The government has launched a war against Auckland, seemingly determined to take away the city’s choice for how our transport network is built and funded. Combined with other recent decisions, this will leave Aucklanders with less choice in how we get around, more congestion, higher emissions with higher numbers death and serious injuries than we should have.
Regional Fuel Tax
On Thursday, they started by announcing the removal of the Auckland Regional Fuel Tax by July.
Transport Minister Simeon Brown has confirmed that the Auckland Regional Fuel Tax will end on 30 June 2024.
“Today, I can confirm that the Government has agreed to remove the Auckland Regional Fuel Tax in line with our coalition commitments, and legislation will be introduced to parliament to repeal the tax as part of our 100 Day Plan,” Mr Brown says.
“The RFT was supposed to help fund important projects like Mill Road and Penlink. While Mill Road was cancelled, and Penlink received full Crown funding, Auckland Transport has used RFT revenue to fund many non-roading projects including more cycle lanes, redlight cameras, speed humps, and lowering speed limits across the city,” Mr Brown says.
“I have discussed the unspent funds with Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and signalled our intention that they are to be spent on projects which are of mutual priority to the Government and Auckland Council. These projects include the Eastern Busway, City Rail Link electric trains and stabling, road corridor improvements, and some growth-related transport infrastructure.
“Legislation removing the RFT will require Auckland Transport to only be able to use the remaining RFT revenue and unspent funds towards delivering these projects.
As has become common from the minister, the suggestion that the RFT funding was spent on things it wasn’t meant to be is an outright lie.
If we go back to 2018 when the projects that were to be funded by the RFT were first consulted on, it was made abundantly clear that funding would go towards “non-roading” projects. In fact, that was a large part of the point, with the key objectives of the RFT being to:
- Support substantial growth in key rapid transit corridors, especially where these are now being accelerated. This investment greatly enhances the potential for further housing growth around rapid transit corridors, and realising this growth potential will be critical to ensure the whole transport network can function effectively as Auckland grows to around two million people by 2028.
- Provide for and encourage a step-change in public transport and cycling mode-share in Auckland. This mode shift will deliver significant safety, environmental, health and congestion benefits and leave Auckland much better placed for the introduction of road pricing over time.
- Continue to enable growth in greenfield areas, where around 30% of new homes are forecast to be located over the next decade.
- Improved access as a result of the provision of more congestion-free alternatives for travel and changes in land use enabled by rapid transit investment.
- Improve safety outcomes with an expected significant reduction in deaths and serious injuries each year.
- Reducing the transport system’s environmental impacts by improving the attractiveness, reliability and safety of more sustainable travel options (walking, cycling, public transport, carpooling).
Furthermore, by cutting the RFT, it’s not just that one funding source that’s lost, but all of the funding that it unlocks, including government contributions from the National Land Transport Fund, other council funding, and things like development contributions.
Essentially, that RFT which collected around $150 million per year unlocked a transport package of around $4.3 billion over a decade. Here are the key projects included in the package at the time it was introduced (although there were changes over time after the previous government took over Mill Rd and Penlink):
It’s also worth remembering that the previous government only introduced the RFT because Auckland asked for it to do so, and it took many rounds of consultation to get to that point.
Cancelling or delaying the projects that were intended to be funded by the RFT will only mean that Aucklanders will be worse off. It means fewer people will have choice in how they get around, meaning more people have to drive, resulting in more congestion, more emissions and ultimately, more people buying more fuel and thus paying more fuel tax.
Finally on this: the government do say they have “committed to working closely with the Mayor and Auckland Council to pass legislation allowing time of use charging to be introduced in Auckland to ensure more reliable journey times for Aucklanders“.
“Time of use charging” is just another name for congestion pricing, and it’s good that they’re committed to it, but the goal of that is primarily about changing when or how people travel. While this charge will inevitably raise some revenue, that’s not its key goal.
More importantly, even if today the government passed legislation to enable it, it will still take a number of years for the system to be designed and start to be rolled out – and in the meantime, that still leaves Auckland with a giant funding gap.
The following day, Simeon Brown laid out some of his transport priorities in a speech to the business group Committee for Auckland. And while some of those priorities are not a surprise, having been part of National’s Transport Policy, the comments particularly on the Harbour crossing are a major concern. As Newsroom reports:
Brown said he is writing a draft policy statement as part of the National-led Government’s 100-day plan, which he called a “blueprint for refocusing the New Zealand Transport Agency, and by extension Auckland Transport, on the basics”.
Those basics are building and maintaining the roads, making public transport safe and reliable, and efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
“We are moving away from the previous government’s untargeted approach to a targeted strategy that addresses the core needs of our transport network,” he said.
“Our directive to the transport agencies will be clear: we are prioritising projects that deliver real value to commuters and businesses alike, ensuring that our cities and regions are well-connected and that our economy thrives.”
But as much was revealed by what wasn’t said – the reduction of carbon emissions was not mentioned.
Speaking on his desires for the city’s transport network, Brown gave a few hints as to what his future may hold.
Light rail has already been axed, with a promise to focus on other transport links like Mill Road and State Highway 16 in its stead.
Brown said a rapid busway along State Highway 16 could be a priority, following in the mold of the much-lauded Northern Busway.
“Priority projects we have identified include Mill Road, East West Link, a Northwestern Rapid Transit network and setting a vision for a four-lane connection between Whangārei and Tauranga to unlock economic growth in the upper North Island.”
He also spoke of the need for a new harbour crossing, but said he would remove the cyclist and pedestrian lanes and light rail options to the North Shore that had been previously considered.
The idea of “getting back to basics” is extremely values-laden – after all, what can be more basic than being able to easily walk or cycle around your neighbourhood or city? This is something that most people are able to do freely, and doesn’t come with restrictions like needing a driver’s licence or being able to purchase (and maintain) a car. “The basics” are also not multi-billion mega-projects.
The briefing from the Ministry of Transport that we covered last week highlighted one of the big benefits of ideas like Congestion Pricing – which the government just said they’re committed to:
Congestion pricing in Auckland will raise some revenue but its value is in improved productivity and potentially deferring some capital spending.
Mill Rd was turned from a local road upgrade into a pseudo-motorway estimated to cost $3.5 billion. Committing to projects like it and the East-West Link, one of the most expensive roads in the world on a per-km basis, before introducing congestion pricing is absurd – and completely undermines the rhetoric that the government wants to focus on efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
We should put congestion pricing in first, and then see what road projects we still need. Speaking of “needing” the East-West, Mayor Wayne Brown says we don’t even want it.
The Auckland Mayor said he and the Transport Minister have got “a bit of an argy-bargy” coming up because the Government want to build motorways in Auckland that “we don’t want”, such as an east-west motorway.
As bad as those projects are, peremptorily removing pedestrian and bike lanes from any future harbour crossing is petty, and the type of decision that future generations will rue. Doing it twice during the peak of motordom (when the bridge was built, and then again when the clip-ons were added) is something that most people today regard as a mistake that was doubled down on. But making that same decision again in 2024 is cartoonishly dumb and malicious. Is Brown scared of bikes?
It’s also a far cry from even the previous National-led government, which started the Urban Cycleway Fund that led to projects like Lightpath, the Nelson St cycleway and a cycleway on Quay St. Then-Prime Minister John Key, at the opening of the Grafton Gully Cycleway in 2014, was even supportive of getting across the harbour by bike and noted some of the obvious local tourism benefits. This was after speaking about the need for more dedicated cycleways to enable a wide range of trips. You can listen to his whole speech here.
I know the mayor’s been working very hard on a pretty exciting initiative about getting the Skypath over the Harbour Bridge […..] But I’ll tell you now, if we can open that up and link cycleways from here over through to the North Shore and across the bridge, you are going to get a huge number of families that are going to say, that’s all right, I’m going to take a Sunday afternoon, it’ll be a lot of fun, it’ll be exciting for the kids, it’ll be a really fun family thing to do. And so I do think we have to be a bit progressive about what we’re trying to achieve and see if we can rush some of those things along.
Key was also present at the opening of the interim Quay St cycleway alongside then Transport Minister Simon Bridges.
Simeon Brown being able to make such a decision does once again highlight one of Labour’s failings while in government. Namely, pushing for a walking and cycling-only bridge, instead of making the proposition much more useful by combining active modes with a public transport crossing for only a modest amount more. And then failing again, by pushing for crazy expensive big tunnelsl instead of more affordable bridge options.
I guess the only moderating factor for me here is that it’s unlikely we’ll see any real progress on a harbour crossing over the next few years, so there’s still time for the minister’s position to change – or for the government to change.
There’s a lot more to come from this government on transport and if, as expected, it’s a continuation of what we’ve seen so far, it’ll be a long three years.