Somewhat unsurprisingly, many commentators have been quick to write off Len Brown’s transport vision for Auckland as impossibly expensive, ‘pie in the sky’ aspirations. Some of the criticism has come from predictable sources, like David Farrar’s Kiwiblog:
Len may think he has a mandate for the rail – and he does if the ratepayers of Auckland who voted for him are willing to pay for it. But he does not have a mandate to demand the taxpayers of Wellington, Napier, Nelson and Christchurch pay for it.
Other criticism has come from less predictable sources, with Labour MP Stuart Nash getting grumpy about Auckland demanding a bigger slice of the infrastructure spend:
All this posturing, threats and huge budget promises re Auckland from their new councillors etc makes me shake my head in disbelief.
Akld is but one of many cities in this wonderful country and if Aucklanders think they have pre-eminent rights on all of our taxes then they need to pull their heads out from their nether-regions and get real. New Zealand does well when all New Zealanders are thriving.
What both comments indicate is a growing awareness of one of the outcomes of local government amalgamation in Auckland – and that is a far stronger a more unified voice from those ‘north of the Bombays’. This more unified voice means that Auckland should have a better ‘seat at the bargaining table’ with central government – and may well mean that Auckland cannot continue to be given the raw deal from transport investment that happened throughout the 1980s and 1990s in particular.
A Brian Rudman NZ Herald article from last year detailed how poorly Auckland has been treated when it comes to transport spending over the years:
In 1991, when Auckland’s last attempt to get a light rail commuter service fell over for lack of Government support, the Auckland Regional Council revealed that Aucklanders paid $150 million on petrol taxes to Transit New Zealand, but only $84 million came back to the region in transport funding.
ARC member at the time, Gary Taylor, said: “Let’s face it. Auckland is getting ripped off by Transit New Zealand. We should use some of the electoral muscle this region has and go to Wellington and exert it.”
It didn’t work. Between November 1993 and November 1999, under a National Government – with Aucklander Maurice Williamson as Transport Minister – only 25 per cent of Transit’s income was spent north of Pukekohe despite just under 40 per cent of the tax-paying population living here.
The relevance of all this, in terms of answering the question of “how to pay for the big three rail projects?” is that I think Auckland has a very legitimate claim for getting a significantly better deal out of central government when it comes to our share of transport spending. As I noted a week or so ago, over the next 40 years Auckland’s population will grow by a million people, whereas the entire rest of NZ will only grow by a third of that. Here’s the relevant graph for those who don’t remember:
I think the graph above shows that it’s pretty hard to argue against the notion that Auckland probably deserves at least half of the “new transport infrastructure spend” over the next 40 years.
So while I’ve generally advocated that a big chunk of the CBD rail tunnel could be funded by choosing a more cost-effective option for the Puhoi-Wellsford Road, and redirecting the billion dollars saved there into being a big chunk (perhaps even all) of Central Government’s contribution to the rail tunnel, at least one thing Puhoi-Wellsford has going for it is the area’s population is growing significantly.
By contrast, between now and 2030 the population of the Wellington region is expected to grow in population by 74,900 – compared to Auckland’s population growth of 573,700 during the same time period. Over the next 20 years, Auckland will absorb 60% of the country’s population growth, while Wellington will only absorb 8%. Despite this very slow growth, the government wants to spend around $2.4 billion on the Wellington Northern Corridor “Road of National Significance”. Parts of that road, most notably Transmission Gully, have cost-benefit ratios even lower than the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. Furthermore, most of the Wellington Northern Corridor project simply duplicates the railway line and is likely to undermine the current investment going into improving the Wellington rail network.
So why is NZTA’s motorway spend elsewhere in New Zealand relevant to finding money for rail projects in Auckland? Well, quite simply, it is because NZTA is spending an enormous amount of money on motorway projects throughout New Zealand over the next 10 years. In fact, NZTA generally spends a huge amount of money on transport – much of it on highly necessary things like maintaining local roads and helping pay public transport subsidies. Looking at the 2009-2012 National Land Transport Programme gives us some idea of the amount of money that is available for spending on transport. This is summarised in a section of NZTA CEO Geoff Dangerfield’s introduction to the 2009-2012 NLTP: Overall, NZTA will spend around $8.7 billion on transport over the next three years, meaning that over half that amount will be spent on new state highways. A lot of that is going on projects that do make economic sense (like the Victoria Park Tunnel), but a lot will be spent on projects that have been shown to not make economic sense: like Puhoi to Wellsford and Transmission Gully.
If we recall what Len Brown’s rail vision for Auckland actually entails: a start on the CBD Rail Tunnel within three years, substantial completion of the Airport Line within 10 years and (the one where I think he’s a being a bit optimistic) construction starting on the North Shore Line within 15 years, its’ a pretty big timeframe we’re talking about. At best, he’s probably asking that all three projects be completed by around 2030: in twenty years’ time when Auckland’s population will have grown by approximately another 575,000. Over that time NZTA will have spent (at current trends) around $60 billion on transport throughout the country. Even if the three rail projects cost a total of $8 billion, that’s a pretty small share of NZTA’s total spending throughout that time period – particularly as it’s likely local government would contribute a fairly significant chunk of money to the projects too.
So in my opinion, there’s plenty of money available to pay for the three big rail projects – because we’re not planning on having them all completed tomorrow. The key is ensuring that Auckland gets its fair share of NZTA’s funding pool – and ensuring that ‘fair share’ takes into account Auckland’s utter domination of population growth statistics – and also enabling NZTA funds to be spent on rail. Stupidly, that cannot happen at the moment. So while Len Brown’s transport vision is certainly visionary, I think it’s very unfair to say that it’s unachievable and unaffordable. The money’s there (or will be there), we’re just spending it on the wrong stuff and in the wrong parts of the country.