There will be a lot of discussion over the coming weeks and months about transport funding – how much is going to be spent on what types of transport projects over the next three years. This is because NZTA’s “National Land Transport Programme” (NLTP) is in the final phases of being put together, and it is the NLTP which guides how NZTA spends your petrol tax and road user charges over the next three years. The NLTP is a very important document for listing all the projects that they will, and won’t, help fund between now and 2015. But it’s not really a political document in the same way that the Government Policy Statement and the Auckland Plan are – rather something that focuses much more on the details of what does and doesn’t happen within the funding constraints already set by central government.
It seems likely that much of the debate around the NLTP will be based around a few key issues:
- is enough money being set aside to maintain and renew our current state highway and local roading network?
- how much of the “new state highways” budget will be eaten up by the various Roads of National Significance (RoNS) and how much will be left for smaller, generally more cost-effective, projects?
- what is the actual increase in funding for public transport services and where’s that money going?
- what’s happened to funding for public transport infrastructure?
A background document on the NTLP provides a few answers to the questions above. First, in relation to looking after the current network:
Greater efficiencies will be required because in many cases the allocations for road maintenance and renewals will not keep up with inflation and growing networks in some regions, and may therefore be reductions in real terms.
This investment will achieve the highest possible return for New Zealand road users if road controlling authorities continue to set clear priorities across their networks…
…The Road Maintenance Task Force will complete its work mid-year. It is expected to identify opportunities for longer term efficiency solutions. We’re looking for a step change in the approach to maintaining networks to deliver a long-term benefit.
The following factors might deliver a step change:
• Road Maintenance Task Force.
• Better targeting of network levels of service.
• Asset management planning.
It’s about learning from others who are doing it well, and thinking about maintenance costs when scoping out project affordability.
We have targeted renewals to roads with heavy dairy, forestry and delivery freight. This is in response to some industries who told us that they could grow faster if we invest even more money into the routes they need to get their product to market.
I do get a bit worried when the funding of looking after our existing roading network, what arguably should come before pretty much anything else, has to rely upon yet to be identified efficiencies to ensure our roads don’t fall to pieces. Also, bits of ‘bureaucratise’ like the better targeting of network levels of service sounds like ‘pointy-head-speak’ for allowing parts of the network to fall into disrepair. I sincerely hope we don’t fall into the trap the USA finds itself in, where politics leads to new roads being opened so ribbons can be cut in front of cameras, while behind the scenes the existing infrastructure crumbles into complete disrepair.
The document also provides some further detail on the public transport funding numbers that we saw reported so inaccurately the other day. It would seem as though Lane Nichols, writer of the original Stuff article, didn’t get past NZTA’s heading of “Huge Increase in Public Transport Funding”. If you do get past that headline and dig into what’s actually happening to PT funding, it’s a little bit more complicated:
At a minimum, investment in all public transport networks is being maintained at current levels. Funding is being boosted to cover increased rail charges in Wellington and Auckland, and all other funding increases are targeted at peak services that help to relieve severe congestion.
A significant increase in funding for passenger rail operator services will improve the reliability and punctuality of commuter rail in Auckland and Wellington.
Much of this increase is for existing additional commitments, including running costs associated with the Auckland integrated fares system, rail operationalised rolling stock costs and rail track access charges.
So once we dig a bit deeper we find out some real truths. Firstly, that basic PT funding is being held at current levels. Secondly, that most of the increase in funding for PT services is actually going into increased track access fees (which is just a giant money-go-round back to KiwiRail) or into paying off Auckland’s electric trains (another giant money-go-round back to the government). Thirdly, we find out that all non-rail increase in PT service funding is being targeted at providing more services on the road at peak times – even though we know providing peak services are extremely expensive (you gotta buy that extra bus or train), whereas it would actually be way smarter to provide better off-peak services to encourage more people to travel outside the peak periods and make better use of existing resources. My word NZTA are stupid at times.
The whole “PT funding is increasingly hugely” looks like a misleading lie in the end, with pretty much all the “extra” money finding its way back to the government – either through increased KiwiRail track-access fees or through repayments for the electric trains the government takes credit as supposedly having funded (even though they’re actually making a profit off the repayments).
At the end of the day it’s a bit unfair to blame NZTA for too much more than trying (and I think failing) to put lipstick on a pig when it comes to the two key issues in this NLTP: insufficient funding to look after the current network and insufficient funding to respond to growing public transport usage (especially in terms of PT infrastructure funding). These big decisions were made by the government almost a year ago in the Government Policy Statement, and it’ll probably take a change of government to fix them. In essence, everything is being squeezed to build the Roads of National Significance – kind of weird when so many of them don’t make economic sense.
The final NLTP gets approved by NZTA at the end of August.