On October 20th 2017 I wrote a very hopeful post about the change that is coming to transport. The previous evening Winston Peters had, finally, chosen to form a Government with Labour. In that post I laid out a lot of reasons to be hugely optimistic about the future. This included:
- Support for implementing our ‘Congestion Free Network’ including major progress on light-rail to the Airport and the Northwest within the decade.
- A commitment to push ahead with inter-regional passenger rail between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, as we originally proposed in our Regional Rapid Rail concept
- Ending a bunch of stupidly expensive, low value roading projects like East West Link and other proposed Roads of National Significance
- A significant boost for cycling funding, including delivery of key missing links like SkyPath across the Waitemata Harbour in Auckland
- A big shakeup of funding priorities in the GPS, and a new version of ATAP to recognise the much more aligned strategy of the Government with Auckland Council
Looking back, nearly five years later now, obviously there have been some positive changes and progress on some good things, but I have a sense of disappointment. Not so much that I feel misled, but rather that – with a few notable exceptions – they haven’t done well at achieving their goals.
Perhaps what makes it all the more frustrating and disappointing is that over the past 5 years we have had two Ministers of Transport – Phil Twyford and now Michael Wood – who have both seemed to understand their portfolios and the need for change that is very much in line with the vision Greater Auckland has for transport in this city, and indeed this country.
So what’s gone wrong? Or am I being overly negative? Let’s look at those two questions, starting with the latter.
Should we actually be disappointed?
There is no doubt this government has done some really good things when it comes to transport over the past five years. Things that come to mind in particular are:
- Both GPS 2018 and 2021 brought transport policy out of the dark ages and into the 21st century, with a much stronger focus on actually achieving important outcomes like safety, emissions reduction, access, mode shift and more.
- The excellent transport chapter of the Emissions Reduction Plan, which sets us on a path to a fundamentally transformed transport future in this country. Some of the policies coming out of this, like the Clean Car rebate scheme have been really good at accelerating electrification of the vehicle fleet.
- Public transport fares have been halved (although only temporarily)
- Changes to housing policy like the National Policy Statement for Urban Development and the Medium Density Residential Standards, as well as the removal of minimum parking requirements, will make it easier for more homes to be built close to high quality transport options. These changes have been far more significant than we imagined was possible.
- The Road to Zero strategy, which starts to embed vision zero principles to road safety and highlights that deaths and serious injuries are avoidable and unacceptable
- Enabling a Regional Fuel Tax for Auckland, which has allowed major progress on key Auckland Transport projects like the Eastern Busway, road safety programmes and the Puhinui interchange
- The Te Huia intercity passenger service between Hamilton and Auckland was introduced, and has continued to grow in popularity once people realised its target market is more day-trippers and people making business trips, not just peak time commuters.
- East West Link was cancelled. Back in 2017 this was estimated to cost $2 billion and was labelled the most expensive road per kilometre ever by the infrastructure lobby that apparently supported it. Given the other project cost blowouts I hate to think what that cost would be today and the hole it would be putting in our transport budgets.
Yet at the same time, there’s some massive disappointments alongside these wins. Again, just a few that come to mind:
- The absolute ongoing debacle that is Light Rail. More than seven years after originally being proposed by Auckland Transport and nearly five years after the government took the project over we have nothing but a stupidly impractical $15 billion tunnel idea that seemingly everyone knows will never happen – and even if it does happen, we we probably won’t see it for a decade.
- The ongoing mess of the NZ Upgrade Programme. It was originally announced in January 2020, just before COVID struck and seemingly to quieten down political difficulties around not progressing a bunch of major highways that were never affordable anyway. But it has been nothing but an ugly headache from start to finish.
First, it included a bunch of projects like Mill Road, Penlink and Otaki to North of Levin that directly contradict the good policy changes mentioned above. Then last year gigantic cost blowouts hit every project, followed shortly after by the cancellation of Skypath because Waka Kotahi refused sensible options like a combined PT and active mode bridge. Seemingly the only projects that haven’t been a complete disaster are the rail ones being delivered by KiwiRail – which were probably the most sensible bunch of the lot.
- A complete lack of progress on Northwest Rapid Transit over the past five years – aside from some woefully inadequate short-term improvements. While arguably not as bad as what’s happened with the City Centre to Mangere corridor, which is now in a worse place compared to five years ago, the fact that no further planning and design work seems to have progressed at all for the northwest over the past five years is pretty outrageous. The fact that this government is talking about another harbour crossing and spending $830 million on Penlink while nothing happens on Northwest Rapid Transit just boggles my mind.
- The very hastily arranged reduction in fuel tax and road user charge that has never had a clear exit plan and now looks likely to become permanent – a massive subsidy for burning fossil fuels at a time when we’re apparently trying to reduce our emissions.
Overall, perhaps the best way to summarise is that the government has certainly talked a much better talk, modernising many policies and setting things up to be better in the future. But they’ve been hopeless when it comes to actually making change on the ground. When it’s come to the really big decisions that will actually affect what happens in reality – rather than just fancier words on a page – they’ve either struggled to make things happen (like light-rail), or they’ve made decisions completely inconsistent with what they’re trying to achieve (like most of NZUP).
Therefore I think we should be disappointed. Perhaps worse than this I think the Government should be really disappointed in themselves in terms of what they’ve actually achieved – or not achieved – over the past five years in transport. They’ve had such admirable goals and objectives, but have somehow failed miserably in delivering the things to help achieve these goals. It’s very sad really.
So what’s gone wrong?
Looking above at the things which have generally gone right and the things that have gone wrong, I think two big things stand out:
- The government has been let down by its officials – especially delivery agencies like Waka Kotahi. While mid-level officials have done an increasingly good job at writing nice policies and plans, the government has been too trusting that delivery agencies would willingly get on with implementing those same policies. In fact it seems like those delivery agencies have done everything possible to undermine and delay progress. I’m surprised a much more significant overhaul of different transport organisations, roles and responsibilities has not occurred yet.
- The government has made bad decisions when in a rush. The mess of NZUP since its inception is largely due to the secretive, hurried way it was put together for political reasons rather than aligning with policy. The same can be said for light rail where after previous failures the government were keen to show progress. Then again with the FED/RUC reduction, a massive change to transport funding systems that was hurried through.
Making bad decisions in a rush is something hopefully that can be avoided in the future – probably through having better advisors in key positions. The problem with rogue delivery agencies runs much deeper and will require a lot more sustained effort to fix.
Looking back, perhaps the government didn’t quite foresee the level of institutional pushback it would get when shifting priorities away from a series of hand plucked mega roading projects towards more of an outcomes-led, multi-modal approach to transport. Perhaps it should have recognised much earlier the need to focus on forcing change within those delivery agencies. Or at the very least, successive Ministers of Transport should have had the very best advisors in the country so they knew when agencies and officials were pulling the wool over their eyes.
What to do?
Looking at the list of good things and bad things above, what’s perhaps interesting is that the government has made a lot of fairly good small decisions, with its mistakes or bad decisions being relatively few in number, but very large in consequence. Ironically this means it’s perhaps easier to put right, because there are only a few things that need to be changed – such as
- making light-rail a sensible realistic project,
- making sure NZUP actually aligns with and delivers government transport goals (and getting a good walking and cycling option in place across the harbour) and
- actually making genuine progress on northwest rapid transit.
But if this is to really stick, I also think more significant change in the transport sector is required – a big shakeup of who does what, alongside the planning and investment processes which shape the future of our transport system.
The government has spent five years talking a good talk. It now needs to start walking the walk.