Sunday, July 22, 2012

Auckland transport funding - a tale of competing visions

Earlier this year the Auckland Council put out a consultation document - amusingly called Getting Auckland Moving - on funding Auckland's assorted transport projects. It was a rather thin document and somewhat wet ("Auckland's roading system is congested"). Coming as it did in the middle of or shortly after submissions for the Auckland Plan, the Long Term Plan, the doggy policy consultation and the waste management plan, this important issue garnered a total of 161 submissions. Sadly, the Council's rush to push all this through has left it vulnerable to accusations of not adequately consulting relevant stakeholders, ie the region's residents.
The outcome of the consultation was (figures from the Herald) that 57% of submitters favoured tolls on new roads to pay for further projects, 48% preferred a regional fuel tax, and 43% a congestion charge on busy, existing roads.
In the meantime, to take some heat out of this perennially vexed issue the mayor has set up a Consensus Building Group (CBG) to try to agree on how to fill the funding gap. (The Council agenda item detailing the group and its rationale is here; Brian Rudman's comment is here.) Rudman is of the view that if a consensus can be found among the various competing interest then this will help persuade the government to support any options that require legislative change (we'll get back to you about this...). But experience from overseas suggests it's also a ruse to take the political heat off the mayor for any final decisions about how to milk ratepayers for more money. Heck, if the cyclists and AA can agree on something then it must be OK, right?
The CBG comprises representatives from the motoring lobby, the property lobby, the roadbuilding business lobby, tangata whenua and the non-motorised transport lobbies including Walk Auckland and Cycle Action Auckland. Also included is a representative from Child Poverty Action Group to attend to the interests of those likely to be least able to avoid additional charges, for instance low-paid workers living in areas with crud public transport and non-flexible work hours.
At one level this is certainly about plugging a multi-billion dollar funding gap, and perhaps part of the discussion should be what exactly we're funding and why. Cycling and walking projects still get peanuts relatively speaking, and if the Auckland Council takes its stated commitment to sustainability and tackling climate change seriously, it seems reasonable to suggest that roading projects should be shunted down the list after public and active transport projects.
The prioritisation of different transport modes has not really been addressed and there remains the mystery of how the east-west link between State Highway 20 Onehunga and State Highway 1 got polevaulted to number two on the transport list in the Auckland Plan. In essence, there needs to be a discussion about competing visions: this (Los Angeles):












Or this (rush hour in Copenhagen):












But there is a more subtle battle being waged here, one that is largely passing under the radar of most ratepayers, and that is the battle over who gets to finance and build roads and infrastructure, and who subsequently lays claim to the cash flow arising from charges and tolls. These projects are the public-private partnerships being promoted by the National government, and are already being used to fund prisons and schools. PPPs are really taxpayer-backed cash cows for the private sector - the classic example of privatisation of profit and socialisation of risk. Auckland's business lobby - the one that represents big capital - has long urged councils to allow private funding of transport, particularly roading, projects. The  New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development while ostensibly about all things infrastructure is primarily about using public infrastructure as a private investment opportunity. In this, they have an ally in the National government which, for all its seeming lack of direction, is highly focused on privatising as much of the existing public sector as possible. (The neo-con tendencies of the Key government are the subject of another post.) 
So reaching a consensus is not just going to be about bikes vs cars, but about the very nature of transport project funding. Footpaths and cycleways don't make the private sector money. Tolled roads do.
A hint of this can be seen in the government's stubborn refusal to endorse any of the Council's preferred funding mechanisms. Rejection of the preferred options suggests the government would very much prefer to force the Auckland Council into bringing private investors on board for finance. Local Government Minister David Carter is on record as saying councils should make greater use of PPPs.
Meanwhile the media continues to ask vested interests for comment. In a Checkpoint interview Deloitte's infrastructure guru was asked about a regional fuel tax. Now the thing about outfits like Deloittes is that they aren't neutral commentators. They represent quite specific interests, namely companies seeking arbitrage investment opportunities. As might be expected, Deloittes are also a member of NZCID. So when asked about the merits of a fuel tax, the Deloittes chappie made some noise about it being conceptually simple but, nah a bit hard in practice. Nonsense. It would be like GST, which is easy to add on and collect. There might be border issues if a few people living in Drury go to Ramarama to get their petrol but most of us will just cough up or use less petrol. The point about firms like Deloittes is that they don't want big transport projects funded by ratepayers. They want to put up the finance and lay claim to the income stream to cover their investment many times over. You'd think they'd be a bit wary after some of the more disastrous Australian projects but apparently not.
There's a lot to go on this yet. In the meantime the CBG has its work cut out if it's to even agree on even basic principles.