Why doesn’t the Auckland Plan practice what it preaches on transport?
Have you ever heard of the East-West Link?
If not, you aren’t alone. Nonetheless, this $1.1 billion motorway proposal has been plucked from obscurity and elevated to second on Auckland Council’s list of transport priorities alongside the long-mooted $1.5 billion AMETI package for south-eastern Auckland, second only to the City Rail Link.
So what is the East-West Link? It’s a motorway running east-to-west (obviously) between East Tamaki and Onehunga, connecting State Highway 1 to the new Western Ring Route. Basically it’s a motorway-standard duplication of existing Neilson Street that runs through the area.
Now for the really mysterious bit – why is this billion dollar project now Auckland’s second-highest transport priority? It certainly wasn’t mentioned in Len Brown’s successful mayoral election campaign which was based around three rail proposals – the City Rail Link, an Airport Line and a North Shore Line. Nor is it prominently mentioned in the Draft Auckland Plan – its emphasis is on transformational shifts towards public transport.
Yet on examining the numbers and projects like the East-West Link, it’s clear that the Auckland Plan doesn’t practice what it preaches. The ARC’s now-superceded 2010 transport strategy projected $46 billion of transport spending over 30 years, of which $7 billion was to be spent on public transport infrastructure. The current Draft Auckland Plan on the other hand presides over a $63 billion spend. The difference between the two budgets is the sudden appearance of an additional $16 billion of road spending, bringing the total roads spend to $29 billion.
Perception and reality clearly don’t line up. Joe Public thinks the new Council is increasing its transport spend to cover public transport improvements. But the reality is that the proposed roads spend has doubled inside two years while the proposed PT infrastructure spend has stayed the same in absolute terms, and declined as a proportion of the total spend. Compounding the issue is the emergence of a $10-15 billion funding shortfall that has forced Len Brown to propose a flurry of unpopular new funding mechanisms to a public already counting the cost of rates increases. The perception is that the rail proposals are unaffordable. The reality is that proposed roads are the most unaffordable part of the transport budget.
So, I ask the question: why does the Auckland Plan preach a need for a transformational shift to public transport when a quick gloss over the numbers reveals it to be a more roads-centric document than its immediate predecessor, the 2010 ARC transport strategy? How has the East-West Link overtaken projects like Airport Rail that were so prominent in Len Brown’s successful election campaign?
The answer is some damn good lobbying from the trucking industry. Simply typing ‘East-West Link’ into Google led me to a presentation made by the National Road Carriers (NRC) trucking lobby to Auckland Council in November 2011. This presentation made a case for the East-West Link to be elevated to be a top priority to be built by 2020 alongside the AMETI package for south-eastern Auckland. NRC’s rationale for elevating the east-west link was essentially that Neilson Street is incapable of handling 4,000+ freight movements between Onehunga and East Tamaki. Rather than a simple upgrade of the existing road, the NRC presentation argues that Neilson Street needs to be duplicated to a motorway standard, simply because it’s been on the motorway network plan since 1963.
And that was that. NRC wanted the East-West Link. One power-point presentation and a click of the fingers later, and this highly questionable use of $1.1 billion of precious transport funds is instantly elevated to priority number two by Auckland Council.
This raises some pretty important questions around democracy in my mind. Is this a case of democracy at work through the consultation process – in this case, Auckland Council accommodating the requests of the trucking lobby? Or is it a more serious case of the general populace being misled into thinking that the Auckland Plan is a public transport-focussed document when the numbers suggest it is anything but? Is this a failure of the Mayor to respect the public transport mandate on which he was elected by Aucklanders? Or should interest groups like the NRC have a voice equal to that of Aucklanders at large in the consultation process?