Simon Bridges does not have confidence in Auckland Council’s transport plan, saying the city needs “more, less iconic big projects and more smaller-scale projects that actually deal with congestion.”
On TV3's The Nation, the transport minister iterated the points he made to NBR last week about what he wants from Auckland’s plan, suggesting axing a plan for rail to the airport and increasing funding for local roads.
His comments came in the same week that the council voted for a new $114 a year transport levy on rate
Mr Bridges said he wants the city to wait for new spending until the government and council can reach “alignment.”
He urged the council to focus more on “getting good roads,” but also said, “We’re not prepared to give those [funding tools] until we see a strategy that deals with congestion and more effective public transport for Auckland for the next 20, 30 years”.
If those roads aren’t built, “we think that it slows down the ability to have greenfields development and more special housing," he said.
He described comments by deputy mayor Penny Hulse on stopping Special Housing Area developments where there isn’t infrastructure as “leveraging” because the council knows “it is so important to the government to see more housing in Auckland.”
Mr Bridges insisted National is “doing a huge amount” in Auckland and that nothing he was saying undercuts the government’s commitment to making the Auckland super city “master of its own destiny.”
Mr Bridges stuck to claim that Auckland Council plans to spend less on transport compared t\with the past three years, although Auckland Council told The Nation that isn’t correct.
He denied his government is waiting for Len Brown and the council to be voted out next year.
"What I’ve been offering, and I know the mayor is very keen on this, is the option to actually explore formal engagement," he said.
RAW DATA: Lisa Owen interviews Transport Minister Simon Bridges
Lisa Owen: The Government invests around a billion dollars a year in Auckland’s transport system, and Auckland can’t introduce tolls or fuel taxes without a law change, what Wellington says matters. Transport Minister Simon Bridges is with me now. Good morning.
Simon Bridges: Morning.
This week Auckland Council voted for a transport levy. Now tell me – is that a smart move? Is it the right thing to do?
I think ultimately it’s for them. We don’t disagree with them doing that, as I think it is for them. I think what is true, though, is when you look at it, I suppose what we think is there’s a disconnect between the reality and the rhetoric. Actually, what we’re seeing at the moment, for example, is compared with the status quo of the last three years, a decrease in spending in the Budget coming up in transport at least.
Well, the council categorically denies that. They’ve told us absolutely not is there a decrease in funding. In fact—
Well, let me give you the numbers.
In fact, the proposal that they put up was if they didn’t have this levy, so—
Well, let me give you the numbers. Over the last three years, they’ve spent just under $2.5 billion. In the next three years, they’ll spend about $1900 million, $1.9 billion. That’s including about half a billion from the levy. So overall while they’re getting more in rates, it is not going on transport.
But the council says those— Minister, the council says those figures are based on not including the levy. Now that they’ve got the levy, the spend will be the same.
No, that’s incorrect. That’s my understanding.
So you’re saying the council’s lying on that point?
Well, no, I’m not, but I’m giving you what I understand from the very latest figures in their budget, which is about 2.4 billion for the next— for the last three years, 1.9 billion for the three years coming.
That’s including about half a billion in transport levies.
It is possible that you’ve misinterpreted those figures? Or you’re 100% sure you’re right on that?
I’m sure about that, but let me tell you this – regardless of the financial situation, I think what we would say is we just don’t think it’s a good enough plan for Auckland and for Aucklanders. And we say that because we don’t think that it does move the dial in terms of effective public transport that lowers congestion, and it doesn’t actually deal generally with congestion across Auckland in the next 30 years.
We’re going to come to that in some more detail, but in terms of the levy, do you think it’s fair for all Aucklanders, rich and poor, to pay the same amount?
Well, I think that’s for Auckland. I mean, I think, you know, what I would say—
What do you think?
What I would say is if you look at Auckland from a central government perspective, it is incredibly important that it succeeds. The demographic change here – three-quarters of a million people growth in, I think 40 years – means that we do need to, if you like, fix Auckland transport. The government’s been investing the lion’s share, as you said in the intro there, $1 billion that’s been going in all manner of projects – Waterview, electrification of the rail, the Victoria tunnel – so I think we’re doing our bit.
Part of it’s a loan, though, isn’t it? Part of it’s a $500 million loan. It’s not a free hit.
I think however you slice it, we’re spending very significant sums in Auckland. It’s about 40%, actually, of our transport budget and much more than the council is, and that’s because we recognise how important the city is to New Zealand.
Okay, well, you have described the plan that the council has put out as being ‘not optimal’. Exactly what bits don’t you like?
I think it comes down to two things generally. Firstly, if you look at the council’s own figures, again what you see, as compared with their basic model, which clearly they didn’t want, you’re only getting about a 1% increase into the 2040s in public transport; you’re getting a 40% rise in congestion. So at a big-picture level, it’s not solving the problems that we think Aucklanders want to. And then I think to answer your question directly, you get into the mix of projects and—
So about that mix of projects – that’s what I want to drill down into, because that’s what people want to know. Which bits of the projects do you not favour?
Well, I think firstly what we’ve got to say is I want to engage seriously with Auckland, the Government does, to actually go through and test assumptions and have some give and take on that. So, actually, we’re forming, if we can, some sort of alignment on the projects. But let me answer your question.
I mean, I think what we’re talking about here is in broad-brush terms and open for testing is a view that we need more, less iconic big projects and more smaller-scale projects that actually deal with congestion and that mean, for example, that the 85% of commuters who aren’t commuting to their jobs into the CBD are getting good public transport and are getting good roads to get to their work.
So what are the iconic projects that you think are a waste of money?
Well, I’m not saying they’re a waste of money. There’s any range of projects that if you had the funding, you would do. But let me give you an example - $1.8 billion, half of the new public transport spending for the next 20, 30 years, according to this plan, to go on the rail link to the airport. Well, you’ve got to test that, I think, actually – is there enough infrastructure and investment going to busways and so on to get most people to their work each day?
So perhaps that’s one thing you would not spend money on.
I think that’s an example where it needs to be very seriously tested, certainly in light of limited funds, a decreasing budget from council and the need to get the optimum sense of prioritisation of projects.
So you said less iconic projects and other smaller projects. What are you talking about, then? More arterial roads?
Well, I think, for example on that front, we’re talking about only 15% of the budget that Auckland’s put forward going into- an increase going into local roads. If we think we’re building the highways, if we’re doing those things, we need to have effective local roads. We’ve seen that debate, really, in relation to special housing areas. We are- You need to make sure you’ve got the supporting infrastructure. We think that's very important, and we don’t necessarily think that we see that in this plan. In fact, we think that it slows down the ability to have greenfields development and more special housing.
I suppose the conundrum here, though, is that didn’t we get a supercity? Didn’t Auckland get a supercity so that it could be the master of its own destiny so it could make decisions for itself? Well, it has made the decision. Maybe you just don’t like it.
Well, I don’t think there’s anything that I say that undercuts that. Auckland, I think, as Len Brown said, can go ahead-
How can you-? Excuse me, sorry, I just have to stop you there. How can you say that? Because you’re telling them you don’t like the project; you’re not going to allow fuel tax or tolls. So how are they the masters of their own destiny?
Because they’ve ultimately put up this budget. They’ve approved it; it’s what’s going to happen according to the council. They can do that. What I’m saying, though, is that if they want more funding than the very significant funding that they’re getting from central government to really back Auckland, Government needs to see a plan and a strategy that it’s confident in, that it thinks does the job for Aucklanders that does a good job, and we don’t see that now. But it’s not all negative. Actually, we’re prepared to work with Auckland on that.
Minister, they’re not asking you to hand over some money. They’re asking you to allow them to use a certain set of tools to raise the money themselves. So they’re not asking you to dip into your pocket. They want you to let them to go to their constituency and get money from there.
You’re right. In a broad sense, they’re asking for funding tools from central government. We’re not prepared to give those until we see a strategy that deals with congestion and more effective public transport for Auckland for the next 20, 30 years. We just don’t see it. By the way, it’s not just us.
Doesn’t that bring us back to the same problem, though? ‘You’re the masters of your own destiny, but, oops, so I’m not going to allow you to use these funding tools to get money.’ They’ve chosen that plan – they’ve put it to the vote.
And they’re doing what they think is right. They’re increasing rates; they’ve got a transport levy. As I say, actually, if you look at that, the transport portion of this higher rates is not increasing. You’re not seeing more money going on transport. But they can do that. From our perspective, though, it’s just very clear – and I’ve been clear with Mayor Brown – it’s got to be funding following good strategy, not just an open chequebook on the funding before we get a strategy that does the right job for Auckland.
Isn’t that funding to follow the strategy that you approve of? Because that’s basically what you’re saying, isn’t it?
I think we all – whether you’re a council, whether you’re Len Brown, whether you’re Simon Bridges – need to see an Auckland that’s moving, that’s got excellent public transport, because we back that and we’ve shown in our record. It’s about how you get there. And as I say, I don’t think I can be clearer – we’re not going to approve funding tools that we’re all already pretty sceptical of, unless we see a strategy that’s right for Auckland, because it is so important to Aucklanders but also to New Zealand.
You’ve said you want to talk some more; that you want another year of consultation. Isn’t that the problem? Aucklanders are fed up with talking. They want some action. The longer you leave this, the worse it’s going to get.
My view’s pretty clear. We could get on right now and they could build the roads and the big public transport projects that they want, but they may very well be the wrong roads and the wrong public transport projects. I think it’s the right thing, actually, to take some time on what is incredibly significant to see if we can get better alignment. To be very clear, it’s not going to be easy, actually, because there are differences. They’re not on personalities, and they’re very well with the mayor and the other leaders in the city, but they are in terms of-
Because the outside perception is this looks like a staring contest, Minister; that you were trying to stare down the council who have taken this plan to their people and have voted it through. Is it just that you’d like to work with someone else other than Len Brown’s council?
No. We’ll work with whomever the mayor and the council are. It’s about the fact this is so important that we need to get it right.
But are you actually working with them in a meaningful way when you say, ‘We don’t like your plan. We’re lukewarm on a levy; we’re not going to give you permission to use tolls, and no, no regional fuel tax.’ That’s not working with them in a meaningful way, is it?
Working with Auckland, I mean, our record speaks for itself. The hugely significant projects; the money we’re putting in; money talks, and we’re showing that; the projects and the investment going forward. So I think we are. And what I’ve been offering, and I know the Mayor is very keen on this, is the option to actually explore formal engagement. That’s not just talk. It’s about priorities; ultimately, projects.
The underlying message there, though, Minister, is, ‘Wait. Auckland, wait.’ You’re OK for Auckland to wait?
Well, it’s not waiting. Because actually, if you look-
But if you’re not doing anything and you’re just talking some more, then you’re waiting.
We’re doing a huge amount. I mean, you talk about Waterview; a $1.4 billion project opening some time in 2017. That will hugely move the dial for West Aucklanders where we’ve had the special housing issues and talk in the last few days. So we’re doing a huge amount. I mean, compared with $500, $600m from local government, we’re at about $1b. So we’re doing that, but while that goes on, I think it is right that we get together and we do talk it out. By the way, that’s what AA wants; that’s what the Employers and Manufacturers Association wants; that’s what most of the very serious submitters who submitted in process wanted.
I just want to look at one example in terms of waiting. Projections show that the Britomart rail hub is going to reach full capacity for trains and passengers in the next few months. We understand that the council’s looking at putting security guards down there to cope with the numbers. That sounds urgent, doesn’t it? It sounds like it needs action now. Not in a year’s time; not after some more discussion.
Look at the City Rail link. We are going to fund it.
I’m asking about this problem. So we’re already reaching capacity. They want to get ahead with the plan; they’ve chosen it. Why not let them?
That’s right. And if you’re talking about that, I think what Len Brown would say if he was here, or many of the councillors, would be, ‘What we need is the City Rail link.’ And if you look at that, actually, we’ve brought funding forward for that by a decade. It will start in 2020.
With some riders.
That’s right. Because actually, in regards to your question, the numbers quite clearly aren’t at the level.
They don’t want piecemeal as well, Minister. They want to get on with the whole plan, not just a little peck at a time.
Exactly, and that’s why I think seriously exploring formal engagement is so important. Right now, we’re not talking about a week’s time. We’re talking about the next 30 or 40 years, when three quarters of a million people are coming to this city.
But the reality is, the transport issues that Auckland is facing that’s affecting us now, even last week, the council has put the brakes on certain special housing areas because they say they need more roads and infrastructure. So now, you’re stalling the building of more houses in Auckland as well.
Well, I think what we’ve got, understandably there from the deputy mayor, is some leveraging going on, because they know it is so important to the Government to see more housing in Auckland, and we’re trying to—
But the houses aren’t getting built. They’ve put the handbrake on it because of the transport situation.
And I think that’s an example of the rhetoric and reality point I made earlier. I don’t think we can be blamed there in the sense that we really are pumping in the investment in that West Auckland part of Auckland, along that State Highway 16. And I’m willing very much through this formal process I’m talking about to engage with them on particular projects.
Okay, so very quickly, because we are running out of time. You’re talking to the council about a transport accord. A housing accord speeds up consents. What would a transport accord do exactly?
First and foremost, alignment. It would mean that— I think the questions you’re asking me would be answered. We’d have a sense of agreement on the problem, on the congestion numbers. We’d have a sense of the priorities and what we’re trying to achieve. Is it that fewer big projects, more projects around the city, or what is it? And then it’s that mix of projects that at the moment we don’t know.
All right, thanks, Minister. We’ve got to go. Alignment – that sounds like more talking.
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