Saturday, May 06, 2006

John Armstrong: King's firm hand on wheel

Maurice Williamson likes to ask his audiences a couple of simple questions when he talks to public meetings about Auckland's traffic woes. Do they think congestion has been getting better or worse since Labour promised to fix the city's roading crisis? And, by the way, did anyone come to the meeting by public transport?

The answers speak for themselves.

At one meeting no one had travelled by bus or train despite the venue being well-served by public transport.

As for clogged roads, Transit New Zealand's latest state highway forecast confirms what Williamson's audiences already know from painful experience: traffic growth is continuing to grow at about 2 to 4 per cent a year, causing increased congestion, particularly for peak-period commuter trips and freight vehicles, at an estimated cost of about $1 billion a year.

Williamson has the patter to sell ice-cubes to Eskimos, but his is a clever sales pitch nonetheless. National's transport spokesman allows his audiences to draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of Labour's roading policy.

He then holds out the prospect of more roads sooner by doing what Labour is not doing - allowing more flexibility for tolling roads, allowing private sector participation in road construction, and the Government funding new roads by incurring debt and then treating them as revenue-generating assets by tolling them.

The clarity of Williamson's message is in stark contrast to Labour's wonky handling of roading policy, something which Prime Minister Helen Clark has addressed by installing Annette King in the transport portfolio.

There was the bizarre episode in February when Transit revised its 10-year state highway construction programme because of an apparent funding shortfall. This would have forced the deferral of some projects and delays in start dates for others.

Conscious that the backlog of projects is already long enough, ministers were not amused. Money to make good the shortfall was quickly made available. Yet ministers had been told back in November that Transit would have to revise its plans.

The fuss vividly illustrated just how slow Labour is going in making progress on this infrastructure crisis, despite significantly increasing spending on roading.

Even a "top priority" project like the Western Ring Route, which will circle Auckland and take the pressure off State Highway 1, will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest.

Everyone agrees the infrastructure deficit is the result of historical low spending on roading relative to gross domestic product.

Labour trumpets its extra spending. But saying you have spent so many millions on extra roads and public transport does not soothe motorists stuck in ever-lengthening queues - just as Pete Hodgson's cataloguing of the amount Labour has spent on extra operations is irrelevant to those patients booted off surgical waiting-lists and referred back to their GPs.

Like the demand for elective surgery, Labour is constantly playing catch-up as traffic volumes escalate. It may still have valid reason to blame National for the roading crisis, but that now rings hollow after six years in power.

Labour must worry that public frustration sparks a different kind of road rage, one which finds expression at the ballot box.

Clark needs no reminding that when Auckland voters turn against a government they can really turn against a government.

However, when the Government allowed the Ministry of Transport to float something as potentially unpopular as congestion pricing - charging motorists to enter Auckland city - it was inviting a backlash.

Congestion pricing is putting the cart before the horse. This is a last-ditch solution used in cities overseas where there is simply no room for more roads. Yet Auckland motorists could find themselves subject to congestion pricing simply because authorities have neglected to build the roads which would enable them to bypass the city centre.

Letting congestion pricing get out of the bag is also a sign of bureaucrats running amok.

Enter King. Giving David Parker's job to the front-bencher shows that Clark wants to give Labour far more political grunt in the transport portfolio. Parker had too much on his plate and Clark was clearly worried that such a politically sensitive portfolio might not have got the attention it deserved.

There have been murmurs that officials were trying to bury Parker in paperwork. As a relatively new minister, he also does not convey the authority which comes naturally to a front-bencher of King's experience.

Both Parker and his predecessor in the portfolio, Pete Hodgson, hail from Otago, where, as Williamson jokes, a traffic jam is three cars meeting at an intersection.

King is not an Aucklander. But as a Wellington electorate MP she is well-versed in the capital's own protracted traffic project sagas, notably the off-again, on-again Transmission Gully as the main arterial route out of the city, and the planning consent nightmare of the inner-city bypass, now finally under construction after years of delay.

There are also parallels with her old portfolio where she was dealing with the Ministry of Health nationally and district health boards locally.

She is now confronted with a spaghetti junction-like tangle of separate roles and responsibilities held by a jumble of state entities, including Transit, the Land Transport Safety Authority and the Ministry of Transport.

That is further complicated by regional bodies such as the new Auckland Regional Transport Authority, and territorial local authorities such as the Auckland City Council, all of which have their own transport strategies.

King is saying nothing publicly about the approach she will be taking until she has been fully briefed by officials from the state entities.

However, she has been given the job because she is good at getting those developing policy and those lobby groups affected by it working in unison. She is good at knocking heads together - gently.

She is also good at communicating directly with voters. Expect Labour to start talking about completed roading projects in concrete terms of what they achieve, rather than merely in dollar sums.

And expect roading to get a big push in the Budget, now less than two weeks' away.

King is not going to make lavish promises about fixing Auckland's roads. There is no quick-fix.

What matters is that Labour remains credible on roading and that voters do not start looking at solutions on offer elsewhere.

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