Auckland Transport has been the designated punching bag for a number of mayoral and Council candidates in the run-up to local body elections – but how justified is the vitriol?

You wouldn’t have wanted to be a representative of Auckland Transport at Mt Eden War Memorial Hall for the public transport debate for mayoral candidates.

At the event hosted by the Public Transport Users Association, the Council-controlled organisation had pariah status, as mayoral candidates Viv Beck, Wayne Brown and Craig Lord, with veteran councillor Mike Lee, presented a litany of charges ranging from underdelivered services to irresponsible decision-making.

Labour-endorsed candidate and current councillor Efeso Collins normally finds himself cast as an apologist for the council status quo, but his absence left the field open for his opponents, who mainly read from the same hymnal when it came to cutting costs and bringing in a “common sense” approach.

Association coordinator and debate MC Jon Reeves was visibly displeased at Collins having pulled out from the event late last week, suggesting this meant the candidate did not prioritise transport as an issue and bemoaning the chance to quiz him on the financial details of his promised fares-free public transport policy.

But while Reeves was upset he didn’t get to put some hard questions to Collins, the audience seemed happy enough to nod along to the echoing transport policies of the centre-right pack.

Where Collins has multiple times said transport policy needs to be ambitious, Beck, Brown and Lord sell a measured and cautious response to spending, and seem more eager to cut bureaucracies than emissions.

It’s a potentially vote-winning strategy for council outsiders, for whom the sometimes polarising Auckland Transport is something of an easy target. At the 2019 election, the leading challenger to Mayor Phil Goff, former MP John Tamihere, vowed to clean out the board of AT.

Waitematā & Gulf ward councillor candidate and veteran Auckland politician Mike Lee opened this latest debate with a speech eviscerating the organisation, which he said had devolved into a “bizarre strategic chaos” since 2016, when he and councillor Christine Fletcher ended their tenure as the last council members on the Auckland Transport board.

He pointed out the organisation’s singular status in New Zealand as a local transport agency with immense potential for revenue and influence.

“It is quite unusual. Nowhere else in the country, and nowhere previously before, has such a powerful, extremely well-funded bureaucracy.”

He said while the company wields huge power, much of its services are outsourced to private companies such as Fullers or NZ Bus.

“Here’s the strange thing about Auckland Transport – it is so big, it is so powerful, but it doesn’t actually deliver anything except parking services, parking tickets and stuff like that,” he said. “All the rest is completely outsourced.”

Former and potentially future councillor Mike Lee led the evening with a speech entitled “What’s wrong with Auckland Transport” Photo: Matthew Scott

Auckland Transport spokesperson Sam Stephenson disputed the characterisation, delivering a long list of services the organisation provides, including maintaining and operating 7,638 kilometres of road, 348 kilometres of cycleway, 7,431 kilometres of footpath, 110,000 streetlights, 848 bridges, 41 railway stations, 21 ferry facilities, 16 bus stations and two airfields.

Lee has been a champion of rail as a transport solution, and was an important figure in the campaign to get rail reinstated from Onehunga.

Rail services from Onehunga to the city ran undisturbed until June, when construction on the City Rail Link meant city-bound trains would now stop in Newmarket for passengers to transfer.

It’s a move that angered some Aucklanders, with the Public Transport Users Association receiving its highest turnout in a public survey – 86 percent of respondents opposed the service cut.

Lee presented a pattern of retrenched rail services over the past decade, such as cancelled plans for Huapai and cuts to Pukekohe, while more money goes into the City Rail Link.

“There’s been a whole series of decisions that are at inverse proportion to the money that’s going in relate to retrenching rail rather than advancing it and I don’t understand that,” he said. “All of that indicates despite all of the money going into rail, they don’t believe in the mission.”

Lee also railed against the movement of plans over to light rail, calling the proposed $14.6 billion airport link “strategically crazy and irresponsible”. The mayoral candidates didn’t mince words on their disdain for the idea either, with Lord calling it a “vanity project”.

A common allegation across the night was that despite the City Rail Link construction being undertaken by a separate board, the amount of Auckland Transport alumni essentially renders it a de facto AT project.

The escalating costs of the project have been a common talking point for Wayne Brown, who promises no new large-scale projects until all the cones are cleared away and the dust has settled.

However, Stephenson said what’s happening at the City Rail Link site can’t be pinned on Auckland Transport, as City Rail Link Ltd is a crown entity owned by the Crown and Auckland Council.

“Auckland Transport works proactively and in close co-operation with the Project Sponsors, CRLL and the Link Alliance to ensure the tunnels will be fit for operation but does not control CRLL and is not represented on the CRLL board,” he said.

Nevertheless, the hold-ups, soaring costs and dying businesses in the city centre have been laid time and time again at the feet of Auckland Transport.

In a city where people have been growing steadily allergic to traffic cones for years, the organisation occupies a much-maligned space.

Former Heart of the City CEO Viv Beck said Auckland Transport was “right up there on people’s anger list” as she travelled around the city during her mayoral campaign.

Councillor Chris Darby serves as liaison councillor to Auckland Transport. He said a better understanding of the complexity of the organisation’s services and a better connection between them and the public could calm some of that anger.

“Everybody’s got an opinion on Auckland Transport and I guess that’s because you go past your letterbox in the morning and you’re in their domain,” he said. “And you’re in their domain until you walk past your letterbox to come home again.”

While the organisation had achieved big successes in growing of Auckland’s transport system over the last twelve years, he had his own criticisms.

“It does need to be a more public-facing organisation. I know it wants to crank things up in delivery but sometimes to do that you need to be talking to the customer more,” he said. “It’s got to bring Aucklanders along with it.”

To Darby, it seemed to be a branding issue. If Aucklanders understood why certain moves were being made, they might be more on board with the organisation. He said incoming new leadership should look at the team and identify skills gaps such as marketing.

“It’s got to explain what the benefits are and revisit the narrative about why it’s doing things,” he said. Sometimes it’s a little engineery in its explanation.”

To the mayoral candidates, the skills gaps were the polar opposite.

Wayne Brown said he would bring big changes to the Auckland Transport board, saying it lacked roading engineers, to one of the largest applause breaks of the night.

Former Far North mayor Wayne Brown wants a change to the senior leadership of Auckland Transport. Photo: Matthew Scott

Brown has his own engineering background, a line from his bio he shares with Craig Lord, who wants to return Auckland Transport to council control.

Lord’s big take on transport is moving it up above the ground, suggesting monorails could finally bring the sprawl together.

“The technology has gone long past the single rail you would have seen on The Simpsons,” he said.

It’s perhaps a more prescient reference than he realises.

The monorail episode of The Simpsons features a con-man named Lyle Lanley who persuades the town of Springfield to buy a faulty monorail system via a song-and-dance routine. The system breaks down spectacularly and, putting it mildly, fails to solve the town’s transport woes.

But whoever is cast in the Lyle Lanley role in the heated debates around transport in this city remains in the eye of the beholder.

According to the centre-right candidates for mayor and rail advocates like Mike Lee, it’s Auckland Transport that’s selling a false bill of goods.

Their own song and dance routine is yet to be tested.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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