Government to walk back draft plan prioritising cycle lanes ahead of road maintenance, Newshub understands

Newshub understands the Government is reconsidering its transport strategy in light of Cyclone Gabrielle - with a pivot away from bus and bike lane funding. 

A Government transport strategy, drafted at the end of last year, prioritised emissions reductions and proposed road maintenance funding be used to replace car parks with bus or cycle lanes.

But in the wake of catastrophic damage to our State Highway network the Government will refocus on a 'rebuild and resilience' programme, beginning with reconnecting key routes before moving to build resilience in our transport network - not just in cyclone-hit areas, but across the country. 

The original proposal from Transport Minister Michael Wood, first reported on Monday morning by NZ Herald, suggested a significant change in the way road maintenance funding - about $2 billion per year by 2024 - is used. 

When a road needs maintenance or renewal, instead of "replacing like-for-like", it was proposed that "some street space currently dedicated to private vehicles (including for car parking), needs to be reallocated to deliver more bus lanes, separated bike/scooter lanes, and walking improvements".

The proposal is found in an October 2022 document laying out what were Wood's indicated priorities for the next Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Land Transport from 2024.

The GPS contains the government of the day's vision for land transport for the coming decade and is updated every three years. It sets out how the Government expects money from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) to be spent on public transport, state highway improvements, local roads and road safety.

According to NZ Herald, public consultation on the draft GPS 2024 has been delayed due to the impact of recent weather events.

With the release of the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) and the Government's ongoing commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, the document said there would be a "significant change in the direction of land transport investment".

"I propose to make emissions reductions the overarching focus of GPS 2024. This creates the expectation that implications for emissions reduction are a core consideration of all investment decisions.

"This represents a significant shift from GPS 2021 and GPS 2028 in which the climate change priority was given equal weight to the other priorities."

Transport Minister Michael Wood.
Transport Minister Michael Wood. Photo credit: Newshub.

While some individual initiatives "will increase emissions", the Ministry of Transport said in a separate document that "there will be a high threshold for any such investments and the overall programme must deliver a significant reduction in net emissions". 

Wood told NZ Herald: "What comes out of the events of the past month has been that we have to bring forward even more strongly the focus on climate change and that is both sides of it".

That includes making a more resilient system while also reducing emissions, he said. 

The five strategic priorities supporting the focus on emissions reduction were safety, integrated freight system, sustainable urban development, maintenance and resilience. 

With regards to maintenance, the document said the reality is that a "large proportion of the NLTF must go towards maintaining and renewing existing infrastructure and continuing to run existing public services if we are to keep current levels of service". 

"A core focus will be on ensuring that maintenance investment is effective and efficient and enables the delivery of the Government's wider objectives (rather than just replacing 'like-for-like')."

Wood then set out the proposal for how road maintenance spend is used.

"This requires asset management plans that are sufficiently forward-looking to anticipate the necessary long-term changes and that integrate those changes into maintenance schedules.

"My statement will convey the expectation that Waka Kotahi and local authorities start the planning for these changes now, so we are well position to make investment decisions that contribute effectively towards decarbonising the transport system."

But the document said there is "currently a greater level of uncertainty about funding for transport priorities than has previously existed". 

Projections show the current rates of Fuel Excise Duty (FED) and Road User Charges (RUC) - which make up most of the NLTF - "will need to be devoted to maintenance and meeting existing funding commitments", the document said.

In 2018, the Government announced three annual increases of 3.5 cents per litre in fuel tax. It then froze the increases for three years until mid-2023. 

Last year, with the cost of living biting, it announced a 25 cent per litre reduction in FED, an equivalent cut in RUC, and half-price public transport fares. These were extended this year until June.

Speaking to NZ Herald, Wood said no decision had yet been made to continue the pause of fuel tax increases or to lift them.

"We're very cognisant of cost of living pressures at the moment … at the same time, we do have a challenge to make sure that we fund the system appropriately," he said. 

"Ultimately in any system like this, there's a choice about how much collectively we want to fund the system and the outcomes that we can get from it."

National leader Christopher Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis.
National leader Christopher Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis. Photo credit: Newshub.


Reacting to the expected walk back by the Government, National transport spokesperson Simeon Brown said: "Michael Wood looks like he is back-pedalling on his proposals to raid the road maintenance fund to build cycle lanes - just showing how out of touch he is on transport policy". 

"This is the same Minister who wasted over $51 million on a cycle bridge no one wanted."

He said National's transport policy would reduce travel time and focus NLTF money on "building and maintaining our roading network".

Speaking to media earlier on Monday morning, National leader Christopher Luxon said: "I don't understand the proposal". 

"I read about it this morning. Essentially, what is happening there is they are going to take the road maintenance money and invest it in cycleways. That is something that we don't support.

"As we think about getting to a more emissions-friendly place in New Zealand over the long run, we need to make sure that we have got our EVs and our hydrogen trucks running on a very good road network and our road network is in terrible disrepair. 

"Taking the maintenance money and putting it into cycle lanes just seems like we are not solving the core problem that makes a big difference to the daily lives of everyday New Zealanders."

Asked how National would reduce emissions in the transport sector, Luxon said more would be unveiled in the party's climate policy, but that could include more work on "consenting renewable energy quicker". 

The party wouldn't commit to not increasing the fuel tax. But finance spokesperson Nicola Willis said National would "be making clear our policy on petrol tax and tax charging before the election".

She said the party didn't want to see the tax fluctuate up and down.

"You do need to be consistent in making sure that you are funding the land transport fund, which pays for the roads, pays to repair the potholes, pays for the bridges, to make sure New Zealand has the roading infrastructure it needs."

Simon Douglas, the NZ Automobile Association (AA) national manager for policy and research, told AM climate change needs to be addressed, but that shouldn't result in maintenance funding be taken away. 

"The Government's also got a high-priority Road to Zero safety strategy which needs money put into things like median barriers and into maintenance," he said.

"There's a clear link between maintenance and safety and you can't take money away from maintenance and achieve the safety goals that we need to.

"So we need to have a mature conversation about how we find enough money to achieve all of the things that we need to out of our transport system."

He said a recent AA survey found the number one issue for motorists was to have a "well-maintained and safe highway network".

"You can't take money away from maintenance and invest it in climate change. We need to think about how do we fund both of those outcomes from the transport sector.

He said "the overarching climate goal" in the GPS is "going to create some real challenges". 

The AA's Simon Douglas.
The AA's Simon Douglas. Photo credit: AM.

"We absolutely know, for example, that if you build a new highway and we did some research recently through our AA research foundation, that showed the best way to achieve some of the safety goals that we've got is to build new safe divided highways.

"We know that we need to invest in resilient roads because roads are playing and did play a key part in recovery from the recent cyclone events.

"You really need to be careful having just a single lens over a system like transport that provides for so many of our social and economic public needs."

Douglas questioned if the current system - where motorists pay fuel taxes at the pump and this is used to look after the road network - is the right one when we have "intergenerational" challenges. 

"We need to look at much bigger funding questions and think how is the Government, how are the public willing to pay to achieve these multiple goals of the transport system just has to achieve."

He said neither Wood nor the National Party had actually committed to increased fuel taxes.

Cutting emissions in the transport sector is a big focus of the Government's. Transport makes up 20 percent of New Zealand's domestic greenhouse gas emissions and 47 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. 

The ERP released last May showed that by 2035, the Government wants to reduce the total amount of kilometres driven by the light vehicle fleet by 20 percent while increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles to 30 percent of the overall light-fleet. It also wants to reduce emissions from freight transport by 35 percent and the emissions intensity of transport fuel by 10 percent.

Minister Wood's office has been contacted for further comment.