The Prime Minister moved quickly yesterday to kill Waka Kotahi’s Government Policy Statement on land transport, which had been released in response to an Official Information Request at the same time as he appeared to diiferentiate his leadership from that of Jacinda Ardern..
The statement had a focus on climate change emissions reduction, which Chris Hipkins argued yesterday was now less important than fixing the roads destroyed by the adverse weather events.
That destruction may have been made worse by funding shortfalls at Waka Kotahi.
Officials from the agency told a Select Committee ten days ago that they had been unable to action a 2020 report which identified over 40 extreme and 143 serious risks to the roading network posed by adverse weather because of funding constraints.
Included in the extreme list was the State Highway One over the Byrnderwyn Hills south of Whangarei, which has just opened one lane after major slips shut the road three weeks ago.
But Hipkins told his post-Cabinet press conference that a lot had changed since the GPS had been drawn up last year. The weather events of the past two months would change what was previously consulted on, he said.
And then he added: “Clearly, there’s been a change in leadership of the government.”
That is the first time as Prime Minister, he has appeared to tacitly acknowledge that his leadership priorities differ from thsoe of Jacinda Ardern.
“All governments have to deal with the reality that’s right in front of them,” he said.
“And one of the realities that’s right in front of us is that we have a transport network that has been shown to be wanting in a time when we are faced with a major catastrophe, and we have to put that front and centre of our decisions around transport planning and transport funding.”
Thus his emphasis yesterday on fixing the roads after National’s Transport spokesperson, Simeon Brown, claimed that “Labour is going to steal the money New Zealanders pay via petrol taxes to fix potholes and maintain the roads and instead use that money for cycleways.”
I’m a big fan of busways, and I’m a big fan of cycling, as everybody will know,” Hipkins said.
“But we also have to be investing in maintaining our roads and making sure that people can get around.”
But Waka Kotahi already accepted that.
Their new chair, Paul Reynolds, told the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee on February 23 that both adaptation and emissions reduction were important.
He said work on road maintenance (like dealing with potholes) would become even more important “as ”adaptation is one strand of our climate work, an important strand of our climate work, and the other is emissions reduction,” he said.
The organisation’s Chief Executive, Nicole Rosie, said they were looking at how they could take carbon out of roading infrastructure by, for example, building wooden bridges.
Rosie said there was a fundamental difference between what urban centres could do to limit emissions compared with rural and regional New Zealand.
“The story in rural and regional New Zealand is a story of resilience and adaption, and the story in our major urban centres is that they will do the heavy lifting on emission reduction in New Zealand,” she said.
“And that is why there’s been a huge focus on mass rapid transit which is what other people will think of as light rail or busways, and we have plans that have been well developed in Auckland around what the mass transit networks look like.
“And what we are looking to do with Pathways in Auckland is a whole cycleway now network now designed for Auckland.”
But it seems Hipkins now wants a different emphasis from Waka Kotahi.
“I think you’ll see resilience and the resilience of the transport network being a much, much bigger priority,” he said.
“Now. It was in the previous priorities, but I think you’ll find it’ll be front and centre of the final policy statement when it’s released.”
At the Select Committee, ACT MP Simon Court asked what had happened to a 2020 Waka Kotahi business case for resilience which had identified 40 extreme and 143 major risks, including the Brynderwyns.
“We haven’t addressed all of those because it’s one of the funding trade-offs constraint conversations,” said Waka Kotahi’s general manager of transport services, Brett Gliddon.
“We’ve got to trade those off against the other activities we’re doing.”
The Waka Kotahi team at the Select Committee made it clear that funding was a major constraint across the board, with many roads which had reached the end of their life now not being renewed but simply resealed.
Waka Kotahi’s funding comes from fuel tax and road user charges.
Hipkins said yesterday that he did not intend to increase fuel taxes.
How Waka Kotahi would get the additional funding it will need would come when the Government unveiled the final version of the Government Policy Statement on land transport.
“At the time that we make the announcement, of course, we will articulate how we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
But if the Government is not going to increase the hypothecated revenue that Waka Kotahi receives, then the only alternative will be that it must fund the agency directly.
That could see Finance Minister Grant Robertson having to find hundreds of millions of dollars from somewhere.
Cutting out walking and cycling initiatives by Waka Kotahi won’t help much; they are budgeted to cost $670 million over the 2021 -24 period compared with the big ticket items like local and state highway road improvements, $3.3 billion; the Road to Zero safety campaign, $2.5 billion; public transport infrastructure, $1.7 billion and local and state highway maintenance,$5.4 billion.
Those numbers are an indication of the scale of the impact the weather events this year will have on Waka Kotahi’s Budget.
Glidden told the Committee the damage was significantly worse than the Kaikoura earthquake, and that cost $1.1 billion.
That is why Hipkins wants the policy statement rewritten so that transport priorities can be brought closer to what funding might be available.