Months of wrangling between the Government and the Auckland Council over the city’s transport problems have now ended with what is effectively a Government takeover of the decision making process.
The move effectively dashes any hopes Auckland Mayor Len Brown had for extra Government funding for Auckland transport before the next local body election.
Finance Minister Bill English and Transport Minister Simon Bridges yesterday unveiled their proposal for a yearlong study into transport into Auckland.
The review will focus on easing congestion and finding solutions that are value for money.
But it will not be complete until this time next year.
That means it will be ready on the eve of the local Government elections.
Mr Bridges admits that what triggered the standoff was the request by the Auckland Council earlier this year for an additional $300 million of funding for its transport plan.
Mr Brown proposed a “Transport Accord” along the lines of the Housing Accord signed by the Government and the Council.
Today’s announcement confirms that the Government opposed that from the start.
“For us to even contemplate more funding above above the $1 billion a year we invest in Auckland transport we would need high confidence in a strategy,” said Mr Bridges.
“We didn’t have that in the Auckland plan.
“We haven’t thought that it turned the dial sufficiently on congestion, on public transport that makes a difference to congestion and it didn’t necessarily provide value for money.
“So this process is about getting a strong sense of assurance in a strategy and then, and only then, would we consider funding.”
Shortly after the Budget in May Mr English and Mr Bridges told Mr Brown that Auckland’s transport plan was expected to only deliver modest improvements in the areas that matter most to Aucklanders — tackling congestion and driving greater public transport use.
And the Ministers proposed a review, possibly even involving an overseas transport consultancy to look into Auckland transport.
Mr Brown ignored that and as recently as six weeks ago at the National Party conference in Auckland he was still promoting his accord.
The Ministers have finally got their way and the Auckland Transport Alignment Group will be headed by a Governance Group consisting of the Secretary for Transport, Deputy Secretary Treasury, the State Services Commission Deputy Commissioner Auckland, and the Chief Executives of Auckland Council, the NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport.
Underneath that group will be a Steering Group consisting of a senior manager from the Ministry of Transport, the Treasury, Auckland Council, the NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport, supported by a project manager.
The Government has a clear majority on the Governance Group.
Mr Bridges said it would first initially agree on the context, the numbers and the problem in Auckland.
“If we can do that, and though it doesn’t sound like much, that in itself would be a very big achievement and we hope to do that and to release a common factual position and problem definition by the end of this year.”
Then the officials will take that basis and work from there.
“They will go through and test a number of options and projects and come out with a preferred approach,” he said.
The terms of reference give a strong guide or where these options should head with their heavy emphasis on easing congestion and being value for money.
But inevitably at some point in the future funding will have to come into the equation.
But Mr Bridges said the strategy had to come first.
“Anyone has to accept that over a 20 – 30 year period, the investment requirement in Auckland given the huge demographic growth is going to go up.
“There are over the medium to long term, very real funding questions.
“In this process we’re not prepared to even consider that till we feel we’ve got strategic alignment and then we may consider some of those sort of questions.”
However the Central Rail Loop will lie outside the process because funding has already been agreed for the 2019/20 year subject to passenger targets being met.
“We don’t want this to be about any one project. It’s about a much bigger picture and ten year blocks over a thirty year period,” the Minister said.
But he said the Government would be considering how it might use high tech gps based systems to play a role in demand management over the period of the study.
The Governance Group will report back to Mr Bridges, Mr English, Mr Brown and two other Auckland Councillors, Bill Cashmore and Penny Hulse.
Possibly the addition of those Councillors has been a factor because night Mr Bridges was saying tensions between the Beehive and Auckland had eased and that Mr Brown told him the Council had only needed five minutes to sign off the Terms of Reference.
The announcement of the study got a guarded reaction from the Auckland Employers and Manufacturers’ Association’s CEO Kim Campbell.
He said It was good to see Council and Government finally working together to line up transport projects with growth projections and measures to reduce congestion.
“However, let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of getting Auckland moving today,” he said.
“We know the city is struggling to cope with growth.
Congestion is a major issue, and will only escalate with 7000 new cars being registered every month.
Some of my members are effectively running warehouses on wheels as they try and move freight around the city.
“The compelling case for further spending on Auckland transport is evident every day for Auckland businesses and commuters.
“How does ATAP address the linkage between road, rail, sea and the airport?
“We want to see funding streams and timeframes for moving these vital projects along.
“Our members are deeply frustrated with the lack of progress on critical infrastructure development in Auckland.”
That frustration was also expressed by Labour’s Auckland Issues spokesman, Phil Goff, who is all but certain to stand for the Auckland Mayoralty next year.
He said the decision to align central and local government policy should have been taken years ago, avoiding what would now be a further 12 months delay in making the necessary investments in Auckland transport infrastructure.
“National’s decision now means another year will pass before remedial action will be taken,” he said.
“It should have been working with Auckland from day one of the Super City, to align central and local government planning.
“Instead it instructed the Ministry of Transport to stand back from the process that Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency were engaged in and then vetoed its plans. Worse still, it took away the ability of Auckland to access funds from a regional fuel tax to pay for infrastructure forcing it to rely on rates.”