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Oh no: Is National reverting to its terrible old ways on public transport funding?

For a moment it looked like the government might be seeing sense on Auckland’s transport demands. But the volcanic response to a Mt Roskill light rail proposal suggests the road obsession remains, writes Hayden Donnell.

On the weekend, Labour proposed fast-tracking a $1.4 billion light rail route to Mt Roskill as part of its by-election campaign in the electorate.

It wasn’t really that controversial a proposal. Light rail to Mt Roskill is already meant to start construction in 2028 under the Auckland Transport Alignment Plan (ATAP), which was agreed to by the government and Auckland Council. National could easily have just argued the current timeframe is fine, and bus service improvements will handle demand for the next decade. Mumble. Transport. Figures. Etcetera. Journalists silently screaming as their minds become a suffocating prison of boredom. Story over.

They decided to take a different route.

National election strategy tsar Steven Joyce said the light rail project, which National supports, is a “desperate” $1.4 billion election bribe that “takes pork barrel politics to a whole new level”.

lightrailjoycetweet

Prime Minister John Key warned that light rail, which National supports, has suffered cost blowouts in Australia. He claimed the government had agreed to “potentially” build a light rail system in 20 years’ time, which is kind of not true. It has agreed to potentially build one in roughly 12 years’ time.

lightrailatapshorter

AN EXTRACT FROM ATAP, WHICH THE GOVERNMENT CO-WROTE.

Key went on to say the bus system, which is already close to breaking point, could probably handle all the growth around Mt Roskill, which is also, most likely, a thing that is wrong.

Bus numbers on Symonds St without and with light rail. Graph: TransportBlog

Bus numbers on Symonds St without and with light rail. Graph: TransportBlog

This wouldn’t be so troubling if it wasn’t so familiar.

Before this year, the National government had a five-step approach to funding sensible public transport projects in Auckland.

1. Trash project
2. Let several years go by
3. Delay project
4. Let several years go by
5. Fund project

Case study: the City Rail Link. Joyce, who was somehow transport minister for some time, and Gerry Brownlee, who was also somehow transport minister for some time, spent years seizing every opportunity to label the link a worthless mess that would see money gurgling out of Auckland like water from a city-sized bathtub. Then the government admitted the link was needed, but said construction shouldn’t start until 2020. It funded the project this year after business leaders told them they’d really like it go ahead now please.

Here’s the story in three parts.

John Key Attends Post Cabinet Press Conference In Christchurch

New transport minister Simon Bridges seemed to have found a way to circumvent that patented system last month when he unveiled ATAP. It was a slightly road-heavy, but otherwise encouraging document that gave the go-ahead to an array of public transport projects including the Northwestern Busway, mass transit from the city to the North Shore and … mass transit from the city to Mt Roskill.

AN ARTIST'S IMPRESSION SHOWING HOW NICE LIGHT RAIL COULD LOOK ON DOMINION ROAD. PHOTO: AUCKLAND COUNCIL

AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSION SHOWING HOW NICE LIGHT RAIL COULD LOOK ON DOMINION ROAD. PHOTO: AUCKLAND COUNCIL

The reality is light rail will likely be built so long as Bridges remains in charge. It has a strong business case and good community support. But this by-election fight already feels like a jarring step back toward the old days, when transport planning was ruled by middle-aged men who lapsed into violent convulsions at the thought of spending money on trains. It gives the impression Bridges may be a lonely island of transport sense in an ocean of transport dumb, and that his hold on the purse strings may be sick-inducingly shaky.

That’s especially worrying when Auckland feels like it might finally be moving in the right direction. Things are getting done. There’s agreement rather than gridlock. The last thing we need is a trip back to our road-addicted, smog-huffing, light rail-ripping upping roots.

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