Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Gerry Brownlee: Hogging space on the wrong side of history

The Mayor's transport funding consensus building group has completed its consentuating and released its final report on options for bridging Auckland's transport funding gap. Just to remind you: funding for the key projects in the Auckland Plan is short by about $12 billion.

The group's key finding was that unless Aucklanders were to face significantly higher rates and fuel taxes, some form of road charging would be required. The report points out that this would also have the benefit of reducing congestion at peak times as it would give motorists an incentive to travel off-peak and reduce short trips. The suggested options are a motorway network charge (favoured by a ratio of 4 to 1 in the public feedback) and a cordon charge. I suspect one reason people favoured the motorway charge was because they figure it will be easier to avoid. 

The important point about this report is that it is the agreed position not just of the usual suspects but also representatives from the cyclists, walkers, the Campaign for Better Transport, Child Poverty Action Group, the unions and the Environmental Defence Society. It's possible that a different group of individuals would have come up with a different set of recommendations but probably not that different. What is unusual about the report is that it makes very clear that as a matter of equity, public transport improvements and improvements to the cycling network must be in place BEFORE any charges are introduced. No problem there, you'd think: Aucklanders have been screaming for better public transport for years.

Which is about where Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee makes his entrance. The government has made it plain it has a particular distaste for funding Auckland's roading projects by getting Aucklanders to pay more. And it's not hard to see why: if the government is gouging the population through fuel taxes and tolled Roads of National (In)Significance then they don't want anyone else getting a bite of the cherry first. So on Nine to Noon yesterday, in an interview truly breathtaking for its lack of coherence,  Gerry: 
  • insisted the bizarre East-West link be brought forward (payback for National's freight lobby supporters);
  • maintained the gap was 'somewhat notional...and it is derived from a view about rail subsidies and how that works as well as some patronage calculations that are in there as well.' This is odd: the word 'patronage' appears twice in the report, and neither time in the context Gerry is talking about; 
  • claimed there 'is a difference between planning in the long-term sense and the immediacy of funding over that long term. And I think that's the sort of discussion we want to have with Auckland; the Auckland Transport Agency (no such agency, Gerry), Auckland Council over the next short while...' Hidden in the report are a couple of sentences to the effect that the government has refused to engage with the Consensus Building Group or the Council about any of this;
  • told Aucklanders there were 'no immediate problems'. Right. Moving on...;
  • suggested higher excise taxes didn't matter to consumers because of retail promotions;
  • argued that reducing congestion and getting people onto alternate forms of transport isn't a win-win because it 'raises the question about what the cost of alternate transport is. At the moment there's quite a heavy subsidy on the rail...so there's a lot of opportunity there [to increase public transport fares] I would think as you see the new services coming on...and the possibility of those trains filling up is quite a big revenue stream that could potentially come from public transport. There is a bit of a notion around some people's heads that public transport should be subsidised and should be cheap. I think it will always be relatively cheap but the real challenge is to get people to change their thinking...' No, Gerry, public transport is relatively expensive which is why Auckland has a congestion problem;  
  • said 'if you want to reduce congestion it doesn't seem to me you would have a revenue opportunity compatible with revenue coming from that congestion';
  • when pushed by Kathryn Ryan, told her she was 'sounding frantic'; and, lastly,
  • confused predicted with predicated. 
Do listen to the interview if you can bear it. And remember - a vote for National is a vote for expensive public transport and a motorway through your back yard.

In the meantime, the New Zealand Herald ran a reader's poll on what options should be used to raise the money. Top of the list? The motorway charge the government has rejected. At the bottom? Raising PT fares, as favoured by the Minister of Transport.

Who's gonna blink first?