David Parker’s ambitious transport plans announced yesterday bear the heavy imprint of his good friend, Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown.
Brown gets some of his pet projects in the $12 billion Government Transport Policy Statement and Parker told journalists yesterday that the Mayor’s advice had been influential in pulling back from what he called “gold-plated” projects.
But perhaps the biggest win for Brown is confirmation that Kiwirail’s proposal to build a rail line from Avondale to Southdown is now on the list for Government funding.
As Parker confirmed, the line, first proposed in the 1940s, is a critical element linking freight from Whangarei’s Northport to Auckland.
Otherwise, freight would have to compete for space on the passenger line to Newmarket before it could head south to Auckland’s major industrial area.
It is therefore crucial for Brown to achieve his goal of shifting the Auckland port to Whangarei.
Brown and Parker are friends; Parker attended Brown’s victory party when he won the mayoralty in October last year.
Brown has long been a critic of Waka Kotahi, and he seems to have convinced Parker that Waka Kotahi is extravagant.
“We don’t want anything gold plated,” Parker said yesterday.
“We want things to be built well, but if there are more affordable activities that mean that we can do more, we’re going to do it.”
He was asked if he could be more specific.
“I’m not going to criticise particular investments, but I had it suggested to me by, for example, the Mayor of Auckland as a person who drives the roads north and south, that there are some areas where we could have cut out some costs in order to do more.”
“I know he does say that some of the verges on roads have been wider than necessary in some parts and that they cost money because you need to move a lot more spoil.”
Parker might find his role as Minister of Transport conflicting with his other role as Minister for the Environment if he starts cutting back roadside verges.
A Waka Kotahi document last year said: “There are opportunities for land transport corridors to support native biodiversity, with road verges potentially playing an important role either because of the species and habitat they support or the environmental function they perform.”
Parker also acknowledged Brown’s enthusiasm for the new priority being given to the northwestern busway in Auckland, which he said was the most important project in the Auckland package of the GPS.
It will be built along the State Highway 16 motorway.
National is also promising this and has cost it $2.9 billion.
Brown was obviously delighted with Parker’s announcement yesterday.
“I particularly welcome the progress on Northwest Rapid Transit, which is a growing area where we can affordably deliver much faster, more reliable public transport,” he said.
“I have been saying that this is an obvious priority and needs to take precedence over the mega dream projects proposed.”
The “mega dream projects” are the Auckland Light Rail and the second harbour crossing, neither of which were mentioned in yesterday’s announcement.
Parker did say that any announcement on the future of Light Rail would not be until after the election.
But the decision to go ahead with the Avondale -Southdown link raises major issues for the Light Rail project.
Up until recently, that has been planning to use some of the land designated back in the 1940s for the rail line.
But earlier this year, Kiwrail advised the Light Rail Project that it wanted to use the designated corridor for a rail line.
The other big project announced in the plans is the return of the four-lane highway from Auckland to Whangarei.
Parker said the proposal, along with the busway, the Avondale-Southdown link and ten other projects were critical nation-building transport priorities for New Zealand over the coming decades.
This Warkworth to Whangarei project would be in stages, Te Hana to the Brynderwyns, Warkworth to Wellsford and Whangārei to Brynderwyns.
The next stage will be the urgent replacement of the cyclone-ravaged two-lane road over the twisting and steep Brynderwyns, and work is expected to start next year on that though Waka Kotahi is now considering a new route proposal from locals who have argued that it would be cheaper.
And in a remarkable turnaround, it would seem that it will be four lanes all the way from Warkworth.
In 2018 Labour cancelled National’s plans for four lanes from Auckland to Whangarei, dismissing the plan as a “holiday highway.”
Parker said that generally, motorway connections now would be two lanes each way.
The other projects include an extension of the Waikato expressway to Pairere (cancelled in 2018), Tauranga to Tauriko, and a new bridge across the Ashburton River, plus highway developments in Nelson and Christchurch.
The Greens were predictably critical of the package.
“Funnelling billions into building more roads, instead of investing in low carbon transport options like regional rail, shows Labour are not serious about climate change,” said their transport spokesperson, Julie-Anne Genter.
The other big focus of the statement was on road maintenance and fixing potholes in particular.
Parker produced a graph to show that funding for road maintenance had been more or less frozen for the entire term of the last National government, but under Labour, it was now rising.
It is forecast to increase by $90 million over the next year.
But the new public transport initiatives, new roads, and the increase in maintenance funding mean that Waka Kotahi’s overall budget is expected to increase overall transport funding to $20.8 billion over the next three years.
So the funding will come from a Government grant ($2.9 billion over the next three years), traffic fines ($100 million per year), a Crown loan ($3.1 billion), and the balance will come from fuel tax and road user charges.
They have not been increased since 2020, when they were cut by 25 per cent as part of the Covid relief programme.
Those cuts were removed at the beginning of July, but now the tax and charges will go up regularly over the next three years to help pay for the programme.
Next year the fuel tax will go by two cents a litre twice, by four cents a litre twice in 2025, so it will have climbed 12 cents by 2026.
Road User Charges will also rise, but the GPS does not say by how much.
The possibility that they would incensed the truckers’ lobby group,
Their interim CEO, Don Kalasih, said petrol tax rather than user charges should go up.
“It’s time other road users started paying more of their share of the costs, and the same goes for rail freight,” he said.
National’s transport spokesperson, Simeon Brown, said other sources of funding were available.
“Instead of being innovative and harnessing investment from places like superannuation and KiwiSaver funds, Labour is lumping motorists with big fuel tax hikes to fund their full suite of ideological projects,” he said.
What he didn’t say was that motorists would be lumped with road tolls under the system National is proposing.
The GPS was applauded by Civil Contractors whose members maintain and build roads.
Their CEO, Alan Pollard, said many of the priority projects proposed were sorely needed. Contractors were likely to support the Policy Statement’s strategic priorities, which focussed on maintenance, resilience, safety, emissions reduction, urban development and integrated freight.
A significant increase in maintenance funding would keep the country’s transport network in a safe condition for road users and help resolve the degradation in pavements that had led to a plague of potholes over the past decade.
Maintenance investment was also a great way to provide certainty and retain capacity and capability in the industry, and consistent investment in rail would mean a growing industry of skilled constructors that were well-prepared to service rail projects.
The statement yesterday is a remarkable turnaround from a government which only five years ago was cheerfully cancelling most new highway construction.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins back in March had already signalled the end of the speed limit decreases being worked on by Waka Kotahi, and that now looks like a signal of what has emerged as a substantial change in attitude within his government as contrasted to the Ardern government over transport.