Visualisation showing light rail travelling down Dominion Rd, Mt Roskill. Source: at.govt.nz

Auckland Transport goes rogue

Yesterday Auckland Transport released a draft budget with massive cuts to previously stated public transport priorities including cycling and light rail. Then last night transport minister Phil Twyford said it was all a cock-up. So what happened? Matt Lowrie of Greater Auckland reviews.

You’re a public agency tasked with coming up with a 10-year transport budget. The new government, the council, the public and even your own strategies call for a significant shift in investment towards public transport, walking and cycling. What do you do? Well if you’re Auckland Transport it seems you do the exact opposite of that.

Yesterday AT published the draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) as one of the items for approval at their board meeting next week. The RLTP is perhaps the single most important document produced by Auckland Transport. It is required to do the following:

  • Outline the key transport issues facing Auckland over the next decade.
  • Identify key priorities and policies to address these issues.
  • Detail a 10-year programme of capital and operational expenditure.

The RLTP is essentially the transport budget for Auckland, including all transport investment in Auckland and not just projects delivered by Auckland Transport. It goes to the Council, NZTA and the government for actual funding. The plan is reviewed every three years.

The money is not where their mouth is

Much of the draft RTLP’s text actually sounds fantastic – exactly what we at Greater Auckland would hope to see. For example, in the ‘Introduction from the Chairman’ it notes

“In the short-term it is imperative that we move ahead with re-prioritising the public space we call roads. We need to be more ambitious than we have been previously in introducing many more bus lanes and giving a higher priority to cycling, walking and service vehicles.

“Auckland is on the cusp of transformational change. This Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) sets out a plan for delivering on the huge potential the region has – quite simply decisions need to be made and executed more quickly.”

These kinds of comments are repeated a number of times throughout the document. The problem is that there’s stark disconnect between the text and the prioritised project list, and therefore what will actually happen on the ground. The funding details are summarised in the table below and there is a ranked project list at the back of the document.

Here are some of some of the most egregious issues we see with the financial details.

No train coming

Investment in our rail network has resulted in a boom in rail use. In just over four years ridership has doubled from 10 to 20 million trips annually. This is well ahead of predictions, despite AT still not running them to the frequencies required as part of their New Network plan. The growth has also resulted in AT needing to buy additional trains. Those extra trains should start arriving next year and will help ridership to grow even further.

Yet at the same time as they plan to run more trains, AT are proposing to slash the budget for rail operations, dropping from $130 million in the next financial year to $118 million in 2020/21. It’s even worse for the rest of the decade, with an average of just $81 million per year allocated between 2021 and 2028. Of course during that time we’ll see the opening of the City Rail Link which will further increase demand and the need for additional services.

Slashing the budget means that AT will either need to find a way to make trains run a lot more efficiently or cut services. The second one is the most likely.

As a comparison, here’s what the 2015-18 RLTP says on rail services funding. The 2018/19 to 2024/25 averages out at $150 million for those seven years.

Light rail abandoned

In 2015, on the eve of discussions about the 2015-18 RLTP, AT revealed they were investigating light rail. They did so because they needed it included in that RLTP to be able to fund more detailed investigations and design. They even had hopes of having the first vehicles running within two or three years.

The former mayor was sceptical and the government were actively hostile to the plans. Over the following three years they’ve spent – and continue to spend – tens of millions on business cases, design and land acquisition.

In 2016, Phil Goff was elected as mayor of Auckland with light rail as one of his top priorities. Around the same time, the previous government started to warm to the need for mass transit on the isthmus within the next 10 years and eventually agreed that light rail was the best long term option.

In 2017 a new government was formed with light rail as a core policy. In their agreement, Labour and the Greens included the clause that by 2020 “Work will begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland”.

In this draft RTLP there is barely any mention of light rail. It is in the priority list, but only at 83rd, well below the funding level cut off at 40. Even without that cut off, there is no investment planned in the next three years.

Back to the bike dark ages

The main area that has caught the media’s attention is the crazy 90% cut to cycling funding, which goes down from $65 million next year to barely $6.5 million the following year. This is an absolutely bizarre decision by Auckland Transport for so many reasons, but let’s just run through a few:

  • Current investment in cycling is leading to record numbers of Aucklanders cycling.
  • There’s a strong business case supporting a $600 million 10 year investment programme (essentially a continuation of current funding levels for the next decade).
  • The new government wants a greater focus of investment on walking and cycling, and is likely to extend the Urban Cycleway Fund.
The proposed areas for cycling investment.

Generation Zero added some further key points in their media release:

“This budget doesn’t reflect an inclusive approach to designing transport networks. It ignores the increased demand from children who wish to walk, scooter or cycle safely to schools instead of being dependant on cars. It neglects the diverse population of Tāmaki Makaurau, people of all ages and abilities, who want and need alternatives to the private vehicle.”

“It does not reflect the desires of the Council or Government. Nor does it reflect the will of the people who elected them and who the Auckland Transport Board are supposed to serve.”

“The number of people on bikes has skyrocketed thanks to the small investment made over the past few years. This budget would leave a half built network, undo that growth and compromise the safety of Aucklanders.”

“Feeling unsafe is the main reason people do not bike in the city. The only way to change that is by building infrastructure that protects them. We have seen that when we build safe bike lanes and paths in Auckland, people use them. Te Ara I Whiti, Quay Street, the North Western cycleway have all been major successes. All for a fraction of the cost of roading projects.”

How did it get to this point?

This kind of mess shouldn’t happen. There has been a huge amount of transport planning in Auckland over past few years, through ATAP and the updated Auckland Plan. After being at loggerheads for years on transport, the council and the government are finally strongly aligned in this critical area. They both want a stronger focus on public transport, walking and cycling; they both want to accelerate the rapid transit network and introduce light-rail as soon as possible; and they both realise that you can’t build you way out of congestion through more roads.

Therefore the RLTP should be pretty easy, linking up this aligned direction with all the detailed projects, identifying where the trade-offs need to be made. Yet somehow Auckland Transport has managed to come up with a transport programme that is straight out of the 1960s – even the previous government would have been embarrassed by the pathetic cycling budget.

This mess does raise some questions about Auckland Transport more generally:

  • The work behind this document has been going on for months. They’ve surely had time to adjust it to better reflect the governments stated priorities.
  • Where’s was the oversight from senior managers to make sure they don’t come up with plans that are completely out of whack with their political masters?
  • Did those involved in creating this document think they could slip it though unnoticed and did they really not foresee a swift and angry response from groups like us?
  • What concerns were raised and were they ignored? If so, by who?
  • Where to from here? How easy is it to fix up the transport programme and bring it out of the 1960s and into the 21st century?
  • Why do these plans keep resetting back to as if the last 10-15 years never happened? We’re not afraid to fight for a better city but it can be disheartening when we have to have the same argument every three years.

Light at the end of the tunnel

After we first raised the issue on Twitter yesterday morning it was quickly picked up by many of our followers and the media. In the afternoon, AT put out this statement highlighting that the plan will be “subject to further deliberation and debate by Auckland Council’s Governing Body before being released for formal public consultation“.

They also claimed that the cuts are not the recommended programme. This is despite the very first point on the list of recommendations for the accompanying board paper saying

Recommendations

That the Regional Transport Committee:
i. Approve the draft 2018-2028 Auckland Regional Land Transport Plan for public consultation from 28 February to 28 March;

While this is a draft and there will almost certainly be changes in the coming weeks and months. AT has an obligation to consult on their proposals in good faith and by submitting this to the board for approval, staff clearly thought this was an appropriate plan to talk to the wider community about.

Late last night Transport Minister Phil Twyford tweeted this response

It’s good to see AT realise they’ve made a huge mistake. It doesn’t really matter if it was an internal document or not, it should never have been suggested internally when it so blatantly ignores so many other strategies and plans. However, I’m not convinced this was just an internal document made public by mistake for a couple of reasons.

  1. An earlier draft without the financials went to the board in December 2017. It too was in the session open to the public.
  2. Back in December 2014 a draft of the current 2015-18 RLTP went to the board in the open session. It included financials and project priorities like this does. There were updates to it in the open sessions if the March 2015 and April 2015 meetings. The final version of the 2015-18 RLTP was signed off in July-2015, also in public.

The good news is there’s quite a bit of water to go under the bridge before this is signed off. I’m betting the final version will look nothing like this document.

This post originally ran on Greater Auckland, the Auckland transport and urban design blog.


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