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Brownlee admits they ignore economic analysis when it suits them

Following on from the Greens walking and cycling to school policy last week, Julie Anne Genter was again asking about it in Parliament yesterday and the answers from Gerry Brownlee were quite insightful to the governments thinking while some were also quite comical.

You can read the transcript here.

To me there were three interesting parts in the exchange. Firstly the primary question which is based off this written question.

JULIE ANNE GENTER (Green) to the Minister of Transport: Can he confirm that by the end of this fiscal year the Government will have spent $1.5 billion on work classified as having a “low” benefit to cost ratio under its Roads of National Significance programme?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE (Minister of Transport) :The analysis the questioner relies on is provided by the New Zealand Transport Agency. The Government makes its own decisions, though, about value-for-money expenditure. It is not a slave to bureaucratic formula and therefore considers other matters in making its decisions. The Government considers the roads of national significance to be excellent expenditure.

Julie Anne Genter: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. This was a question on notice and it was a yes or no question, and I did not hear a yes or a no in the Minister’s answer.

Mr SPEAKER: Order! Again, the Standing Orders are quite clear that no member can demand a yes or no answer. Again, I can understand why the member does not feel that it was adequately addressed, and I accept that. On this occasion, the question, in my opinion, has been addressed, but I will allow the member an additional supplementary question to try to tease it out to the member’s satisfaction.

Julie Anne Genter: For clarity, has he spent $1.5 billion on low-value work under the roads of national significance programme, as stated in his answer to written question No. 813, and is he now trying to justify that waste by calling it strategic?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: The question the member asked me to respond to indicates the benefit-cost ratio on both the 6 percent and 8 percent discount rate for a number of roads. The roads that she is most likely to be focusing on are the Waikato Expressway, the Tauranga Eastern Link road, and the Wellington Northern Corridor. The Government considers those to be very important. They are strategic, and we most certainly do not agree with the Green Party that it is inappropriate or low-value expenditure

Basically Gerry just confirms what we’ve been saying for a long time, that the government is building what are in some cases very stupid roads because they want to. Now while I don’t agree with that being how we should build motorways, in itself it isn’t necessarily wrong. However it is quite different to how the government have portrayed their road building programme, which is that the RoNS are good for the economy.

Following that was this exchange related to freight movements.

Julie Anne Genter: Given that none of the spending on the roads of national significance has been high value and that nearly half the spending on walking and cycling in the last year was high value, would it not be a better use of taxpayer money to prioritise high-value walking and cycling projects?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: One of the problems the member would leave unanswered is what you would do with the volumes of freight that have to get moved around New Zealand if you required them to be moved by bicycle or pushcart.

Julie Anne Genter: In light of the National Freight Demands Study released last week, which shows that road freight has fallen since 2006 and that the expected rate of growth is less than was forecast when his Government began this roads of national significance programme, is now not an appropriate time to reconsider whether spending billions of dollars on projects that his own Government considers low value is the best use of taxpayer money?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: The first point is that I dispute the analysis that the freight volumes have fallen. What I would say is that vehicle kilometres travelled have fallen, and that is largely due to a more efficient roading network, which has an excellent outcome for greenhouse gas emissions.

This relates to the freight study released last week, the outcome of which said that while the amount of freight being moved by all modes had increase, the tonne-kms (distance) had been dropped. There are a number of factors at play causing this however one of them is not due to the roading network being more efficient which implies road building to reduce distances (i.e. removing curves) like Brownlee suggests. Note: This is different from using the existing roads more efficiently through changes like allowing heavier trucks which is something that need motorways to happen.

And lastly

Julie Anne Genter: Does the Minister understand that duplicating motorways to the Kāpiti coast or Wellsford does nothing to alleviate serious congestion in our city centres—in fact, according to the New Zealand Transport Agency, they make congestion worse—whereas investing in smart projects like walking and cycling to school take cars off the road, eases congestion, and improves public health?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: It also very seriously inconveniences the people who pay for those roads, and their commitment to these projects will be seen at the ballot box.

So we can’t have more walking and cycling infrastructure as it might slow down car drivers by a few seconds, even if that infrastructure takes people off the road and helps to free it from congestion. Also as mentioned this morning, people simply don’t vote on transport at a National level when there are so many other important issues being discussed. If people did vote based on transport policy then I suspect we would be getting very different outcomes.

Steven Joyce on the CRL in Parliament

Julie Anne Genter questioned Steven Joyce in Parliament today about the City Rail Link. Perhaps the most laughable comment is when Joyce claims they are speeding up the project, not slowing it down. If they were speeding it up then at the very least they would be looking to have it started at the same time the council is wanting for it to happen.

Antarctic transport policy?

Wow there’s so many bits of news I want to comment on today and I don’t have time for them all so as it kind of relates to my post this morning I’ll go with this one. In parliament today Green MP Julie Anne Genter asked Gerry Brownlee about his stance on emissions and transport. It was following this news story from TV3 where he said”

I think climate change is something that has happened always, so to simply come up and say it’s man-made is an interesting prospect

So here is the debate today

The transcript is here.

This was what I thought was the best bit.

Julie Anne Genter: Can he name one place in the world where carbon emissions have reduced or where peak congestion has reduced as a result of new motorway construction?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: As far as I know, I would be correct in saying—because there are no motorways there—the Antarctic.


Brilliant question and one that left Gerry stumped because the reality is there isn’t anywhere that has built its way out of traffic congestion or emissions. Although perhaps Brownlee suggested it because in his mind hell would have to freeze over before he would accept that urban motorways don’t solve emission and congestion issues.

CRL and the CFN in Parliament

Gerry Brownlee was asked in Parliament today about the City Rail Link and the costs of delaying it.

The fact that Brownlee claims it the project isn’t being delayed is staggering. The council and Auckland Transport have for a long time being planning for construction to start in 2015 and to be completed with trains running in 2020/21. The government’s announcement in June that they would support it was that they won’t even start a new business case until 2017 and won’t start construction till 2020. That represents a 5 year delay and as Julie Anne pointed out, adds a cost of $100 million per year to the total of the project for a total additional cost of $500 million.

The figure comes from this presentation to the Transport Committee at the beginning of the month. It also points out that many of the benefits that make the CRL look better in the longer term are due to the travel times and congestion getting worse. That would leave us with the situation where we have to sit waiting for conditions to get worse before we can start working to make them better. That’s sounds like ambulance at the bottom of the cliff thinking to me.

CRL - Why 2021

We and the Congestion Free Network also got a mention from Labour Transport Spokesperson Iain Lees-Galloway (I wonder who will be the new transport person in the shake-up they will be having?). Gerry has refused to meet with us or the Campaign for Better Transport multiple times now with the response being that he is too busy each time we ask. I wonder how many times he has met with the AA, NZCID or other road lobby groups? Might be time for an OIA on that.

Understanding changing travel trends

At a national level we charging ahead with a few hand picked mega roading projects that will tie up our transport spending for the next decade or so. Unfortunately it doesn’t get much better locally with billions upon billions of dollars of ratepayer and taxpayer money proposed to go into transport projects over the coming decades, pretty much all of them relying upon significant traffic growth to be justified.

We’ve discussed changing travel trends on this blog for quite some time now, in particular the plateauing of traffic growth for an extended period of time since roughly the middle of last decade. Here’s a nice graph that Stu put together looking at vehicle kilometres travelled and car ownership rates over the past decade:

Similar trends are starting to show through in a whole variety of countries around the world. With billions of dollars being poured into roads in the coming year the real questions relating to this trend is understanding why it’s happening and then figuring out whether it’s a short term anomaly or the start of a much longer pattern of stagnant or falling traffic.

While New Zealand specific research into understanding the causes of these trends is strangely absent (Stu’s superb analysis aside), an increasing amount of analysis is being undertaken in the USA to ‘get to grips’ with what’s going on. And while shorter term issues – like the economic situation of the past few years – seem to undoubtedly have had some impact on the trends, it seems that there are some more major underlying cultural shifts which are perhaps making the biggest contribution. The New York Times picked up on this recently:

For six decades, Americans have tended to drive more every year. But in the middle of the last decade, the number of miles driven — both over all and per capita — began to drop, notes a report to be published on Tuesday by U.S. Pirg, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

People tend to drive less during recessions, since fewer people are working (and commuting), and most are looking for ways to save money. But Phineas Baxandall, an author of the report and senior analyst for U.S. Pirg, said the changes preceded the recent recession and appeared to be part of a structural shift that is largely rooted in changing demographics, especially the rise of so-called millennials — today’s teenagers and twentysomethings. “Millennials aren’t driving cars,” he said.

In fact, younger people are less likely to drive — or even to have driver’s licenses — than past generations for whom driving was a birthright and the open road a symbol of freedom. Research by Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that young people are getting driver’s licenses in smaller numbers than previous generations.

Online life might have something to do with the change, he suggested. “A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate,” he wrote in a recent study. “This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.”

Of course this isn’t a particularly ground-breaking observation – various studies and articles have been talking about younger generations not being as keen on driving as previous generations were at the same age. What’s particularly interesting is that this report has taken the recent trends and then applied them to forward travel projections under a number of “what if” scenarios to get an idea about what might happen in the future:

Young people aged 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001—a greater decline in driving than any other age group. The severe economic recession was likely responsible for some of the decline, but not all.

Millennials are more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods and are more open to non-driving forms of transportation than older Americans. They are also the first generation to fully embrace mobile Internet-connected technologies, which are rapidly spawning new transportation options and shifting the way young Americans relate to one another, creating new avenues for living connected, vibrant lives that are less reliant on driving.

If the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years, even at half the annual rate of the 2001-2009 period total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population. If Millennials retain their current propensity to drive less as they age and future generations follow (Enduring Shift), driving could increase by only 7 percent by 2040. If, unexpectedly, Millennials were to revert to the driving patterns of previous generations (Back to the Future), total driving could grow by as much as 24 percent by 2040.

All three of these scenarios yield far less driving than if the Driving Boom had continued past 2004. Driving declines more dramatic than any of these scenarios would result if future per-capita driving were to fall at a rate near that of recent years or if annual per-capita reductions continue through 2040.

The different scenarios are then graphed:pirg-scenariosThe real kicker point is when you start comparing these scenarios with past traffic volume forecasts – as shown below:pirg-vs-forecasts From what we’ve seen previously, it appears that pretty much all future transport modelling in Auckland is calibrated to a 2006 base year – pretty much exactly when we started to see transport trends change dramatically. Presumably that will be updated when results from this year’s census come through, but if projections do end up being updated to reflect not only changing travel trends going forward but also the fact that what’s happened in the past seven years is rather different to what was likely to have been expected back in 2006, we could be in for some huge shocks.

In short, it wouldn’t be surprising for the justification for new roads becoming significantly more difficult. Which makes a lot of sense if the demand for them isn’t going up anymore. This issue was also raised by Green transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter yesterday on Radio NZ.

Or listen here

Interestingly the NZTA responded to this.

Or listen here

Ernst’s claim that every road works for public transport and for active modes is almost comical. Just looking at Auckland, how many buses are using the Victoria Park tunnel, how many will use Waterview and why is there no cycleway planned for Puhoi to Wellsford and where is the promised walkway under the Newmarket Viaduct?

Julie Anne Genter and Bill English in Parliament

One of the most frustrating things about the process the CRL has gone through is not that the government is forcing it to go though extremely rigid analysis, but that it doesn’t require other projects to do the same. Bill English was questioned on this today by Julie Anne Genter but never seemed to be able to directly answer the question. I will say one thing though, he at least wasn’t dismissive of the project.

Also in the news about politics and the RoNS. National’s Northland MP, Mike Sabin has come out yesterday extolling the virtues of Puhoi to Wellsford. Yet at the same time he has confirmed some of the voodoo economics that seems to surround this, and many of the RoNS projects. He claims:

“The Greens would scrap this project in favour of Auckland’s rail loop, because they see it has better cost benefits than the Puhoi to Wellsford project, yet NZTA estimates this RoNS will benefit Northland’s economy in order of $35-$45 million a year, giving a cost benefit ratio of 2 to 1.”

Well let’s just look at that a bit closer. $35-$45 million a year seems fairly significant but in the context of this road is nothing. Being generous let’s say that the benefits start coming in as soon as the project starts and we use the normal 30 year assessment period, ‘et’s also ignore any of the benefits being discounted. That would give us benefits in the range of $1.05 billion to $1.35 billion over a 30 year period. Yet the road is expected to cost around $1.6 billion and that was before the recent announcement that the shorter and easier Puhoi to Warkworth section will cost around $1 billion. I don’t know how on earth you can get a BCR of 2 to 1 when the benefits achieved are less than the construction costs but that is why they are called voodoo economics.

Reconnect Auckland: a transport campaign led by the Green Party

This is a guest post from Green Party MP, Julie Anne Genter

You are invited to the launch of Reconnect Auckland: a transport campaign led by the Green Party.

Reconnect Auckland invite

A smarter approach to transport and planning offers us huge opportunities to get better outcomes for everyone.

I find the posts on this blog incredibly useful and informative, particularly because of the detail of analysis and soundness of the logic.

However, as recent years have shown, information and logic is not enough to get political support for changing the status quo.

One of the reasons I am so passionate about transport is because it seems like an easy win for people, the economy, and the environment. New Zealand doesn’t have a car manufacturing industry and we export all of the oil we produce, so no one really benefits from the status quo approach that results in high car dependence. We just foolishly followed the car-oriented central planning by traffic engineers and town planners because Los Angeles and everywhere else was doing it.

Of course, some people and businesses believe they are benefiting from the status quo, because they like to drive, they believe it gives them status, or their business involves using roads, or they are contractors who build motorways.

But a different approach to policy and spending would still require contractors to build rail, bus and bicycle infrastructure. It would require better maintenance of our existing roads. It would create more semi-skilled jobs in operation of passenger transport services. It would be way better for those who really want or need to drive, and trucks, because it would reduce congestion and demand for car-parking.

Unfortunately, many politicians assume that high car use is a reflection of what everyone wants, rather than the consequence of policy that isn’t economically sound. And there aren’t many powerful groups out there loudly demanding a change from the status quo – although that is changing somewhat.

We’ve got the facts on our side, we can persuade many that they will actually benefit from a different approach, all we need now is the political will. That is why the Green Party is running a strategic campaign on transport in Auckland – designed to engage, inform, and activate people power.

We chose Reconnect-Auckland to symbolise more than just a return to the great transport connections Auckland had in the 40s and 50s. It’s also about connecting people to the communities that have been severed or lost through car-oriented design.

Our campaign has a few dimensions. Firstly, we are have the big launch and a big phone calling operation for people to register their support for the CRL.

Secondly, I am doing a speaking tour to anyone and everyone we can line up – Rotary, Lions clubs, high schools, university lectures, business associations, you name it. The goal is to give a short presentation on smart transport, so people know exactly what the opportunities are and that public transport, walking and cycling can happen in Auckland.

Finally, we will be holding a series of mini-events around Auckland (ideas please!) to get local media attention and get volunteers active in their communities.

We’d love you to join us at the launch, and be a volunteer in the campaign if you’re keen to see smart, green transport transform our city.

CRL in Parliament again

The CRL has been raised once again in Parliament with Green spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter questioning Gerry Brownlee on the CCFAS.

A full transcript of it is here.

Gerry has clearly taken the first question very literally and his response was at least a little bit funny. Now I generally tend to be an optimist so I’m going to say at least Gerry wasn’t completely dismissing the project. What’s more he seems to have softened his stance a little bit and clearly isn’t ruling it out. He even used the non inflation adjusted price, saying it would cost $2.4 billion, which is probably the first time a minister has done that.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exchange was when Julie tabled the document showing that over the last decade, the number of vehicles entering the city centre had dropped by 20%. This is something that Mr Anderson has pointed out before although it actually seems more like a 15% drop. The point went straight over Gerry’s head though as he started talking about what would happen in 2021, not realising that a shift has been happening already.


Julie-Anne Genter tears apart govt’s transport policy

A pretty rollicking start to the year by the Green Party’s Julie-Anne Genter, criticising the government’s transport policies in parliament’s first day back yesterday:

That speech just reminded me that parliament hasn’t sat since the findings of the City Centre Future Access Study were released. Hopefully there are a few interesting questions about the findings of that study, and the government’s response to it, over the next few days and weeks.

Transmission Gully PPP discussed in Parliament

Yesterday in Parliament Julie Anne Genter asked Bill English about the PPP that is going to be used for Transmission Gully. I think the thing I am most concerned about from the answers is just how little he appears to know about the deal, something you would think he would have a good understanding of due to being the minister of finance.