Road rage in the provinces
By Richard Harman (author)
The Government's enthusiasm for provincial growth inspired by its coalition deal with New Zealand First has run head-on into the Labour-Greens anti-motorway land transport policy.
Four regional Mayors are heading to Wellington to tell Transport Minister Phil Twyford his new roading proposals threaten jobs in their region.
The Mayors, from Northland, want to see State Highway One converted to four lanes from Whangarei to Wellsford. From there it is already four lanes to Auckland.
They say that it is critical for economic development and jobs in New Zealand’s second most depressed region.
ironically, the Mayors have been enthusiastic supporters of Shane Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund, with one, former National MP, John Carter, being acknowledged for his support by Ardern in Parliament.
They met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Waitangi earlier this year and came away convinced she had a positive reaction to the four-lane proposal.
But at her press conference on Monday, her enthusiasm seemed to have waned.
She said a number of people had made a number of pitches about what would improve economic development in their area.
"One of the things that was consistently raised with me at the same time was safety concerns around that stretch of road (Whangarei to Auckland).
“What we are prioritising is greater investment in regional roading but also safety improvements.”
But four-lane highways do not qualify under the Government's new Policy Statement as regional roads.
Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, was blunt about the situation in the north.
“I’ve no doubt that I will be engaged in some pretty vigorous debates,” he said on Tuesday.
“But the reality is that far too many of our stakeholders at the sub-national level in Government in the provinces have been fed a line that all of their transport woes would be dealt to by extending expressways, four-lane highways, through every inch of the country.
“The document clearly states that we need to make choices.”
But Northland Regional Council Mayor, Bill Shepherd, says the four-lane proposal was supported by a wide variety of Northland institutions.
“It has been a priority for the regional transport committee; it’s a priority for the mayoral forum; it’s the number one priority in the te Taitokerau Economic action plan,” Shepherd told POLITIK.
“It’s a well-supported priority right across the region.”
From a political point of view, the four-lane highway was easily tagged as a National Party election stunt when then-Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, announced it along with nine other four-lane highway projects in August last year.
But Shepherd says it has a more substantial basis than that.
“It’s not the previous Government’s priority, it’s Northland’s priority.”
He says that Northland is dependent on the one road; 98% of all heavy truck movements in and out of the region are on State Highway One.
The Government's argument against four-lane highways is that the money is urgently needed elsewhere.
Bridges costed the ten new Roads of National Significance at $10.5 billion.
National had proposed to gradually increase funding on state highways from $1.55 billion this year to $1.65 in 2021.
That sum did not include the proposed new expressways – including the Whangarei – Auckland one.
Instead, the coalition Government is proposing not only not to fund the expressways but also to slice $500 million off the State Highway budget by 2021.
And though they are are touting the increase in funding for regional funds it is tiny alongside the state highway budget --- up from $140 million this year to $210 million in 2020.
The big budget boost is going to mass transit like the Auckland Light Rail which will be receiving $1.04 billion a year by 2020.
National had not included the ten new expressways in its draft transport planning documents by the time it lost Government last October.
And a draft of the English Government’s proposed GPS showed that revenue from fuel tax would increase by only $185 million by 2020 – unlikely to sustain a total capital charge spread over a number of years of $10.5 billion.
Transport Minister Phil Twyford said that the New Zealand Transport Agency had advised that the fuel tax would have needed to go up by 20c a litre to accommodate the proposed expressways.
Instead National was obviously going to rely heavily on public-private partnerships and tolls to fund its expressways.
But a spokesman for Bridges told POLITIK there was no need to increase the l tax.
“National was comfortable it could fund the second generation Roads of National Significance as a result of already climbing revenues from the existing petrol excise, future capital allowances, through innovative funding models like PPPs and through starting the second generation Roads of National Significance as the old ones finished,” he said.
But in the north, the argument is that making the highway to Auckland four lanes will generate wealth.
"If you think of Hamilton 25 years ago before there was a four-lane highway from Auckland, Hamilton was nothing like the place that it is today," said Shepherd.
“And that four-lane highway has been a significant catalyst for driving growth in Hamilton. “
The question will be whether regions like the north can get Shane Jones to agree with their argument and, if he does, whether he can convince Phil Twyford.
Otherwise, some of the gloss is likely to come off the regional Growth policies in some parts of the country.