Roads vs public transport debates 'unhealthy' - Infrastructure New Zealand

The Government's shift to prioritising public transport could cost New Zealand decent roads, an industry expert says. 

In August last year, Transport Minister Phil Twyford unveiled details of the Government's $16.9 billion investment in the land transport system over the next four years. 

It revealed that $4 billion would be invested in public transport and rapid transit rail, with $390 million put aside for walking and cycling improvements. 

While he agrees that increasing access to public transport is important, Infrastructure New Zealand chief executive Stephen Selwood says the country cannot afford to have road improvements left in the dark. 

Not only would that hamper the "backbone of New Zealand's transport system", but it would also put pressure on the roading industry which is already struggling, he says. 

"Obviously the Greens would say that's a correction that was needed, and certainly we do need to invest in public transport," Mr Selwood said. 

But the extent of the shift has meant that the roading industry is starved of work, with key engineers going off to Australia, he explained to Magic Talk on Thursday. 

"It's going to create an enormous challenge for the industry to sustain itself."

Infrastructure NZ CEO Stephen Selwood says says the country cannot afford to have road improvements left in the dark.
Infrastructure NZ CEO Stephen Selwood says says the country cannot afford to have road improvements left in the dark. Photo credit: The AM Show

The Government's new independent infrastructure body, the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, could help the Government to set better long-term goals based on evidence and feedback from the infrastructure industry, he said. 

However, with the Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter a member of the Green Party, even if the Commission recommends a higher budget for roading projects, it could be difficult to get approval from the top as the Greens favour public transport. 

The Green Party has campaigned to move the country away from cars by moving ahead with the City Rail Link in Auckland, rail to the airport and advocating for electric vehicles. In its Transport Policy document, it says governments have "not supported the transformative projects that are needed". 

It says air pollution from transport emissions significantly impacts people's health: "Transport pollution causes 200 premature deaths in Auckland every year. Fewer cars sitting in gridlock will help make the air cleaner."

But Mr Selwood says the reality is, "We need both roads and public transport - the backbone of New Zealand's transport system is its roads network and clearly we need to be supporting that". 

"Roads versus public transport debates are unhealthy."

He pointed to recent controversy around the $649 million Kāpiti expressway north of Wellington, which opened just two years ago, and is already in need of a $25 million repair job.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) carried out repairs on 8.9 kilometres of the expressway last year after it was found to be leaking, and this week confirmed that another 15.8km of it needs to be fixed. 

The surface of the road is not adequate, according to NZTA acting senior manager of project delivery Karen Boyt. It's understood the cost of repairs will be $25.2 million, with about half of that coming from taxpayers. 

Mr Selwood said whether or not it was a contracting or pricing error, what seemed clear was that someone did not assess or manage the risk properly. He said it would suggest that the primary driver of that behaviour is trying to manage a fixed budget. 

"In the road sector, the most significant factor is the pressure to do more and more, and increasing traffic volumes on our roads on a budget that simply is not big enough from a national perspective to cope," he said. 

"That drives pressures to keep costs down, which drives an industry that is highly competitive, and inevitably that causes behaviours around trying to achieve cost-savings, doing things 'on-the-cheap', and you get the outcome that you pay for.

He said it's a political issue, because governments want to be seen delivering things and enabling capital projects to proceed, so all of the incentives are around driving the capital cost down at the outset, often incurring long-term maintenance costs.

"But of course, that's the problem of the next governing body to deal with rather than the current one," he said. 

"We need to take a much more strategic approach to this and actually understand what drives value in the long-term, because that's what's going to provide best-value."

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