Transport Minister Phil Twyford is maintaining his opposition to four-lane expressways and last night told a delegation of four Northland Mayors he would not agree to make State Highway One from Whangarei to Auckland one.
Instead, he confirmed the Government is proposing to use the Provincial Growth Fund to upgrade the rail line from Auckland to Whangarei and to build a new line to Northport.
Those moves would make the Whangarei port a much more viable contender to take over from Auckland as the main port for the northern region.
“It’s very clear that State Highway One is an economic lifeline for the north,” Twyford told POLITIK.
“We completely accept that.
“But I explained to them with our new Government Policy Statement we are demanding value for money and safety improvements that will save lives.”
Twyford said this could be achieved by investing in media barriers, safety barriers and passing lanes.
But he said that could change.
“It could well change, for instance, if Northport features more heavily in the upper North Island ports system.”
The coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First does commit the Government to a New Zealand First initiative which called for the • commissioning of a feasibility study on the options for moving the Ports of Auckland, “including giving Northport serious consideration.”
Regardless of that Twyford has confirmed that the Government is now to move ahead on upgrading the rail line from Auckland north.
That is an essential pre-condition for any move to make Northport the main port.
In 2016 Kiwirail Asset manager Dave Gordon it would cost $240 million to bring the railway from Waitakere to Whangarei up to the same standard as the Hamilton to Port of Tauranga railway.
And during the election campaign, Gordon said the 20-kilometre spur from Whangarei to Northport itself would cost about $200 million.
Twyford said the upgrade of the line was discussed with the Mayors.
“I let them know that it is the Government’s intention to pursue a renovation of the North Auckland line and the spur to Marsden Point.
“Northport has the potential to be a very significant economic development driver for the north.
“That rail line is critical to Northport becoming more competitive.”
Twyford said work had begun on establishing a time frame for the rail line upgrade.
“It’s likely that that project will end up being pitched to the Provincial Growth Fund so I can’t put a precise time frame on but I know it is something that Minister Jones and I want to progress within our first term in Government.”
Twyford believes that upgrading the rail line could also reduce traffic pressure, particularly from heavy trucks, on the Whangarei to Auckland highway.
The Minister told the Mayors that the Government would be investing more in their regional roads.
“Those Councils, many of whom struggle to maintain their local roads, let alone build any new ones, are going to get more money for new local roads and local road maintenance.
“They are going to get more money for regional roads which can include state highways too and state highway maintenance is getting a boost.
“ If you look at the state of Northland’s roads, they’ve been neglected for the last nine years and left in a state where they are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events; we are going to invest more, alongside the Councils.”
But Twyford came under fire in Parliament yesterday over the regional roading policy.
The Government is proposing to increase regional and local roading expenditure by at least 30% by 2020.
However, the total sums are still relatively small.
By 2020 the maximum that would be spent on local and regional roads would be $1.37 billion.
Some of this increase has been achieved by the embargo on the four-lane expressways.
That means that the Government’s projection for new state highways in 2020/21 is now between $900 million and $1.15 billion whereas National had proposed to spend between $12 billion and $1.65 billion that year — an average decrease of around 37 per cent.
The Prime Minister claimed in Parliament yesterday that people in the regions would be pleased to see the increase in their roading expenditure “instead of spending 25 percent of that fund on roads they don’t use” (a reference to expressways)
Whether the Northland Mayors would agree with that is another matter.