After a week of palace intrigue, National’s rescheduled transport policy was perfectly timed to make it look like a party of Government again, but it was a missed opportunity to embrace new ideas, says Dileepa Fonseka

COMMENT: The Government’s move to scrap Auckland light rail and go for a metro system was a gift for National, but one it’s chosen not to accept. 

It could easily have been taken on by the Opposition and would have been both cheaper and quicker to build than the “light metro” option Labour is chasing.

Instead National has gone for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). While that shows the party’s attitude to public transport has changed it’s also a solution that doesn’t really make sense given light rail’s aims were to relieve bus congestion, increase public transport coverage, and encourage housing intensification along its route. 

BRT can mean a number of things, but if we’re talking “advanced” buses or trackless trams then we’re talking light rail on rubber wheels.

With BRT we’ll have to create a separate bus corridor with a longer space between stations so people can have a faster ride from Onehunga to the CBD than they would on a non-rapid bus. That likely means fewer stops than a streetcar “tram”.

A rail loop to the airport will be built at high cost and benefit everybody who has ever wanted to catch a train from the airport. The problem is that’s not very many people relative to the number of Aucklanders who need public transport.

Light rail would mean we wouldn’t need to put on as many buses to service the city’s growing population. For the average Aucklander it would probably sacrifice a ride into work every day on public transport for a fast trip to the airport every month.

And those National supporters hanging out for a big expensive Auckland road will be disappointed that the biggest roading project of them all won’t start until 2028. 

That’s the “additional” Auckland harbour crossing, which will likely cost $10 billion – at the least – to build. 

Some are alarmed that this idea is back on the table. They see the crossing as a waste of money that could run into major complications during construction and cause as many infrastructure issues as it solves.

I’m not one of these people because I don’t think it’ll ever be built.

From our current vantage point it seems doubtful that a politician would ever renege on a pledge to spend billions of dollars on a shovel-ready transport project with more than one job attached to it. 

However, an eagerness to spend on infrastructure has not been a common trait in the past, except on paper.

In recent years there have been plenty of infrastructure promises. Often staged well into the future, but conveniently requiring a sod turning or blessing ceremony before an upcoming election.

It’s easy to spend somebody else’s money when that ‘somebody else’ is a politician that’s not you, but just how likely is it that the NZTA board member of 2028 will approve billions of dollars for a new harbour crossing?

We can’t know for sure, but if the NZTA board member of 2028 is Paul Goldsmith then the likelihood is probably pretty low.

Just one day before the party’s transport announcement he gave a speech saying a Government with him as Finance Minister would chart a course to getting debt below 30 percent of GDP within 10 years of coming to office. It is forecast to be over 50 percent by 2024.

The day afterwards we got a taste of how such a feat could be achieved. Borrowing $1b per year for a decade to fund much-needed transport projects off NZTA’s asset base. 

If it’s done the way Kāinga Ora borrows, then NZTA will be given a borrowing limit and a lot of autonomy to decide what projects it does or does not need to invest in to meet the Government’s broad overall objectives.

That allows billions to be borrowed for transport projects without adding to core crown debt, but that may not be a good thing for National’s plans. Would an empowered NZTA choose all the projects National has promised? 

Eventually, though, this bill will fall on the Government. Revenues into the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) are already in decline thanks to more fuel efficient cars and changing transport behaviour.

Plus you’re borrowing against a whole lot of roads and infrastructure assets that deteriorate in value and will eventually need replacing with the fund you’re borrowing from. And they’re all assets that can’t readily be re-sold to repay the debt.

All of these factors, plus a full card of infrastructure works, mean the NLTF is also likely to be fully spent so will need a Crown top-up if National is serious about making interest payments on the debt. 

If a cautious Goldsmith had retired from politics by then and taken up a new seat on the NZTA board, would he seriously be willing to borrow billions more against a depreciating asset base so that he could spend it on a harbour tunnel? 

If so, why won’t he just advocate for the Government to do more of that sort of thing now off its own balance sheet?

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