If you want an example of why politics should be taken out of the sphere of transport then Len Brown’s policies provide some pretty clear guidance. A lot of attention has been paid to his policies focused on building expensive electric rail lines to the North Shore, Auckland Airport and an underground CBD rail loop. These lines that would cost billions of dollars, would lose money year after year to operate and hence couldn’t be sold for even one twentieth of what it will cost to build them. However, Len Brown is a politician – he has visions, visions of how to spend other people’s money and he doesn’t care whether this spending is worth it financially, economically or environmentally. No, he’s joined one of the religions of recent times - Railevangelism – driven by faith, passion and a belief that trains are good, and a little thing like money shouldn’t get in the way of Auckland having more.
The cost of his plans approach NZ$5 billion. To put that in context that is around two years total spending on land transport by government on roads and public transport, across the country. It is double the total annual national take of fuel tax, road user charges and motor vehicle licensing fees. So if you like Think Big, you’ll love Lenin’s Think Biggest.
Ahh, but wont people use it? Well sure they will, but you wont be charging fares that even cover the costs of running the trains (which need to be bought too, the $5 billion doesn’t include those). You see the whole urban rail strategy is based on the trains not making a financial return. So not only will the capital expenditure be a deadweight loss, but it will bleed money continuously unless the fares are increased to change that. Funnily enough if the fares were increased the trains would be empty, which tells you exactly how much those who would ride the trains truly value them.
Ahh, but wont their be economic benefits from reduced traffic congestion? You’d hope so for that sort of money, and a year on year subsidy, but this is where things break down a little. Yes, the NZTA estimates that removing one car from peak time roads in Auckland and shifting the users to rail is a $17 benefit in reduced congestion. However, will everyone on those trains have been people who would have driven cars? Hardly. Many will be existing bus users, for the CBD loop some will have otherwise walked, some will have been car passengers (so the car is still being driven but the train offers a convenient option for the passenger) and yes some will be drivers of cars. On top of that some will be new trips, trips that otherwise wouldn’t have been done, but which you will have been forced to pay for. Funnily enough the railevangelists treat everyone on a train as if it is someone who is doing good for everyone else by not driving a car, ignoring that many of them would not have driven in the first place.
Oh but wont congestion be reduced? Really? What new world city has made any impression on traffic congestion by building a new electric rail network? Los Angeles? No. Portland? No. Atlanta? No. In all cases the impact on traffic has been minuscule, and is more than made up by the continued growth in road traffic. A large amount of money spent for next to no gain. In Auckland only 12% of commuters terminate their trips in the CBD because most jobs are not downtown. Len Brown wants to build a railway focused on servicing downtown Auckland where over 30% of commuter trips are already by public transport (mostly buses, which get ignored by many railevangelists because they aren’t politically sexy). The simple truth is that his ideas will benefit a tiny percentage of commuters at a cost of thousands of dollars for every Aucklander.
Surely a rail line to the airport is a good idea and will take lots of people out of their cars? Well it might take some businesspeople (they always need a subsidy) from taking taxis to the CBD, but the catchment area for airport trips is across all of Auckland. Who will take the train to west Auckland or Penrose or Pakuranga or Long Bay or Point Chevalier? Auckland does not and will never have the kind of high frequency metro service seen in London, Paris or New York, so it will remain highly inferior to take any connecting trips by rail. An airport line wont ever stack up.
Let’s be clear, the last and the current government have committed to wasting your money on a heinously expensive rail electrification scheme that is already costing a fortune. Before that has even been built or proven by any measure, Len Brown wants to build the next few stages at around 3x the cost of what is committed already. He isn’t even saying “let’s wait and see how it goes” in case it proves to be a financial failure or simply doesn’t reduce congestion, he’s calling for more money to be poured down this tunnel of faith.
The economically rational response to the rail programme is to treat it as a sunk cost, let the current contracts be concluded and eventually sell the whole thing off to whoever wants to run it. The economically rational response to Auckland’s traffic congestion is to commercialise and privatise the road network so it can be priced and invested in according to demand, rather than political whim, and finally for Len Brown to get his pilfering hands out of the wallets and purses of ratepayers. He is no better at planning how Aucklanders should move than he would be if he wanted to plan how Aucklanders should eat, dress or be housed!