Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Small mercies from new Auckland transport body

Now I've been damning of the creation of the Auckland mega city consistently. Quite simply, making councils in Auckland merge, whilst keeping their nearly unlimited power to enter into business, welfare activities, buy what they wish, set rates for whatever they wish, is a recipe for potentially untrammeled socialism at the local level. The last Labour Government gave local authorities a "power of general competence" (led by Alliance MP and Local Government Minister, Sandra Lee), which National and ACT opposed, yet both parties are now creating the largest government agency outside direct central government control in Auckland.

Transport is clearly one of the big issues for Auckland, but it is important to note the roles and responsibilities for that activity in the city. Bear in mind I am talking about urban transport, not intercity or international passenger or freight transport. Most of that operates quite well with little involvement of local government, except with local roads.

The creation of "Auckland Transport" as the new Council Controlled Organisation responsible for local body transport duties in Auckland has caused a bit of a stir with both Brian Rudman and Bernard Orsman opposing it. Indeed, it is noted that The Treasury, Ministry of Economic Development and Department of Internal Affairs all opposed it. Whilst the Internal Affairs opposition is unsurprising, the opposition of both Treasury and MED should put paid to any belief by those on the left that either agency is dominated by a "new right neo-liberal" agenda. For removing local transport operational matters from direct political interference WOULD be embraced by those who believe in less politics, less bureaucracy and more professional approaches to providing services.

However, let's be clear about what Auckland Transport will do.

It will operate Auckland's local roads, the roads that are not state highways. It will seek ratepayers money to pay for around half of the local road costs, and bid to the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) for the rest (which gets its money from road users through fuel tax etc). It will contract out all of the maintenance and construction work (as usual). There will, in essence, be little change, except that like the state highways, they will be run at an arms length from politicians. Given New Zealand's state highways are acknowledged by the World Bank to be among the best managed in the world, this is no bad thing. The less political interference in managing the roads the better, as we have seen with telecommunications, electricity and postal services.

The second function is around public transport. Auckland Transport will contract subsidised public transport services, and regulate commercial ones. Buses, trains and ferries. It will own some infrastructure, but not the rail network (which is now Kiwirail). So it will do what ARTA does, decide what it wants to use ratepayers money to subsidise, seek funding from the NZTA for it, and contract services. Now as much as I believe that function should be phased out, it is exactly what you want to have at arms length from politicians. Why should politicians dictate bus routes, train timetables or the conditions for contracting services?

So why is Bernard Orsman upset? He doesn't like "unelected" directors making these decisions, yet this is exactly how half of Auckland's transport funds already get allocated, and how Auckland's state highways are managed - by the NZTA board. A board appointed by the Minister of Transport, but which is statutorily required to make its own decisions based on specific criteria such as economic efficiency. Other Auckland transport assets are run the same way, like the Ports of Auckland, locally owned but a company. Auckland Airport is a largely privately owned company. Kiwirail has a politically appointed board, but is a state owned enterprise. It's NORMAL for there to not be day to day political interference in the transport sector.

After all, look at the state of Auckland transport. The worst congestion is on the local road network, the network starved of investment in part because local government prevaricates about funding new capacity. In addition, it has been obsessed with introducing bus lanes, but showing no interest in allowing the capacity of those underused lanes to be shared with trucks or taxis.

A better solution would be to run the roads as a company, and give it the right to charge motorists directly (in exchange for refunding fuel tax and road user charges), and for property owners to take back the roads outside their premises in exchange for a cut in rates, but to be grateful for small mercies - at LEAST transport in Auckland will be one step less political.

Still politicians will raise rates to pay for roads and public transport. Public transport that if the roads were properly priced based on cost and demand/supply, wouldn't need to be subsidised. Roads that should be paid for mostly by road users, with property owners paying for accessways (for example).

Brian Rudman doesn't like having an arms-length organisation for Auckland transport, yet gives arguments as to why it should exist. There are plenty more. How many councils have roads fixed up to the point where a councillor lives, or a major friend of some politicians? How confident are you that YOUR needs are to be met by a local authority politician?

So there is no reason to worry, it might be slightly better than the way things are now, but not much. The left oppose Council Controlled Organisations because they see them as a step to their bogey - privatisation. It isn't that, unfortunately, but it is a step towards transport being driven by professionalism and delivering infrastructure for users, not meeting political demands first.

Those who oppose it might wonder why they seem to have no problem with it in so many other parts of the transport sector, or whenever else government provides infrastructure.


1 comment:

Luke said...

Hi

Can you please tell me if you are the same LibertyScott as the one who was the author of this revision to Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mount_Victoria_Tunnel&oldid=188679081

The user account does not have any contact information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Libertyscott&action=edit&redlink=1

I am asking because there is an inaccuracy to do with the date (2001) that the Mt Victoria Tunnel became part of State Highway 1. The Gazette notice I have says the tunnel became part of SH 1 "from midnight on 31 December 1997" (i.e. 1 January 1998).

I might amend the entry.