The extent of the gulf between Auckland Mayor Len Brown and the Government over the city’s transport problems is clearly evident in a series of letters between the Mayor and two Cabinet Ministers obtained by POLITIK.
And the letters show why Auckland is having to rely on massive rates increases to help fund its transport.
The Council is raising $500 million through a special transport levy to fund transport investments over the next three years.
This is one of the reasons the rate increases average 10% but it is being applied unevenly.
So yesterday the Council started ringing round those with big increases.
One Ponsonby homeowner was told his rates would rise by over 30% or another $1200 a year. Others will be higher.
When the details for all ratepayers are made available today the outcry is likely to be substantial.
At the heart of the problem is the refusal of the Government to consider any alternative funding options for Auckland transport — such as motorway tolls or a regional petrol tax — till the Council has agreed to a full review of its transport investment strategy.
The letters show that the Government believes such a review could take 12 months which would mean it would more or less end just as the terms of the current Council and Mr Brown were ending next year.
Mr Brown says he agrees to the review – but he is proposing that it include officers from the Council, Auckland Transport and Kiwirail — all likely to favour the early completion of the $2.5 billion inner city rail loop.
However in the letters which are between Finance Minister Bill English, Transport Minister, Simon Bridges and Mr Brown, the Ministers suggest an independent external review conducted by “an expert international firm”.
People familiar with the correspondence say that the letters demonstrate that the Government is simply not willing to work with Mr Brown and will not move on Auckland transport issues till he is no longer Mayor.
And in turn, it is clear Mr Brown is not willing to give an inch in terms of his transport plans including the inner city rail loop.
It is also clear from the letters that the Government is running out of what little patience it had left in dealing with Mr Brown.
Mr Brown and the Auckland Council have argued since 2013 that they needed additional sources of funding to provide up to $12 billion to fund transport in Auckland up to 2050.
They have suggested motorway tolling and petrol taxes as possibilities.
Successive Ministers of Transport have refused to agree to the revenue raising options offered by the Council.
The exchange starts in March after Mr Bridges and Mr Brown met to discuss an Auckland Transport Accord along the lines of the Housing Accord Mr Brown has signed with Nick Smith.
Mr Brown then wrote to Mr Bridges saying: “Your comments at our meeting were very helpful and encouraging.
“I completely understand that any accord and the process leading up to it needs to be one with which both Government and the Auckland Council are comfortable.”
He goes on to set out the size of the transport challenge in Auckland and to point out that there is a high level of interest in the city in transport investment.
And he sets out a number of points that would need to be addressed in any accord including “examination of a joint operating model for rail and rail traffic management.”
However Mr Bridges replies suggesting the time is not quite right to move the Accord forward.
He says the appropriate time would be after the Council has finalised its 2015 long term plan.
And he warns that the Government would want to test whether better returns from transport investment could be achieved.
“From our perspective, confidence that the strategy is achieving the best possible returns is needed before it makes sense to turn to funding questions.”
Two months later, a few days after the Budget, Mr English and Mr Bridges write a joint letter to Mr Brown.
They say that “the current package of projects in the Auckland Council’s investment strategy does not provide a compelling case for additional transport investment.”
“The proposed additional investment is expected to only deliver modest improvements in the areas that matter most to Aucklanders — tackling congestion and driving greater public transport use.
“We are therefore unwilling to consider new transport funding tools that would increase costs for Aucklanders and the overall economy at this time.”
The letter goes on to say that the Government believes there is a need for a full review of all Auckland’s transport options either by consultants, or Government and Council officials.
And they say they believe the process will take 12 months — in other words for much of the rest of the current Mayor and Council’s term of office.
And then a stern warning to the Council: “We would appreciate if you could respond to this letter indicating whether Auckland Council is prepared to engage with the Government on the strategic direction for Auckland’s transport.
“We also request that you outline Auckland Council’s key transport objectives in your response.”
That was received by the Council on May 26.
On June 17 Mr Brown replied.
But he appears to ignore the demands in the Government letter – which set out a year long review of Auckland’s transport plans.
He also does not outline the “key transport objectives” as requested by the Ministers.
Instead he suggests a “layered structure” to “drive the process to produce a transport Accord forward.
“I suggest that we direct the Secretary of Transport and Auckland Council’s Chief Executive to develop and recommend such a structure and that it includes senior representatives from the Ministry of Transport, NZTA, Treasury, Kiwirail, Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and such others as agreed.”
In other words it would be heavily weighted toward the existing emphasis in the Council plans on rail, particularly the inner city loop.