The NZ Herald reports that while North Shore bus patronage has shot up thanks to the opening of the $300 million busway providing a faster ride. The increase is 66% on the express services that now use the busway. No surprise there, although by no means are the bus passengers paying anywhere near the full cost of building the busway. However bus patronage across Auckland is down 2.2% in the 6 months till the end of 2006. Why so?
Well there are a couple of reasons. For one, the collapse of the language school business a few years ago is having an ongoing impact, so it is partly demographics. However a more important reason is what you see in the overall public transport patronage figures - they are only up 0.4%.
You see train patronage is up 11.6%. Given the millions spent on new stations and more rolling stock, and subsidising more frequent services, it isn't a surprise, but many of those new passengers are actually former bus passengers. That is why the net increase in public transport use is a derisory 0.4%.
So with a fortune being spent on enhancing trains and buses (hundreds of millions from central government alone), with petrol prices continually growing, Aucklanders are hardly switching en-masse to increasingly heavily subsidised public transport.
The problem with people shifting from bus to train is that it costs. In 2002 the average subsidy per passenger in Auckland for rail was $3.69 per trip, for bus passengers it was 96c per trip (Source: Surface Transport Costs and Charges report, Ministry of Transport, Final report Table B8.1). Remember some Auckland bus services get no subsidy whatsoever, although the ARC has been trying to get the government to change that - because it wants to control all services and not allow bus operators to operate services on a commercial basis.
So it costs more to construct, maintain and operate rail services, and with lowering patronage of buses, it costs more to subsidise them as well. So when the ARC's leftwing Chairman Mike Lee says that it will impose a full 5c a litre petrol tax increase, for Auckland only, to pay primarily for upgrading rail services, you might ask a few questions:
1. How does shifting people from bus to rail services represent value for money for ratepayers and petrol tax payers?
2. How much faster is it to get around Auckland as a result of the improved rail services? In other words, is the spending on rail reducing congestion?
3. Why are people who live near railway stations and work near other ones, deserving of an over $7 a day handout to help them get to work, paid for by people who don't, including those who don't even go to work?
4. Why shouldn't they just ride buses that would cost only $2 a day to subsidise - in fact, why can't they pay for that themselves?
5. How many Aucklanders who live near the boundaries of Auckland region will buy fuel in Northland and Waikato, which wont be taxing motorists to pay for lavish public transport? How many petrol stations on the wrong side of those boundaries will go out of business?