcome-based model, where strategic objectives in the overall funding envelope are established by the parent organisations, but the tactical decisions on funding priorities are made by the CCO’”. What it meant, in effect, was that the CCO could receive bulk-funding – an amount agreed upon by central and local government each year, depending on the CCO’s strategic objectives – and Auckland Transport would be left to execute projects big or small with that funding. ”

    1) The Royal Commission is wrong. This would simply lead to pork barrel politics. NZ needs to spend every dollar it has efficiently and to provide net social welfare (well-being benefits).

    2) NZTA can still tweak the Economic Assessment further to ensure the business cases are a proportionate cost and time compared to the actual project.

    3) If NZ really wants to make progress on urban transit then the subsidies to private car use (no congestion tolls, parking subsidies etc) need to be removed rather than blaming the socio cost benefit assessment

  9. Auckland Transport and the other CCOs need to be merged into the council which would address a lot of these issues.

    A similar review ought to be made of KiwiRail and the structure and funding of rail in general in New Zealand.

    The current situation which has resulted in the condition of the tracks in Auckland deteriorating to the state where all trains across the Auckland suburban metro area will be running at 40km/hr for up to 6 months from next Monday really needs attention:

    https://www.kiwirail.co.nz/media/trains-to-be-temporarily-slowed-as-kiwirail-accelerates-track-repair-works-new-media-article/

    According to some of the KiwiRail track staff, they say Auckland Transport doesn’t give them enough opportunity to do maintenance and renewal work on the network and keep extending the timetable later into the evenings which results in even less time to do work overnight. They also say that the EMUs which are ever increasing in number and frequency, are causing the rails to wear out faster.

    KiwiRail have also not had enough staff to do all the work, which has stemmed from years of not having enough funding or budget to employ and train more staff and do more maintenance and renewal work.

    The whole situation is a big mess. The Government needs to step in and order a major restructure of KiwiRail – separate the commercial KiwiRail Freight business which should remain as a SOE rail operator, and vest everything else into the NZ Railways Corporation to be run as a Government rail agency, similar to Network Rail in the UK.

    All KiwiRail passenger services and the Auckland and Wellington metros should be vested in a new Government-owned nationwide public transport organisation, run as a division of the NZ Railways Corporation, similar to AMTRAK in the US.

    1. “According to some of the KiwiRail track staff, they say Auckland Transport doesn’t give them enough opportunity to do maintenance and renewal work on the network and keep extending the timetable later into the evenings which results in even less time to do work overnight. They also say that the EMUs which are ever increasing in number and frequency, are causing the rails to wear out faster.”

      This is so typical of rail operations in New Zealand. An absolute bare bones urban service is too much wear on our tracks and too little night works opportunites for our crews. Somehow other countries cope with 4 hour night time shutdowns and 24 hour services on weekends and running trains every couple of minutes all day. Our infrastructure has been in managed decline for so long that the staff in the organisation can only see the network in that light.

      What has actually happened is that we have invested so little in our network that it is falling apart under moderate use, and we have trained and employed so few track workers that we can’t even do routine maintenance without shutting down entire lines.

    2. The headline is 40km/h for six months but the reality, revealed in bits and pieces throughout the media release is that from Monday trains will only be running every 20 minutes and will take 50% longer than their current timetable.

      That is a disgrace. I had to double check the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1.

      1. Possibly no Southern line trains south of Otahuhu and no Pukekohe shuttle, all replaced by buses?? Almost 2 hours to get from Pukekohe to Britomart lol.

    3. I don’t know why people keep looking to the UK and the US for direction regarding rail.

      I’d be looking toward Germany and Switzerland, which incidentally both have a single state owned enterprise much like Kiwirail. I agree though Kiwirail probably would need a significant restructure to make them as successful as DB and SBB.

  10. The headline is 40km/h for six months but the reality, revealed in bits and pieces throughout the media release is that from Monday trains will only be running every 20 minutes and will take 50% longer than their current timetable.

    That is a disgrace. I had to double check the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1.

    1. Sorry about the double post. I got an error the first time I submitted this comment and stupidly pressed “Submit” again without checking whether it had really posted. Mea culpa.

    2. “KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller says recent testing across the Auckland metro network has indicated wear on the tracks is more widespread”

      So it seems that the condition of the track has come as a bit of a surprise to the handsomely-paid Mr Miller.
      For an intensively- worked system carrying the level of passenger traffic that Auckland’s does, knowing the condition of the track and how wear is trending is a must. For Miller to claim that he’s has recently found out is cause for his resignation or dismissal.

      In the meantime y’all keep on trying to make the case for public transport….no, really.

      1. Has this Mr Miller never ridden a train in Auckland? Experienced the rock and roll ride, the rumble from the corrugated tracks, seen the large crystals in the poorly annealed steel or looked along the wavy lines? Has he even been within 500 m of a line to hear the clang from the bolted joins?
        Every now and then you can see a piece of track embossed with NZR GRADE A 1970 which looks to be smooth and clean. Subsequent owners treating railways as a cash cow are largely responsible for this.
        At the Takanini station there is a soft spot where the track flexes 50 mm+ when a goods train runs over it. Its been there for 150 years, The old trackmen would have known about it and kept an eye on it. Now the ballast crumbles and shatters under the movement and it is unattended until the rock dust is piled high.
        There are reballasting/track alignment machines that can maintain several kilometres of track a night. Why are these not being used? Even in the Britomart tunnel, where there is a concrete base the carriages still rock about. Did privatisation completely destroy the knowledge base on how to lay a rail line?
        Railways rely on a skilled and knowledgeable workforce.

    1. I think it’s more a legacy of the decades of neglect particularly from the 1980s on. If you saw the state of Auckland rail in the period before Britomart opened in 2004, it’s no surprise the network is crumbling under intensive use especially given the various projects such as “DART” and the electrification had a strong element of lipstick on a 1920s pig.

  11. Recommendations sound good. Been really starting to think AT should just be a subsection of the Council now we have a super city that is running pretty smoothly now. I guess would be too much disruption to change things again & better just to fine tune and sort the issues.

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