NZ Herald columnist John Roughan has written an interesting, if rather uninformed (he thinks we don’t yet have a Grafton Station) article on the CBD rail tunnel – and in particular on the support that it is getting among both local/regional politicians and also from Greens and Labour party politicians. In fact, the only two people in New Zealand who it seems don’t support the project are Steven Joyce and John Roughan (I’m sure there are more!) Here are some interesting parts of his article:
A gathering at Britomart railway station this week gave a hint of the damage a Super City could do. One Labour MP was there, with a couple of Greens, several Auckland local-body members and a Super City mayoral candidate, Len Brown.
They were trying to revive the idea of a railway line under the CBD.
It was the presence of Labour that worried me. The Green Party is not powerful enough to do much damage to the national economy but Labour could.
Goodness knows why he thinks that the project would “damage the national economy”. All signs are that its business case, which is due for completion later this year, will show a strong logic for constructing the project – in particular because of the significant economic boost it will give the Auckland CBD. If Roughan is really worried about a transport project doing damage to the national economy because it’s not cost-effective, I suggest he takes a good look at the holiday highway and its shoddy business case.
However, Roughan raises the interesting point that the future Super City mayor will be in a very powerful position to try to influence central government policies to the benefit of Auckland, and in particular to the benefit of projects that they support and they think Auckland needs. Roughan thinks that’s a bad thing, although I think that’s just because he doesn’t like this project (or public transport in general):
Right now Labour needs this new Auckland prize more than National. The question raised by the Britomart stunt is, have we created a terrible temptation for a major party of Government? The National Party will be in the same position one day.
It would be the easiest bribe in the world to promise a big city a glittering project at national expense. Who would turn down an underground railway if the Government was going to pay for it?
Labour deserves some credit here; at the Britomart gathering it did not, as far as I’m aware, give Brown any grounds for suggesting a vote for him could improve Auckland’s prospect of an inner-city subway.
More important – since all candidates quickly endorsed the project – Labour has not committed its next Government to the cost.
But the fearful possibility remains. The mayoralty of greater Auckland will represent one third of the population of New Zealand. Representational power always needs to be checked by the need to raise all its revenue from those it represents.
Considering that the majority of the country’s population growth is in Auckland, and that for many decades Auckland has suffered from chronic under-investment in its transport infrastructure, that fact that the Super City mayor will place great pressure on central government in their advocacy for Auckland is probably a good thing (at least from an Auckland-centric point of view). It is probably the fear of this situation that has put previous governments off amalgamating Auckland’s local government structure – a feeling that it was better to divide and rule the place.
Aside from Roughan’s ideological dislike for public transport, what seems to be worrying him is that “if this project was so good, why doesn’t Auckland pay for it?” He explains this in a bit more detail:
A rail loop from Britomart to Newmarket, with stops in Wellesley St for the universities and Grafton for the hospital, may be so well patronised that it pays for itself.
It may increase the use of all the Auckland lines and bring more people back to the CBD. Alex Swney, head of the “Heart of the City” business group, was also at Britomart on Monday.
But if we Aucklanders really believed that, we would pay for it, just as we paid for the Harbour Bridge. We would support a mayor who proposed that we borrow the money in the confidence that the loan and operating costs would easily be covered by the tolls it would collect.
If we could be convinced it would pay we would buy a first-class railway – fast, flash and so frequent we never needed to look at a timetable. But that is not the sort of railway a Government would pay for, and nor should it.
A Government is entitled to suspect that if Auckland needs national taxpayers to pay for its trains it is because not that many Aucklanders are going to use them.
The reason why this project is reliant on central government funding is because those who will benefit most from the project are actually road users (at least according to the way NZTA calculate benefits of public transport projects). As shown in the diagram below (sorry to have to post it AGAIN, but I think it’s critical that this point is driven home) for each new rail passenger at peak times, NZTA calculates that there is a $17 benefit to road users through reduced congestion: Now it would be really nice if Auckland, as a region, were able to raise money from road users to help fund improvements to the transport network. That would mean that we wouldn’t have to go begging to central government every time we want a new transport project – but unfortunately last year the regional fuel tax was cancelled, so now all funding generated by road users has to go through central government.
Of course Auckland will end up paying for some of the project. My guess is that the most likely way the funding will end up being split is that the Council (through the Transport CCO) will pay for construction of the stations, while central government (either directly or – more logically – through NZTA) will pay for the tunnel itself. The result might end up being roughly a 2/3rd (central government), 1/3rd (local government) split in the funding of the project – and that would probably be pretty fair as it seems likely that, under NZTA’s current method of calculating project benefits, the majority of the benefits will be to road users.
Roughan really should catch the train more.