Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Brian Rudman: Travelling full speed ahead down the motorway to nowhere

As oil prices rocket into the stratosphere and Antarctica melts into the sea as a result of global warning, what do our politicians focus on? Building more highways through Auckland and, because the existing ones don't work, devising ways to tax the poorest road users out of their cars.

The Ministry of Transport's consultation exercise promoting "road pricing" as a solution to Auckland road congestion is yet another desperate attempt by petrol-sniffing bureaucrats and politicians to avoid the obvious.

That the 50-year reign of King Road has left Auckland transport in a state of near-paralysis and it's time to rejoin the rest of the civilised world and establish a modern, 21st century public transport system.

At least the regional councillors at last week's Regional Land Transport Committee appear to have noted the less-than-enthusiastic discussion that accompanied the ministry's massive road pricing options report, taken the hint and given it the thumbs-down.

This is more than can be said for the assorted city councillors from across the region on the committee who see road pricing as a last straw worth grabbing at. Even though it's no answer, as the report, if they'd read it carefully, makes clear.

The reality is, this whole road pricing exercise is a pointless and expensive sideshow, and from the careful neutrality of Government comment, one suspects ministers are hoping the quicker the whole show is relegated to a dusty ministry shelf and forgotten, the better.

Putting aside all the inequities and inefficiencies of road pricing, as a solution to Auckland's transport woes it has one glaring fault.

If it actually succeeds in its mission of freeing up the motorways by pricing motorists out of their cars, this will trigger the immediate collapse, from overloading, of our grossly inadequate public transport system.

Now call me stupid, but wouldn't it be more sensible, before you try to force people off the highways, to have in place an alternative rapid transport system?

Indeed, chances are if such an option were available, enough motorists would happily take to it, what with congestion and fuel price hikes, before the stick of road pricing was even waved in their direction.

The Government talks the public transport jargon, but remains in the thrall of the road builders.

The people of Auckland, via the regional council, have a $1.6 billion public transport investment plan spread over 10 years which would revolutionise passenger transport.

But we're $700 million short, and cannot realistically expect to finance the difference out of property rate increases.

This means that without Government help, a modern, electrified commuter rail service is out of reach.

But without it, all the road pricing in the world will solve nothing, except make travel on the motorways faster for truck drivers and others who can pass the costs on, and passengers in Crown limousines.

If there is no more money in the Government coffers to do both roads and public transport, then the answer is to reprioritise. Dip into the roads budget and buy some electric trains instead, and dig that 70-year-old dream rail tunnel under Auckland.

A recent paper by Australian urban planners Paul Mees and Jago Dodson refers to Auckland as "an extreme case study" of "one of the most extreme automobile-oriented transport policies pursued by any major city between the 1950s and 1980s".

Auckland is "one of the world's most car-dependent" cities while "public transport usage rates are among the lowest in the world".

They point to bureaucrats and politicians who mouth pro-public transport platitudes but are locked into pro-road policies.

The ARC transport planning model is, they say, biased in favour of motorways. They point to public transport use declining by more than half between 1986 and 1991 as a consequence of privatisation and a fall-off in services.

The two academics don't leave central Government off the hook.

They note the lack of a national agency responsible for planning public transport within New Zealand's cities in contrast to Transit New Zealand, which has "substantial organisational capacity to advocate for new road construction.

Hence while the roads agency has direct access to the Minister of Transport, there is no such avenue of access for public transport advocacy."

Every Aucklander should read this paper.

Then start advocating. You'll find it in "publications" on the website www.griffith.edu.au/centre/urp/

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