The Government Policy Statement (GPS) for transport is a very important high-level document outlining what the government wants to achieve from investment in the transport network over the next three years. The current GPS was released in May 2009 – and unfortunately was a document stuck in the 1960s when it came to much of its thinking about transport investment. Many of the issues that we’ve had over the past few years about funding shortages for public transport projects have arisen out of decisions made in the preparation of the 2009 GPS – which, in the words of the Minister, ‘effectively capped funding for public transport’.
The GPS has a three-year timeframe, so unsurprisingly thoughts are now shifting to the shape and form of the next GPS – due to have effect from 2012-2015. The Transport Committee of Auckland Council have been brought up to date on this process in an agenda item to their upcoming March 1st meeting. Here’s the executive summary of the agenda item:
The last GPS caught me by surprise a bit – at that time I was still getting my head around how all our different transport plans, strategies, policy statements, programmes and so forth fitted together. I didn’t quite grasp the importance of the GPS until it had become operative. So I’m glad that the Auckland Council has jumped in early when it comes to informing the Regional Transport Committee about the process for putting together the next GPS, and I’m also quite pleased with the recommendations that are being established around what Auckland Council’s feedback and input into the next GPS should be.
Ultimately, there is a big gap between Auckland’s transport priorities and those of central government. The Auckland Council, Mayor Len Brown in particular, was elected on a general platform of focusing on improving public transport – whereas the government is mainly interested in building its road of national significance (RoNS): mostly motorways on the edge of our metropolitan areas. The clash between these two approaches is inevitable, and I think that arguments over the extent to which the GPS should reflect Auckland’s transport priorities versus the extent to which Auckland’s transport priorities should reflect the GPS will be interesting to see over the next few months.
In addition to the points raised above, I would hope that Auckland Council focuses on three additional issues that need to be addressed in the GPS:
Auckland’s population growth compared to the rest of the country:
The next GPS should reflect Auckland’s enormous dominance of the country’s population growth. With Auckland having over 60% of the country’s population growth over the next 20 years, and around 75% of the country’s growth over the next 40 years I think merely saying that Auckland should “get back what it pays” is underplaying the need for investment in our transport network. While it may not go down well in parts of the National Party’s traditional homeland, when it comes to new transport infrastructure, it seems pretty obvious that Auckland is where the bulk of investment needs to be: simply because that’s where the bulk of population growth is. To put it slightly crudely, the roads of Gore probably aren’t going to need too much widening any time soon.
In the past few years Auckland has started to get a better deal when it comes to the amount of transport money spent in the region (whether or not we’ve spent it well is a whole different question). But with Auckland adding the population equivalent of a Wellington City (the city council area, not the whole region) around every eight years, it should be obvious that we’re going to need an even bigger ‘slice of the pie’ in the future.
NZTA must be allowed to fund rail infrastructure projects:
One of the most frustrating and illogical things the current GPS does is effectively ban NZTA from funding rail infrastructure projects. Under the current policy framework, even though the CBD Rail Tunnel would benefit road users enormously by reducing congestion, we can’t ask road users to help pay for it (through their petrol taxes, which get spent by NZTA). As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, each peak time rail user in Auckland generates $17 in decongestion benefits for road users – so it’s obvious that if road users benefit from a rail project, they should also be required to contribute. Allowing NZTA to spend money on rail infrastructure projects, should they provide road user benefits, would not only be fair – it would also create a desperately needed ongoing funding stream for rail infrastructure upgrade projects, which suffer at the moment from having to go begging to the government for each project. At a time when the government’s finances are obviously stretched to an enormous degree, enabling NZTA to help fund rail projects would be a giant leap forwards.
Allow projects of different types to ‘compete’ for funding:
One completely illogical way in which transport funding is allocated in New Zealand is through setting aside different ‘funding pools’ for different types of projects. A certain amount of money is allocated to state highway improvements, public transport infrastructure, public transport subsidies, walking and cycling improvements and so forth – then different projects within those broad categories ‘compete’ against each other for funding.
The problem with this approach is that you inevitably end up with some categories having a huge number of project that ‘stack up’ well, but there’s not enough money available to fund them. Similarly, if you put enough money in the state highways budget then projects like the holiday highway can end up being funded, even though they perform far worse than smaller local road improvements, or new cycleways (or big projects like the CBD Tunnel). It would surely be much more logical for these funding pools to either not exist, or for the transfer of funding from one pool to another being much easier. Allowing all projects to compete against each other for funding will surely mean a better quality of transport expenditure.
There are probably many other things the council could say about the GPS at some point along the consultation process. Questions like how it responds to higher petrol prices, how it links in with economic development strategies, how it connecs with the Auckland Spatial Plan and so forth – but I think if the council focuses on these three matters to start with, hopefully we might see some useful improvements (assuming the government is willing to listen to the country’s biggest council).