Greenpeace takes aim at Government over transport change, but Michael Wood says there'll still be focus on emissions reduction

The Transport Minister says it would be wrong to suggest there needed to be a trade-off between investing in resilient infrastructure and taking steps to reduce emissions when designing New Zealand's future transport plan.

It comes as Greenpeace criticises the Government for what it calls its decision to "reprioritise" transport plans away from cycling, walking and public transport in order to deal with the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle. 

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Wood said the Government was making changes to the indicative transport priorities signed off by Cabinet last year "in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle".

That weather event has caused significant damage to around 400km of the roading network across the North Island, particularly in Hawke's Bay and Tairawhiti. 

Wood said the Government's now working on "an emergency-style" plan that will "focus on the huge task of reconstruction of roads and bridges washed out by the cyclone and flooding, as well as building greater resilience so our transport network can better withstand the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like we have seen this year".

The original indicative transport priorities were sent to Cabinet last year as "initial signals on the direction of the next Government Policy Statement on Land Transport (GPS)". 

A GPS lays out the Government's vision for the transport system - and how it will be paid for - for the coming decade and is updated every three years. 

There was some political backlash as it had been suggested road maintenance funding could be used to replace car parks and space in need of renewal with cycle and bus lanes.

The "overarching" focus in that initial priorities list - which is now being updated - had been on emissions reduction. 

But at a Monday afternoon press conference, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said while climate change would inform the transport plan, resilience would be "right at the top of the priority list".

"All Governments have to deal with the reality that's right in front of them, and one of the realities that's right in front of us is that we have a transport network that has shown to be wanting at a time when we're faced with a major catastrophe, and we have to put that front and centre of our decisions around transport planning and transport funding."

He said he was a "big fan" of busways and cycling, but "we also have to be investing in maintaining our roads and making sure that people can get around".

Following that, Greenpeace on Tuesday expressed concern the Government was moving attention away from climate mitigation initiatives. 

"This shouldn't be an either-or situation," said Greenpeace campaigner Christine Rose.

"Yes, we need to get access back for cyclone-hit areas. But why would you finance that by cancelling plans for a transport system that cuts climate emissions that otherwise intensify the storms?

"Cyclone Gabrielle was a tragic reminder that the climate crisis is here. The Government must pull all the stops to prevent storms like this from getting worse in future. And that means putting a brake on climate pollution."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Wood said there would continue to be a focus on emissions reduction. 

He said it would be wrong to suggest there had to be a trade-off "between investing in resilient infrastructure and having measures to reduce our emissions".

"We're simply saying we need to reflect the rebuild from [Cyclone Gabrielle] in a GPS that we put forward.

"That is nothing beyond common sense and what people would expect. It doesn't reflect a U-turn, it doesn't change the fact that we're going to focus on reducing emissions. But it does mean that building a resilient network assumes greater importance."

Wood emphasised on Tuesday that no GPS has yet been released. A draft will eventually go through the Cabinet process and then be released for public consultation.

"What we did late 2022 was put out some indicative advice to councils about some of the key issues and directions we were thinking about for the GPS process this year so they were prepared to engage with it.

"Obviously, what happened since late 2022 is that we've had the devastation of the anniversary weekend floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.

"So what we are looking to do within the GPS is to reflect the magnitude of those events in which obviously we have to have a key focus on reconnecting communities and rebuilding resilient infrastructure."

The Government's been clear since Cyclone Gabrielle hit New Zealand will continue to face extreme weather events caused by climate change. That means we need to make infrastructure more resilient.

Asked in February if New Zealand needed to rethink some of the road links and whether they're in the right place, Hipkins responded, "almost certainly". 

"We have already had that conversation around the Coromandel and some of the destruction we've seen there with roads that were literally only just reopened, then being washed out again. That is not a sustainable picture," Hipkins said.

"We've experienced this in other parts of the country. I think of the Manawatū Gorge, for example. We actually just have to get real about some of the roads and the fact that we are going to have to move some of those roads to places where they can be more resilient."