Speaker by Various Artists


John Roughan is Scared

by Patrick Reynolds

How has this usually confident and cocksure commentator got himself into such a flap? (See: Tunnel vision threatens Super City, NZ Herald, July 31.) What ‘monster’ is keeping him awake at night? Is he fretting about global warming, about how we should be looking for opportunities in the coming lower carbon economy, or at least how much it is likely cost to fill his car?

No it’s none of these, quite the reverse really: it’s the fear that the Supercity may help Auckland secure some investment in public transport. Really? This is the thought that has turned our doughty writer into such a fretful sleeper?

‘..the fearful prospect remains’ and ‘..it scared me’ he writes of the idea that Auckland might finally complete the rail line from Britomart to Mt Eden [in an underground loop with new stations at midtown, K’rd, and Newton]. Why such emotive language?

Is it possible that he resorted to this approach to disguise that he offers not one fact to support his alarm? He merely states, again in somewhat unhinged terms, that the CBD Rail loop project is ‘uneconomic pork’.

Well perhaps it is time to properly consider the economic case for selecting infrastructure investments. While there are clearly finite resources for such projects it’s not as if our money isn’t being spent. The Minister of Transport Steven Joyce is so keen on road building that he wants us to spend over 10 billion dollars on motorways that he has himself decided are ‘Roads of National Significance’. Big think indeed.

Evaluating the likely economic benefits of large engineering projects is of course a complex and technical process, and the latest in a long line of studies is currently under way for the CBD Rail loop. It will be interesting to see if the authors of this report find themselves as much in a piggery as Roughan foresees. But in the meantime we can look at various factors that his frightened state must have blinded him to.

Auckland’s transport system is unusually dependent on the private car for a city of its size and density. This bias has consequences for the shape and look of the city, but also for the state of our wallets. According to American studies: ‘[Public] Transit based cities spend around 5 to 8% of their wealth on transportation but auto-dependent ones range from 12 to 19%’ [Resillient Cities, 2009]. How has Auckland become so auto-dependent? Simply because we have been building roads and nothing else since the 1950s. New Zealanders have been blithely investing in the most expensive way of getting people around our biggest city. Perhaps then, on this count alone it is time to push the balance towards other modes of travel?

Or perhaps what Roughan thinks is that we should just build more roads and keep making them ever wider as they fill up with more cars, and not divert a cent to other systems? Everyone will just have to have a car, and our architects can concentrate on designing the perfect parking building, why can’t we do that? Well not if you want those cars to be actually moving on those roads. Road building encourages ever more road journeys which leads to gridlock. Auto-dependency is not only extremely expensive for us all but is also self-defeating. This is why the rest of the western world is pulling down freeways and investing in transit.

Consider this: the NZTA itself calculates that every peak journey on a train in Auckland not only benefits the traveller to the tune of $13.18 but it also benefits road users by $17.27 by being off the road and out of their way [Economic Evaluation Manual-Volume 2 2008]. Impressive that they feel they can quantify this so exactly but regardless of the precision of these numbers the principle is clear: train users are the best fighters against traffic congestion.

So next time Roughan is stuck in traffic I hope he thanks all those selfless users of Auckland’s incomplete, infrequent, and underfunded rail service for without them imagine how much more stuck he would be. And perhaps he could also imagine how much better his driving experience would be if the Auckland rail system was as complete and interconnected, as modern and efficient as it could be, and therefore used by so many more current car drivers. Heaven knows he may then even be able to calm down enough to ride a train himself?

Roughan asserts that this project must pay for itself directly to be viable. All major transport infrastructure is paid for by taxpayers, no road pays for itself, not even tolled ones. A petrol tax is a tax, like excise on alcohol or income tax, we do not get to slice up our taxes and decide where the money goes but by lobbying the government. And all transport infrastructure is evaluated on an economic basis, not a financial one.

As it’s in Auckland Roughan wants this project paid for by Aucklanders alone [funny how apparently selfless the road lobbyists are]. Well state highways are also all stuck in one place. Perhaps the people of Wellsford should be required to fund the $2 billion plus for the proposed highway up there? By Roughan’s reasoning I should be able to insist that my tax doesn’t get spent on the proposed Transmission Gully project out of Wellington because I don’t live there. Or perhaps I want a refund for all of Chris Carter’s travel? Well I do actually, but it doesn’t work like that, does it?

Of course Roughan may be right, the Supercity just might mean that Auckland gets a chance to have a more balanced and rational infrastructure spend than has been the case over the last 60 years. I certainly hope so. As much as central government loves the idea that we can’t get our act together that is not the case at all. We have been prevented from making our own decisions by Wellington for decades, for example when the Muldoon government killed off Mayor Robbie’s attempt to build this network in the 1970s.

The Auckland motorway system is nearing a pretty thorough completion, in fact the lack of any real alternative means they are making us build much of it all over again. Clearly it is long overdue that we slowed down on endlessly expanding this road network and got on with complementing it with the desperately needed off road one. Both will then work better. Is that really something to be scared of?

Patrick Reynolds 2010

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