Friday, March 31, 2006

Brian Rudman: Only the Government can rescue Auckland's transport plan

While Helen was out on the harbour this week, schmoozing with the Hammer of Iraq, I hope she didn't seek advice on how best to quell the anti-Government rumblings in Auckland transport circles. A smart bomb in the Britomart transport centre is unlikely to resolve anything. Unless, by accident, it excavated the under-city rail tunnel that Finance Minister Michael Cullen doggedly refuses to fund.

This week the Auckland Regional Council adopted a draft long-term plan which included a $1.6 billion investment in public transport over the next 10 years. But the Government's refusal to fully embrace Auckland's dream of a modern electric commuter rail service means that $700 million of "necessaries" have fallen off the shopping list.

Necessaries such as the electrification of the system, new rolling stock, the underground city loop, an upgrade of Britomart, and rail services to Onehunga and the airport.

Coinciding, as it does, with the Government releasing, with all the enthusiasm of a transport minister falling on his sword, a non-committal report on congestion pricing in Auckland, you have to wonder how much anyone in Wellington really cares about Auckland transport woes. Especially now that we Aucklanders have performed our triennial service and returned Labour to power.

Certainly the sweetness and light of last year's pre-election tete-a-tetes about solving our transport woes has disappeared. In recent weeks it's been more a case of dispatches at dawn, as Dear Mike and Dear Prime Minister letters have flowed back and forth between the Beehive and Regional House.

The last one I spotted was a stern "Dear Ministers" note from ARC chairman Mike Lee to the Ministers of Finance and Transport dated March 16 that dropped first names all together, declaring the ARC was "extremely unhappy" at the way the Government had come up with new rail funding arrangements without consulting the ARC or the Auckland Regional Transport Authority.

Mr Lee said: "I am sorry to have to advise you that we do not find the proposed regime" - which he learned about in a letter dated March 15 - "acceptable".

He expressed his concern that the Government had "effectively dismissed electrification without having the opportunity to consider the business plan for the development of the Auckland network".

Mr Lee's anguish is understandable. In his letter, Dr Cullen effectively flushed the dream of electrification into Never Never Land saying it could be "revisited in the longer term" but "the clear implication of this is that electrification will not be in place for, at the very least, the next eight years". He said this should be taken into account when ordering more rolling stock. Fat chance there. The ARC's long-term plan projects that money is so short Auckland will be pushing to find the cash to refurbish 30-year-old British inter-city carriages.

Worse, the funding shortfall means the aim of doubling public transport passenger numbers over the next decade has had to be cut back to a 50 per cent increase, up from 52 million to 78 million.

By now you might have thought even the Treasury boffins would have realised that building more roads is a time-consuming and costly non-solution to getting Aucklanders moving. And while we can heap plenty of blame on past local politicians for our present predicament, at least when they went all car crazy they did have the foresight to bequeath to future generations a network of dedicated, if largely unused, rail corridors. A sort of safety net, just in case the car turned rogue.

Unlocking this invaluable legacy is the problem. Ratepayers have done their bit. In the past five years, ARC transport spending has increased from $36 million to $137 million. Half of our regional rates go on public transport. But rates alone cannot bridge the gap in public transport resulting from years of neglect. Only the Government has pockets deep enough for that.

Dr Cullen is a known Aucklaphobe. But you'd think the Prime Minister, the Minister for Auckland, Judith Tizard, and the other Auckland MPs would be able to bring him round. Or else.

In about the time it's going to take to get the Avondale stretch of State Highway 20 through the Environment Court, my bet is you could have a modern electrified rail system up and running. But instead, Dr Cullen expects us to get excited about tarted- up old British Rail antiques.

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