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Six priorities for Mayor Goff’s first six months

It’s a good time to become mayor of Auckland, but there’s a huge challenge ahead. Matt Lowrie of Transport Blog offers some constructive advice for Phil Goff’s early mayoralty.

Dear Phil,

Congratulations on becoming Mayor. While the margin was a bit closer than some had expected, that’s what happens when you get such a low turnout – who actually votes ends up being a bit different to those who get polled. By the way, we really have to make progress on online registration and online voting to increase turnout. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Of course, I want to talk about transport and housing – Auckland’s biggest two issues.

Mayoral aspirant Phil Goff races to get something to strap on

The new mayor, captured here leaning very slightly to the left

This is a good time to become mayor. Much of the hard work has been done: the rating systems have been pulled together, the City Rail Link just needs a few t’s crossed and i’s dotted – and a few years of exciting construction to follow. While you’ll have a few tricky Unitary Plan appeals to get through, the hard work has been done here as well. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to sit back in cruise mode. Auckland has added the population of Tauranga over the past three years and it’s struggling to keep up. People are living in cars and garages, buses and trains are often overcrowded, motorways are jammed. Aucklanders are impatient to see progress so your honeymoon could be very shortlived. Here’s some advice to focus on over the next six months – mainly on transport but a few other things too.

1) Start working backwards from the 2018 long-term plan now

You might not have been taking that much notice, but the 2015 long-term plan was nearly a disaster and only ended up being passed by a single vote. That said, it was really a triumph as it included a massive boost for walking and cycling funding, a major programme of bus upgrades to support the new bus network and – most importantly – the funding for early construction of the City Rail Link that helped in forcing government to come to the party on this key project.

As you put together the 2018 long-term plan you’ll need to continue this momentum – now bought into by the government through ATAP. City Rail Link will eat up a really big chunk of your available funding for transport so figuring out what’s also essential in the next three years will define your term. You’ll be pulled in all directions by the different Councillors and Local Boards wanting funding for their local “pet projects” and you’ll need to sit on Auckland Transport to make sure the detailed work they do reflects your priorities and not just central government’s.

If we’re honest, you’d be crazy to remove the “interim transport levy” that has helped fund the current transport programme. The previous Council took the political hit over the levy to make your life easier – don’t give that away. Call it something else, change the way it’s calculated, whatever. But by keeping it, in some shape or form, you’ve now filled around $170 million per year of the $400 million funding gap. This puts the ball back into the court of the government.

You’ve got some hard transport funding discussions with the government to come. Have those conversations early, bring something to the table, remind government that there’s a general election next year that will be fought over Auckland’s housing crisis. Start planning it all now.

2) It’s time for a change at Auckland Transport

Auckland Transport has achieved some great things over the past six years. They’ve taken the CRL from a few lines on a map to a project that’s now underway. They’ve embarked on a complete revamp of the bus network that was decades overdue. They’ve introduced the HOP card in a reasonably (more on that soon) successful way and they’re starting to take cycling seriously.

But there’s still an awfully large amount of old-school thinking coming out of AT. Despite excited noises a few years back, the organisation still lacks of vision for how Auckland can be a different place in the future to what it is today. They also continue to struggle to take advantage of being a CCO to push through essential changes that annoy a noisy few (Tamaki/Ngapipi intersection is but one of many examples).

There are a lot of great people working in AT. Passionate people that are incredibly ‘tuned in’ to best practice around the world. But equally, there’s a massive amount of dead wood that just want to keep on doing that same thing they’ve always done, as is so perfectly evidenced by their stupid designs for city centre streets after the completion of the CRL. There’s far too much reliance on transport modelling, coupled with far too little focus on fixing up the models we have to reflect how the world has changed over the past decade.

You can’t be over all this detail, but you can make change where it matters. Refresh the board and senior management, update the Auckland Plan to give clearer strategic direction about what’s important (and equally importantly, what’s not), encourage a culture change to a braver and more courageous organisation that wants to help make Auckland better.

3) Get the small stuff right

There will be progress on a number of big, exciting transport projects over the next three years for the photo opportunities. The roll out of the new bus network in South Auckland starts at the end of the month. Walk the tunnel under Albert Street as it gets dug out, take the credit for the Northern Busway extension to Albany and kicking off the Northwestern Busway when government eventually agrees to fund it. But there’s also a few key niggles that, if you can sort them out, you will be thanked endlessly:

Sort out the slow trains. It’s crazy that after spending a billion dollars on electrification, our trains run slower than they did before. Don’t listen to Auckland Transport’s excuses – overseas cities run their trains much more efficiently. Demand shorter dwell times at stations, extra drivers to eliminate three minute delays at Newmarket for western line users. Speeding up the trains will not only make us passengers happier, it will also buy you more capacity on the network as train service cycles can repeat more quickly allowing more services to run as 6-car sets. You’re going to need every extra bit of rail capacity you can get.

Sort out HOP card blacklisting. The great hidden secret of the HOP card rollout is the enormous number of people who get their cards blacklisted due to expired credit cards. Get Auckland Transport to fix up their system so people are warned if a payment doesn’t go through. This shouldn’t be rocket science, yet even after months (possibly years) of complaints over this issue it still hasn’t been fixed up. Take the credit for Auckland Transport finally fixing it.

4) Get a better deal out of government

Over 186,000 people ticked your name to become Mayor of Auckland. No other politician in the country has a personal mandate of this scale. Use it.

Solving Auckland’s two biggest issues – housing and transport – is utterly dependent on working together with the government. It also requires government to change the way they do things when it comes to Auckland – which (as I’m sure you’ll know) is difficult for them. You’ll need to push hard to change government’s transport funding processes so they suit Auckland better – ATAP has given you a platform here to build on.

You’ll need to get government to ramp up building more housing in Auckland – the recent Northcote development seems like a great model to apply across Auckland. Get Panuku and Housing New Zealand sharing the same offices and planning where the next 1,200 house development will go, and the next, and the next.

Depending on the results of next year’s general election, two-thirds of your term will either be with the current government or another lot that you will be pretty familiar with. Obviously you’ll need to be able to work well with either. Figure out which Ministers truly understand that Auckland isn’t just a larger version of other parts of the country, that it often needs completely different approaches and completely different solutions. John Key gets this – he’ll be your most important relationship.

5) Confirm your vision

One of the biggest pieces of work this term will be reviewing The Auckland Plan – the 30-year vision for Auckland. Naturally it will need to be updated to take account of developments over the last six years, such as the work on the Unitary Plan and ATAP, but there’s also a risk that the forces of dreary try to dominate it and remove visionary elements and targets. YOU CAN’T ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN.

Furthermore, it’s important you stamp your own vision on the region that is aspirational. A lot of cities are taking increasingly bolder steps to improve the cities and the lives the people that live in them. No area is this happening more than in the realm of transport and public urban space. It’s important Auckland does this too. Whether you keep the tagline of “The World’s Most Liveable City” or not, it’s important to have a high level goal to be able to point to and to assess the outcomes of projects against.

Don’t forget you’re also going to need to communicate that vision well to get buy in from the public.

6) Pick a great deputy mayor

You’ll be sorely tempted to look for someone new as a “fresh start”, but remember that Penny Hulse has held this council together over the past three years. She knows everyone and everything. You don’t have a hope in hell of finding a better deputy mayor. That’s a lot to give away for “fresh start”.

Good luck!

This post originally appeared on TransportBlog.

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