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What’s rotten about transport – the politics or the profession?

Over the last week or two we’ve highlighted that there’s something really rotten going on about transport planning and policy in New Zealand. Here are the highlights:

  • NZTA deliberately fudge the numbers in a report looking at justifying a $5 billion transport project, by far the most expensive transport project ever proposed in New Zealand.
  • On reviewing several key motorway projects, NZTA find that the projects don’t perform anywhere near as well as projected and in one case don’t stack up at all anymore. Costs for the projects blow out while the expected benefits simply don’t materialise.
  • The staggering revelation that the Kapiti Expressway’s cost benefit ratio is actually 0.2 and that NZTA tried to block the release of this information for well over a year.
  • Traffic volumes all around the world continue to stagnate or go backwards, however more motorway projects than ever continue to be proposed based on the assumption that traffic will grow substantially in the future.

The comments on that last post, written by my good friend Mr Anderson, drifted into an interesting discussion around the extent to which the stupidity of our transport policy and planning can be blamed on politics compared to the transport profession itself. Max had a useful contribution on the debate:

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If all you have is state highway funding…

…if NZTA decided today that all they wanted to do was PT projects, they couldn’t. They don’t have the power to change our ridiculously straightjacketed funding allocations. Sure, they could try to twist the system a bit to move some percent from one category to another by fudging things. But they (senior NZTA managers) would do this at the peril of all getting sacked, and that’s just talking of working around the edges. Anyone trying to actively change the large-scale settings of the system would quite simply have to break the legislative rules where our Government Policy Statement sets out that we shall spend X on roads and Z (being an oder of magnitude less) on PT.

That doesn’t excuse those who celebrate driving the ambulance off the cliff by taking glee in it – but explains why those who know what is going wrong have so little ability to change it.

In terms of funding allocations, yes it is the politicians we have to blame. The Government Policy Statement, which sets upper and lower limits to the amount that NZTA can spend on transport projects of different types, is basically written by Cabinet and is the way that governments influence what happens in the transport area. The current GPS is a completely horrific document, reminiscent of 1960s transport policy and, if implemented, will waste billions of dollars on unnecessary expenditure on stupid motorways while neglecting growing areas of transport demand such as public transport, walking and cycling. It will also run down our existing transport asset by skimping on maintenance and renewal, leaving the bill to future generations. For all this, the politicians are most definitely at fault, and if only more people voted based on transport matters, hopefully we might see this policy (or the government) change sooner rather than later.

However, there are a number of other areas where I think the profession itself: not just the traffic engineers we hassle so much but also transport planners, transport modellers and everyone else in the general “transport industry”, needs to take a good hard look at themselves. Here are some great examples of really bad transport outcomes which are the result of the profession, rather than the politicians, being useless:

I understand that politicians are setting the funding bands and that they will push for certain projects to be bumped up priority lists – and that the profession needs to work with this situation. However, there’s nothing stopping the profession from waking up to the flat-lining in traffic growth and fixing the future transport models so they accurately reflect this trend. There’s nothing stopping the profession from then highlighting how particular projects don’t actually stack up anymore. The politicians may choose to still proceed with them, but there’ll at least be public knowledge that X project is happening even though an objective analysis of it says that it probably shouldn’t. Or that Y project isn’t happening even though a good analysis of it suggests that it probably should.

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the profession seems largely unable to do this at the moment. Is it inertia? Is it that politics is more involved in what should be operational matters than I had thought? Is it because there are a few dinosaur transport professionals in influential positions who just need to go and retire? Whatever it is, the transport profession needs to lift its game. There’s a huge amount of money riding on it doing so!

49 comments to What’s rotten about transport – the politics or the profession?

  • Recognising that fudging numbers and finding that projects do not perform as expected is also an issue for public transport projects … Auckland Council’s CBD Rail Link Business Case being a classic example of the former.

  • Mr Plod

    To misquote Wayne Gretsky; A good Transport Planner plans for today’s demand. A great Transport Planner plans for where the demand is going to be. One stuck in yesterday’s paradigm just doesn’t get the difference. It’s not eadership we lack in this field it’s visionary leadership.

  • Sanctuary

    “…but they (senior NZTA managers) would do this at the peril of all getting sacked, and that’s just talking of working around the edges…”

    A guy I know who was once a fine young man got into HR as a career where he recently proved his credentials, I discovered, by fired a long term employee for taking milk home on Friday afternoon (it is theft, you see). The point is not many people retain common sense, let alone moral courage, when the Nuremburg defence is rewarded with a promotion and a pay rise.

    • Max

      Are we still comparing transport managers to war criminals? Get a grip.

      • Yeesh, call it the superior orders defence if the word Nuremburg upsets you too much.

        • Max

          Yes it does upset me when you compare people mass-murdering dissidents and ethnic groups on the orders of a dictatorship are compared with people planning a transport network that you disagree with on the orders of a democratically elected government. If you are going to use such hate-filled language, you better be prepared to be called out for it.

      • Sanctuary

        Hey, if calling a Godwin and having a tanty saves you from some higher order thinking then I say go for it.

  • Filde

    Well written. The whole apparatus needs a massive overhaul and decentralisation. How do we solve the rot at the top? And why do politicians who have no understanding of transport get put in charge of an entire Ministry?

  • Politicians treat transport as offering totemic projects that look as if they did something big and important. They want voters to be fooled into thinking that it was them who made it happen. They used to do it for power stations and airports in the past.

    There was a big shift in the 1980s and 1990s to distance land transport policy from politics, which was dramatically reversed by the last Labour government – which most readers of this blog probably agreed with, because they supported many of the pet totemic projects funded then. Now the government has changed, and this one wants different totemic projects, many are upset.

    The abolition of the independent Transfund, (which Ministers at the time it was created lauded as ensuring that maintenance and high value small projects were not sacrificed for high profile “sexy’ projects like Transmission Gully) set this situation up. The government many of you didn’t support has been elected twice in a row and it wont lose votes because of transport policy (it makes next to no difference).

    So you either put up with a politicised funding system, akin to the dinosaur like system in the US, or you have land transport funding determined by a specialist entity, allocating funds based on economic efficiency grounds, delivering value for money, and accept it wont always fund YOUR pet projects, but will scrupulously ensure value is delivered.

    As a footnote it is hilarious watching leftwing advocates of subsidised urban public transport pushing BCR analysis NOW to damn road projects, when the Greens railed against BCR analysis and economic efficiency at ALL as criteria for allocating land transport funding ten or so years ago – because many of their pet projects didn’t stack up.

    You want to know what’s rotten? It’s the blind belief that politicians can possibly know best how to spend money in this corner of the transport sector any better than they ever knew how to spend money on airports, airlines, shipping companies, truck fleets or know what cars should be manufactured and where (Rob Muldoon’s enticement of car assemblers to open plants in marginal electorates in the 1970s that cost taxpayers, car purchasers and ultimately those communities). The same people who face no consequences for getting it wrong, unlike taxpayers who always have to cough up for these centrally planned decisions, regardless of the results.

    • Max

      Contrary to what you seem to imply of “us” here on this blog, LibertyScott, I am of the opinion that politicians have ALL THE RIGHTS to make decisions experts disagree with. “We” (the New Zealand population) elected them to have the power, so we need to live with the hand we dealt ourselves. Calling politicians out for decisions we disagree with is appropriate, and highlighting where experts disagree with them is also highly appropriate. But despite being a member of that “expert class” myself, I disagree with the idea that we experts should make the big decisions. A roads board, or NZTA or whoever, is not the people. For all their faults, the politicians are much more “the people” than technocrats are.

      • Max, people can also vote to take powers off of politicians and give it back to themselves. Politicians no longer make decisions on investments in airports, telecommunications (until recently or energy, yet there is little clamouring by anyone (bar the far left) for Ministers to decide whether Wellington airport should have an expanded terminal (it was only when Wellington Airport became a company did it finally replace the 1920s building called the domestic terminal because it no longer needed a Minister and a Council to decide what to do and how to pay for it), or what power station should be built next or what the price of phone calls should be.

        I see a renewed Transfund as transitional. It would buy services from road providers on behalf of those who pay for them through hypothecated motoring taxes, and then those who buy those services might be able to contract out of those taxes and pay directly. It would be much like the rest of the economy, where the individual decisions of millions inform the investment and pricing decisions of those managing it.

    • You want to know what’s rotten? It’s the blind belief that capitalists can possibly know best…

      FIFY

      Generally speaking, people working together collectively know best.

      • Capitalists don’t ever profess to know what is best for everyone else, for when they have a go and get it wrong, they bear (and should bear) the costs of that. When politicians get it wrong, everyone else bears the costs.

        Generally speaking, people tend to know what’s best for themselves, and indeed “generally speaking” most people most of the time don’t want collective decision making on what’s important to them (who wants others deciding what they eat, wear, what employment they pursue, what they do with the leisure time, who they associate with).

        However, I didn’t post suggesting a libertarian solution – for the funder-provider split, arms length funding model of the 1990s was far removed from that. What I was suggesting is that politicians are driven by motivations (three year re-election cycles) that significantly distort funding decisions in a sector with assets that involve very high capital costs, long lead times for construction and long life cycles. Transport is peculiarly driven by men (because it is mostly men) who want to build things, open roads or railways and have photo-ops. In a country where power stations are rarely built, and most large construction outside transport is done by business, transport uniquely offers a chance to show off and to look important.

        Sadly that means that building a motorway or building a railway will always be more important to politicians, than resealing a road, fixing a bad pedestrian crossing or replacing a bridge – the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota in recent years is testament to that.

  • How can you say that . . . do you claim to be objective ?

    The whole point of the article is to point out that supposed objective analysis does not exist in new Zealand Transport. I completed what I thought was an objective analysis of the CBD Rail Link Business Case and concluded the bus tunnel option should have been selected. Joshua Arbury reviewed and refuted this analysis. Who is objective ?

    I am agree when the article rightly points out “In terms of funding allocations, yes it is the politicians we have to blame …” and just point out that local authority politicians are just as bad and government. Objectivity on road and rail projects dissappeared years ago (if it ever existed).

    • Max

      You raise the good point that having an “objective” standard for everyone is impossible when people ascribe strongly different values to certain benefits and effects. But that has always been the case.

      Calculation systems like BCRs are designed to be objective *within the constraints of their predetermined rules and input values*. If you compare two projects with the same input values, then you get a “fair” comparison within that value system. But since various paramaters can be tweaked before you even start, the outcome is, and can never, be objective with a “big O”.

      It is however interesting (if unsurprising) that whenever a project like the CRL scores too well on the current BCR values system, while motorways score too badly, either the system gets changed, or the results get ignored. Pure politics. That this blog and other groups are trying hard to point that out is, in my view, not transport analysis as such, but rather politics itself. Which I highly approve of, just to be clear.

    • Tony. Your analysis reads like you work for the bus industry to me so there’s my view on your objectivity.

      Still the CCFAS will be out soon which, ceteris parabus, should show your bus visions to be what they clearly are; both more expensive and of considerable lower benefit than the CRL.

  • LucyJH

    not sure why you’re blaming professionals for Auckland Council prioritizing certain transport projects above other? The Auckland Councillors are elected representatives which makes them politicians. Or do you know for sure that these projects are being pushed onto councillors by their advisors, rather than vice versa? I also think that in a certain sense blaming the Auckland Council for trying to develop a plan that fits (however remotely) with the funding allocations delivered in the NLTF is a bit unfair. They are just constrained as anybody else by funding allocations.

    BTW Liberty Scott. I wasn’t around 10 years ago but I don’t think the Greens ever objected to BCRs as such? I think what they objected to was that the way the BCRs were being calculated was obviously flawed a) because there were some very skewed parameters in the models such as the time of public transport users being judged to be “worth less” than drivers and b) many factors were not being captured in BCR calculations such as, for example, the harm that building big motorway projects does to the environment or to social wellbeing.

    • LucyJH – In negotiations over the Land Transport Management Bill the Greens wanted economic efficiency removed as criteria to determine land transport funding decisions, explicitly from legislation. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. The point about the value of time of public transport users is worthy of discussion, as it could have been disaggregated better, but there are different values of time for different trip types and different demographics. On non-quantitative measures, these were typically captured in the RMA process, so outside an economic appraisal. It is another matter to debate whether motorways are harmful to social wellbeing, as I am fairly sure that Tawa is far better off having had 60 years of being bypassed by a motorway than it would be having Wellington’s main highway ploughing through the downtown shopping and residential areas. It is never as simplistic as so many say.

  • The CCFAS should show the relative merits of the three leading options: CBD Rail tunnel, surface bus or a Bus Rapid Transit tunnel if it is objective . . . which it may well be. If the best PT option wins we are all winners irrespective of whether it has steel or rubber tires :)

    • Hamish O

      The best PT option does have steel wheels because 3/4 of our RTN also has steel wheels.

    • I assume that once they factor in the cost of building two new busways to feed the surface bus or bus tunnel options, that the rail tunnel will come out on top.

    • Tony the smarter bus operators do understand that in a truly mode-blind analysis for both a more prosperous and desirable central city as well as an efficient and connected RTN across the wider city that unlocking the existing under-utilised steel rail network is key. They also understand that investment in this will be very good for their businesses too: The transformation of Auckland into a thriving Transit city will certainly raise their opportunities along with the other transit modes. The revival of rail in Auckland is not at the expense of the bus system but in concert with its revival too. All boats rise with the Transit tide.

      However this is a very long way from the insincere advocacy for ‘more buses’ that the AA, Michael Barnet, and various C+R councillors indulge in, along with the National Party. This simply PT-wash. It is not an informed or even interested involvement in the urban transport or city form conversation, but rather an attempt to make sure that the absurd imbalance of public money is still spent on private vehicle infrastructure.

      This is how it goes: When these people say bus, they mean road, and road means car. How do we know this? Because these are the very same people that fight against every example of bus priority on our road system. They don’t really want any more buses and especially are violently opposed to ‘their’ transport taxes being spent on any Transit infrastructure. Check the record of these people and the likes of Cameron Brewer and the ever vocal Orakei Board.

      So if you are working for big bussing be careful who you are agreeing with, and can i suggest that your best interests are served by working for better investment in PT in Ak whatever the mode. However if your attempts at disruption are for the small minds at the AA, or the self interest and short-termism of the Chamber of Commerce, i suggest you enjoy your time under this government while it lasts…..

  • Sacha

    Don’t be silly. The free market will provide those, Nick. :)

  • Peter M

    I may not have made myself clear in the post, but I am much more pissed off about the profession being useless than I am about politicians being useless. We can kick the politicians out, we’re stuck with the profession.

    I have no problem with transport being a political beast. We spend a lot of money on it, of course we want some say in what happens and we don’t want to leave it up to a bunch of bureaucrats in an ivory tower like it seems is Liberty’s preference. What we do need though is for those politicians to be getting good advice and at the moment they’re really really not getting good advice.

    • Watcher

      Peter, are you sure that its not just a simple case of politicians holding beliefs which no amount of facts can sway? IMO that is definitely what has happened with P2W. The ex mayor of Rodney, who is now in charge of strategy for Auckland City, is so rabidly for this road that she won’t hear any word of complaint about it – not even from those poor unfortunates whose lives have been put on hold because of this travesty. The local MP, nice enough bloke – got his heart in the right place, but is a new back bencher won’t / can’t do anything but toe the party line which is that this road is required for future growth of NZ. If any business was preparing to spend nearly $2b on something which had so many unanswered questions, so little return and a large amount of opposition then the shareholders would revolt – and quite rightly so. However, if the board are pushing the idea and the board gets enough big name consultancies to say that this is what the business must do or it will not survive then oftentimes the board gets its way. The fact that the business keeps going is then after the fact justification. That is what is happening with P2W – the government (aka the board) is telling us that the country (more specifically Northland) will not survive without this road. At ministerial level they actually believe that this road is a good thing and no amount of facts to the contrary will make them believe otherwise. If one set of professionals gives them facts that they don’t like then they will just get another set of professionals to present the facts in a different way – one which supports their beliefs. Unfortunately, NZ is such a small country that most traffic professionals are reliant upon the government (either directly or indirectly) for their income – it’s therefore not surprising that “facts” get skewed to support idealogical beliefs.

      Either brownlee or Joyce needs to find the intestinal fortitude to back down on this road and some of the other RoNS – can you see that happening?

  • The profession can’t even decide on measurable success criteria for a transport project. And, no, travel time savings don’t even come close.

  • Kent Lundberg

    Transport engineers, like many professional classes, have set up an illusion of expertise. What we are experiencing today is the fact that these ‘experts’ move way too slowly in the face of a paradigm shift.

    • Max

      There’s a lot of vested interest in keeping with the old paradigm, and not only money reasons. Who wants to be told that the stuff one was doing for the last 20-30 years was wrong, and has to be changed?

  • Regarding the comments about requiring two 2-lane bus tunnels to allow getting around a breakdown; why not one 2-lane tunnel with some sort of flagman in the event of a breakdown within the tunnel. That’s pretty much the way it works in Brisbane. While there are delays when a breakdown occurs, it doesn’t stop the system dead. Railway breakdowns are far more difficult to manage albeit less frequent.

  • This is a good question that only the parties that wrote the business case (Auckland Transport, KiwiRail and the consultants engaged to do the analysis lead by AECOM) can answer. More relavent to this issue is why did the Alternatives Analysis describe the bus tunnel as a “2-lane Bus tunnel” or “double lane bus tunnel”. This document even uses the Brisbane Busway tunnel as an example of a successful busway tunnel and the costing for the bus tunnel in the spreadsheet appears to be based on the Brisbane tunnel dimensions. So, knowing as much as they did about the Brisbane bus tunnel, why did they then cost in TWO 2-Lane bus tunnels … something no other bus tunnel has needed ? Did they deliberately “Fudge the numbers” to make the bus tunnel more expensive ?

    Of course, the answer to any public organisation trying to fudge the numbers is transparency (official information act) and open debate . . . both of which this blog usually does quite well.

  • PN

    I know I’m getting in here awful late… but I think you’ve missed an important third explanation: Perverse bureaucratic incentives.

    Any bureaucracy wants to be able to continue existing. Many of them want to grow. So it’s worth examining the conditions under which a bureaucracy (in this case NZTA) can do so.

    Back in 2005 or thereabouts, NZ adopted a fully hypothecated, pay-as-you-go funding system for land transport. In other words, NZTA (and its predecessor agency) has to fund _all_ of its activities out of current revenues from fuel taxes, road user charges, and tolls.

    There are reasons why this system makes sense, but it’s got one major drawback: It means that NZTA’s future as an organisation is linked to perpetual growth in fuel taxes and road user charges (and hence vehicle kilometres travelled). I guarantee you that they are freaking out over the flatlining of VKT since 2007 – it’s an existential threat.

    As a result of the current land transport funding model, NZTA has a strong incentive to make investments that maximise future traffic growth. (And, relatedly, no incentive to push for improved fuel efficiency in cars.) Public transport investments don’t make financial sense to them – because PT will always require more in operating subsidies than it returns in fuel taxes.

    So this is all very fucked up, and it’s going to get moreso in the short term, as NZTA seems set to borrow against future fuel taxes to fund low-BCR motorways. (This is basically a big bet that high rates of traffic growth will resume. Heads, the climate loses; tails, NZ taxpayers have to pick up a gigantic unfunded liability.)

    However, it’s a much more tractable problem than a conspiracy of incompetence in the engineering profession. It can be handled by realigning the funding model to take away the perverse incentives. For example, you could equalise the financial value of PT trips and car trips to NZTA. If, say, one 10km journey by car nets them an average of $0.50 in fuel taxes, add a $0.50 top-up from general government funds for each 10km bus or rail trip. You could go even further, and increase the value of PT trips to NZTA relative to car journeys by pricing in the social benefits of PT trips – decongested roads, fewer emissions, etc.

    • The following was emailed to me anonymously, thought it worth sharing:

      “Agree with everything until the last paragraph mainly because it seems to argue that we game the funding of NZTA just to maintain the existence of NZTA. (although it’s a nice perversion of incentives)
      My approach would be define the benefits NZTA provides to society, measure those benefits, value them and fund them based on benefit value delivered. If that funding uses less than what’s collected in user charges dump the surplus into the consolidated fund, if it requires more govt gets to weigh up against other demands on consolidated fund and fund or not fund as it sees fit.

      It is not unusual for organisations to operate under a sinking lid and still be very successful. Look at Lion. Alcohol consumption and hence Lion’s income has been in steady decline for years and it has successfully worked within that constraint, continuing to modify its operating model, and it continues to rate as one of the most desirable workplaces in NZ with very high levels of customer engagement in a very tough industry. So although NZTA may want to grow it needs to face the reality of the industry it serves and change or be changed.

      The fact that there are some very successful companies (& even industries) growing at double digits in an economy whose average growth is low single digits means there are probably many more companies and industries in –ve growth just to make the maths work. Think wool, meat, postal, daily papers etc. The same must be happening in govt services; maternity services, veterans affairs, must be in decline while other areas are in growth (prisons, NZTA).[ Actually I think despite the building program prison demand is in decline]. The role of government must be to manage expectations within the public sector and cut &/or grow spend ahead of the natural curve or else it is being driven by a self perpetuating bureaucracy which is a very sad state of affairs. Perverse, unclear and cloudy incentives always get my goat.”

  • Peter H

    Looking closer at Cambridge bypass,

    1. Tamahere section was always going to be 4 lane.
    2. Cambridge bypass per 2009 was going to be 2 lane unless future demand requires. (4 lane would cost $70 m)

    Have a good look at this poster from Southern Links open day (May 2012). This is traffic flow in 2041 twenty years after Waikato Expressway has been in Built. http://www.nzta.govt.nz/network/projects/southern-links/docs/traffic-flows-2041.pdf
    Compare this to Cambridge traffic flow drawing from Aug 2010. http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/cambridge-tamahere/docs/cambridge-posters/11-effects-on-local-road-network.pdf
    And compare this to Tamahere section traffic flow from May 2011. Using 2% growth. http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/cambridge-tamahere/docs/tamahere-poster5.pdf

    Now if NZTA is using 2% growth for future traffic flow does ($70m) future demand require 4 lanes.

  • TimR

    Another international source, good chart comparing predictions to reality:

    http://bettertransport.org.uk/blogs/roads/170412-phil-goodwin-ltt

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