Simeon Brown works to make transport system less sustainable

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Two pieces of news this week makes you wonder about the suitability of Simeon Brown for the position of Transport Minister.

First of all together with Christopher Luxon he announced the ending of Auckland’s Regional Fuel Tax.

It is clear there have been intensive discussions behind the scenes as Auckland officials attempted to persuade the Government that cancelling the tax would leave a rather large hole in the Council’s transport spend, about $1.2 billion to be precise.  But the representations have had no effect.  The Government could have delayed until it had an alternative funding system in place but chose not to.

Brown’s justification was that the money was being used on cycle lanes, red light cameras, speed humps, and lowering speed limits across the city. He clearly has a deep distaste of cycleways. This is a shame because if we are going to meet the country’s climate goals cycleways have a major role to play.

The history of the fuel tax is important as are the reasons for it being implemented. It arose because the Auckland Transport Alignment Project, started by National in 2016, had a rather large unfunded hole in it. ATAP was designed to address congestion, which at the time was getting out of control.

As I said previously there was an initially estimated $4 billion shortfall that ballooned by a further $1.9 billion in 2017.  About a fifth of the projects were not funded.  This is as sure fire a way of creating a transport crisis as you can imagine.

So the last Labour Government introduced the ability for Auckland Council to raise a fuel tax.  At the level that has been agreed to about $1.5 billion would have been raised over ten years.  With the help of NZTA subsidies and other funding mechanisms this would have filled in the funding gap. It also revised ATAP and in 2018 made an announcement that the following projects would be funded and constructed:

  • $8.1 billion in operational costs (especially more for public transport subsidy as more people take public transport)
  • $3.3 billion in asset renewals
  • $8.4 billion in rapid transit, which covers busways, rapid rail, and light rail
  • $3.8 billion on strategic and local roads
  • $1.3 billion on roads etc for green fields areas
  • $ 0.9 billion safety improvements, targeting a 50% reduction in death and injury
  • $ 0.9 billion walking and cycling
  • $ 0.7 billion bus and ferry improvements
  • $ 0.7 billion network optimization

As you can see cycleways and speed humps were very small parts of the program.

Brown was concerned that the Council had large amounts of money unspent sitting in a bank account. Although it is correct that $350 million will shortly be held in reserve this amount was fully committed to complete stage three of the Eastern Busway, important for Brown’s Pakuranga electorate, and to fund the purchase of electric rail units for the City Rail Link. You do not sign up to a significant construction project without the funds being held in reserve. This is like someone engaging in a major renovation of their home and hoping to fund the costs through income. Unless you have plenty to spare, which Auckland does not, then of course you have funds held in reserve.

Mayor Wayne Brown has said:

The money set aside has been fully allocated to projects that are under construction. It just isn’t spent until contractual milestones are met. That’s standard practice when you’re building something,” Mayor Brown says.

Auckland Council will have no choice but to pause any further work on projects funded by the RFT, including those already contracted, to see how we can fund them in the Long-term Plan.”

The projects facing cancellation include improvements to major roads such as Glenvar Road and Lake Road, as well as the fourth and final stage of the Eastern Busway and work to progress the proposed Airport-Botany Busway. The Mayor has indicated these could be cancelled permanently. Again from the Mayor’spress release:

I remain determined to keep rates under control and I’m simply not prepared to pass the cost of these projects on to struggling Auckland households. I’ve already proposed to cut spending on cycleways by $141.5 million and raised pedestrian crossings by $80 million.  I’m quite happy to talk with the government about what else we can cut.”

But this is a problem that can’t be solved just by making cuts. Every Aucklander agrees that our transport system is a mess and it’s going to cost a lot of money to fix. That money must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, the Government has just made it a lot harder for us”.

In my view the decision is deeply undemocratic and very disrespectful. Imagine trying to dictate to the city that comprises a third of the country’s population what sort of transport system it has.

Simeon Brown is working on a new Government Policy Statement on Land Transport and is promising to concentrate efforts on economic benefits and value for money. He is talking about a new East West link which brings up memories of the previous proposal which National was keen about but which was horrendously expensive. If he was interested in the economics he would pursue more incremental changes to the existing road which would provide greater economic benefits. Per kilometer this particular road was said to be potentially the most expensive road in the world. Brown has this rather myopic view that cycleways should prove themselves economically but not roads of National significance.

And unfortunately as pointed out in this Newsroom article addressing climate change does not appear to be part of his thinking.

Simeon Brown has interfered in other climate friendly policies. His axing of the clean car discount saw the sale of electric cars plummet. Previously one in four new cars entering the fleet were electric, one month after the change in policy the figure is now one in 26.

And the pending introduction of RUC for electric vehicles has seen a further startling statistic appear. It will soon be more far more expensive for an electric car to use the road that it will be for a petrol fuelled car.

From Thomas Coughlan at the Herald:

[I]n what looks like a bad April Fool’s joke, the Green Party has discovered drivers of EVs and plug-in hybrids will be paying more to use the road than people driving fossil fuel cars.

Someone driving a battery EV on a return trip between Wellington and Auckland (presumably with lots of charging stops) will pay $98.80 in RUC and a driver of a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius would pay $94.78, comprised of $72.80 in RUC and $21.98 in petrol taxes.

These figures are more than double what a driver of a Toyota Prius, non-plug-in conventional hybrid would pay for that journey, which would be just $42.92 in petrol taxes.

More roads, less spent on public transport and walking and cycling and fewer electric vehicles. These are not the steps a responsible Government takes during a climate crisis.



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