Transport Minister Michael Wood

The Government’s decision to back peddle on lowering speed limits is hitting potholes.

At this stage, although it is part of the Government’s reprioritisation efforts to free up money to alleviate cost of living increases, the speed limit change looks unlikely to do that.

And it appears that it is also immediately unlikely to see any lower limits that have already been set up reinstated back to the original 100 kmh limit, even though one Cabinet Minister was yesterday calling for that.

The problem for the Government is what seems to be a recurring challenge; how do Ministers direct an independent agency like Waka Kotahi.

The answer with Waka Kotahi is slowly.

Waka Kotahi is a Crown Agency (like Whatu Ora) and carries out Government land transport policy outlined every three years in a Government Policy Statement on land transport.

The 2021 GPS required that Waka Kotahi primarily focus on developing a transport system in which no-one was killed or seriously injured while travelling.

Waka Kotahi translated that into its “Road to Zero” campaign, which aims to cut road deaths by 40 per cent by 2030.

A core part of that is reducing speed limits to 80 kmh on 16,500 km of local roads and state highways.

Waka Kotahi estimates the speed limit cuts would save 213 deaths and serious injuries.

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To change this, the Government needs to change the Government Policy Statement due next year. Then Waka Kotahi must change the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP).

This work appears to be underway.

A spokesperson for Transport Minister Michael Wood told POLITIK yesterday that Wood was currently working with the Ministry of Transport and Waka Kotahi on the implementation of the reprioritisation.

But it is a complex bureaucratic process and unlikely to happen quickly.

It seems that meanwhile, money is not going to be shifted around within Waka Kotahi, so that money budgeted for “Road to Zero” might instead be used on Cyclone Gabrielle road repairs.

A spokesperson for the Minister, in response to a POLITIK  question, said there was no intention to change the NLTP allocations as part of the reprioritisation.

Nevertheless, the money involved in road safety is substantial and is largely funded by petrol tax and road user charges.

The current Waka Kotahi budget for road safety for the three years 2021 – 24 is $2.5 billion.

The National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) says that includes spending to make  speed limit changes on 16,500kms of local roads and state highways “to improve safety to prevent an estimated 213 deaths and serious injuries.”

In July last year, the Ministry of Transport reported that in 2021  4478 Kilometres of highest-risk roads had been addressed through speed management.

It said: “A regulatory programme to improve the way speed limits are set has been developed, albeit this has been developed slower than the indicative timeline set out in the Action Plan 2020-22.”

The report said it was awaiting Cabinet approval.

“In the meantime, Waka Kotahi and road controlling authorities have made strong progress on implementing safer speed limits on high-risk areas of the network.

“Planning is underway to increase safety camera coverage.”

It is not clear how much is budgeted for that.

But $1.2 billion of the budgeted $2.5 billion for Road to Zero is handed over to the Police for road safety activities.

Waka Kotahi says that is to maintain 1,070 dedicated road policing staff and about 20% of non-dedicated police staff and “implement activities on driving restraints, impairment, distraction and speed and almost double enforcement of speed and drunk driving.”

Figures supplied by the Taxpayers’ Union show that Waka Kotahi got $3.7 billion from road user charges and petrol tax in 2022, and $675 million of that (18%) was used for the Road to Zero programme, including the police subsidy.

However, the money does not appear to be achieving its goals.

National’s Transport spokesperson, Simeon Brown, told the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee that according to Waka Kotahi’s own annual review (which it delivered during the private session of the Committee), the Police were failing to meet their road safety targets.

“Your annual review said (Road to Zero)  failed to meet most of the different targets, whether that was installing or doing breath tests. We’ve got road barriers. We’ve got a number of speeding tickets, a whole range of different things we’re failing to achieve,” he said.

Ministry of Transport Deputy CEO told the same Committee that Road to Zero sought to operate as a partnership between the Ministry, Waka, Waka Kotahi, and New Zealand Police.

“Following a report by Martin Jenkins into the Road Safety Partnership, released in January, improvements have been made to enhance reporting, provide greater accountability, and strengthen governance,” he said.

“These improvements are making a big difference and will help to ensure a successful implementation of this vital work.”

There is, however, less enthusiasm for the lowering speed limits programme in many parts of New Zealand.

Yesterday, Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty, who is also Minister of Local Government and Rural Communities,  called for Waka Kotahi to lift the 80kmh on State Highway Two, which runs through his electorate on the section between Featherston and Greytown.

McAnulty told the Wairarapa Times-Age he supported safety measures in towns, outside schools, and the new roundabouts but thought the Greytown to Featherston stretch should have remained at 100kmh.

“Waka Kotahi have statutory independence, which means ministers can’t interfere in specific decisions, but the decision by Cabinet sends them a clear message that taking on board public feedback must be a key part of decision making,” he said.

The Government announcement on Monday was bold.

“We will significantly narrow the speed reduction programme to focus on the most dangerous one per cent of state highways,” Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said.

“We will also ensure that where change is proposed, Waka Kotahi is consulting meaningfully with affected communities.”

But until the new Government Policy Statement is produced, even the Prime Minister doesn’t have the power to force Waka Kotahi to abandon its speed limit programme.