It’s been quite sad watching some of the recent exchanges in parliament.
The Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee, and the Associate Minister Simon Bridges, have been swimming furiously against the arguments put forward by Julie Anne Genter from the Green Party. Julie has suggested that the RoNs programme is a poor way to spend billions of dollars, given that many of the RoNs are projected to deliver economic benefits that are less than their costs, i.e. NZ is likely to be poorer because of these projects. If one was interested in improving New Zealand’s economic performance, as National claim to be, then you’d think that they would avoid spending billions on projects that will make us poorer …
Recently, however, the National Government has tried a new strategy. They have argued that when considered as a ”total package” the RoNs deliver a net economic benefit. Stated differently, if you add up all the benefits for all the individual RoNs, then you find that they exceed the costs: Ergo they are worthwhile investments.
Is the RoNs as a package line reasonable? Absolutely not, and here’s why:
- They have included the economic benefits associated with the Victoria Park Tunnel (VPT). The issue with this is that VPT is already built and its benefits will be realised irrespective of whether we build the other RoNs. So the benefits associated with VPT should not influence investment decisions on the other RoNs; they must instead stand (or more likely fall) on their own individual economic merits. What’s more, VPT has the largest net benefits of any of the RoNs – so once you remove it from the “package” then things start to look very flakey indeed. This is an absolutely blindingly obvious case of National cooking the books; and
- The highways themselves are spread far and wide across the country, such that their benefits are independent . Suggesting that the RoNs is a “package” implies that Puhoi-Wellsford and Transmission Gully are interdependent – that we can’t have one of the projects without the other, or at the very least that the benefits of one project depends on the other. I think most people can intuitively appreciate that the RoNs are individual projects that should be considered on their individual merits; they cannot and should not be lumped together.
So the “RoNs as a package line” fails because it a) counts the benefits of projects that have already been built and b) adds together benefits and costs for what are completely independent projects. What the National Government is doing is akin to taking New Zealand’s economic growth and adding it to Australia’s – and then subsequently concluding that NZ’s economy is growing fast. Instead, what National should instead be doing is analysing the economic merits of the RoNs individually and then funding the ones that deliver net economic benefits (and some of them do – at least when implemented in a staged and timely way).
Personally I’m amazed that the NZ media has not yet cottoned on to the economic smoke and mirrors being pumped out about the RoNs by the Government’s spin machine – we’re talking about $10 billion potentially being spent on highways that appear to have dubious economic merit. Let me say that number again: $10 billion – that’s some serious moolah. It’s hard not to conclude that the RoNs are looking increasingly like this National Government’s “think big,” i.e. large and expensive infrastructure projects that future generations will look back on and regret. I hope that I’m wrong; I hope that the RoNs are useful highway projects that generate widespread economic benefits. But you have to admit that this likelihood is slim; most of the evidence stacks up to the contrary.
Anyway, aside from peddling voodoo economics in order to justify the RoNs, the National Government has recently pulled out a new weapon in the war against Julie: Character assassination. This comprises of not-so-subtle efforts to discredit Julie’s credibility on transport issues. And that saddens me – not only because I know Julie personally and can attest to the fact that she is an extremely thoughtful and knowledgeable transport planner – but because it demonstrates that Brownlee and Co cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, a few of the RoNs are not a good investment. Very few of us are suggesting “drop them all”; we’re more suggesting that they should not be an absolute priority – that there are a range of other transport improvements that are more valuable.
I can’t work out whether its political interests or political pride that keeps the RoNs bandwagon rolling along – but either way I really hope someone in the mainsteam media starts asking harder questions of NZ’s self-anointed and omniscient “Roads Scholar.”