Government promise of cheap public transport hits major snag

By Anneke Smith of RNZ

Budget 2023's promise of cheap public transport for five to 24-year-olds has hit a major snag with some of the biggest councils still figuring out a system for checking a passenger's age.

Bus and train passengers throughout the country have been enjoying half-price fares since April last year, as part of an extended cost of living transport package.

The government pledged this would continue for people under 25 years old, and that children would ride for free, in the Budget last month.

The changes are supposed to kick in from 1 July; estimated by the now-stood down Transport Minister Michael Wood to help more than 1.6 million New Zealanders save money.

However, the Greater Wellington Regional Council said these savings would not be made in the capital because it does not have the age verification system to implement it.

Transport Committee chairperson Thomas Nash said: "It's simply impossible for us to do that with the time available and the ticketing set up that we have in the Wellington region."

Nash said he expected the ticketing issue would be sorted out by 1 August.

By then people should be able to include their date-of-birth when they registered their Snapper card so the computer would know to charge them the lower fare rate, he said.

But that would be based on trust as people would be registering their Snapper card with their date-of-birth themselves, he said.

Nash said what was really needed was a government-backed portal with an age verification system in it and for the government to hold that data which could then be used by every council in the country.

Between 1 July and 1 August when the self-registration system should be in place, Nash said they were planning to extend the half price fares for children and tertiary students.

"We're asking the government to extend those half price fares for everybody until we've got that system in place."

RNZ contacted every regional body responsible for implementing the scheme and found Wellington was not alone in having a bigger ticketing system that is harder to change.

Many small areas - including Northland, Otago, Manawatū/Whanganui and Christchurch - reported back that they will be ready to go on 1 July. Others, like the Auckland supercity, still do not know if they will meet the deadline.

Auckland Transport metro optimisation manager Richard Harrison said the new concessions required "technical changes" to its existing system, that it was still working through.

"Although we are aiming to make these changes from 1 July we don't yet know whether this will be possible given the complexity of changes needed behind the scenes to our AT HOP systems."

Nash said every effort had been made to meet the deadline in Wellington but, short of requiring bus drivers to verify every passenger's age, it was not possible.

"This does need to be done at the back end of people's transport cards and that just means we won't need to have bus drivers enforcing or checking people's ages which is totally impractical."

National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown said the situation showed "absolute incompetence" from central government.

"The reality is they've promised something to tens of thousand of New Zealanders without sorting out the details as to whether that can actually be implemented."

Green MP and former associate transport minister Julie Anne Genter said it was "really surprising and disappointing" the government had not planned properly for the implementation of its own policy.

She called for the universal half-price fares to be extended until all of those supposed to have subsidised fares from 1 July can actually take advantage of them.

RNZ asked Acting Transport Minister Kieran McAnulty why the government announced a policy that could not be fully implemented. His office issued a statement, attributed to a spokesperson, that said councils were being funded to make the changes.

Nash said it was time - not money - that was needed to deliver on the policy. He planned on writing to the government this week, asking it to extend the universal half-price public transport fares until the council can bring in an age-based scheme.

Auckland Transport said it should have a better idea of whether it could meet the 1 July deadline at the end of next week.

Wood told RNZ after the May Budget the government had made funding available "for local councils who are the ones who are responsible for delivering public transport services".

"So they'll deliver it in a way that works within the own areas and they'll be working through that over the next couple of months to roll out these discounts as soon as possible."