Mixed messages

February 28, 2020

The government is introducing a bill it says could lead to a drop of up to 30 cents a litre in petrol prices.

But, as the Taxpayers’ Union keeps reminding us, around half the contributor to fuel prices is tax, including the one that is supposed to make us use less to reduce carbon emissions.

They’re sending mixed messages.

They’re talking out one side of their mouths by taxing us more to increase the price of fuel to encourage us to use less and then the talk from the other side is a threat to legislate to force  fuel companies to bring prices down because fuel is too expensive.


Only a start

February 3, 2020

The government’s announcement of a $12b investment in infrastructure wasn’t quite what the headlines said.

For a start, the spending announced last week was for around $7b. No doubt the government is leaving the other $5b for announcements later in the year.

And while the government has been clear it’s borrowing to fund this investment, it hasn’t given a timetable for repaying the debt, nor has it mentioned the interest that will accrue. Yes interest rates are at historically low levels but even a little interest compounding on $12b soon turns into a lot more to repay.

The announcement on new and better roads has been well received but as Steven Joyce points out:

. . .Hallelujah! A victory for sanity and the reasonable belief of most New Zealanders that personal mobility in the form of cars, trucks and motorbikes will continue to be the norm well into the future, even as the fuel that drives those vehicles radically changes for the better.

Beyond that, the government’s announcement was tepid and unambitious, despite all the hype.

Alongside a few worthwhile already scheduled rail and local roading projects, they are simply re-starting five of the major state highway projects that were cancelled after the last election.

To provide some context, when completed these projects will provide just over 60 kilometres of modern four lane highway.

The Roads of National Significance of the last decade just wrapping up provide over 300 kilometres of new highway to the same standard.

Also the pace of construction over the next five years will be about half what it has been over the last three years.

We’re getting less, it’s taking more time, and the government’s borrowing to do it.

The Government is therefore expecting a lot of applause for a massive reduction in roading investment. I suppose it is better than nothing.

It must be questioned however why there is a need to borrow all those billions when a programme nearly five times the size was able to be mostly funded from petrol taxes and road user charges (which are much higher today).

There is also a sizeable fish-hook embedded in the fine print. The government is to investigate dedicating one of the two lanes each way on each project for buses, or cars with multiple occupancy.

I can see that going down like a cup of the cold proverbial if it ever comes to pass. . . 

The government has wasted two years before deciding to do some of what National would have done and is borrowing to do what National would have done from better management of crown accounts rather than debt-funding it.

There is a better way:

With all that in mind, here is a starter for ten on what a new state highway building plan for New Zealand could look like: three networks of modern four lane highways based through and around our three biggest cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The Northern Expressway network would safely and efficiently link Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua. The Central Expressway network would do the same for Wellington, Hutt Valley, Levin, and Palmerston North, on towards Whanganui and over the hill to Hawkes Bay.

The Southern network would radiate out from Christchurch, north to around Amberley, south to Ashburton and on towards Timaru, and inland towards the Alps.

A decent chunk of each is now already built. Completed over say a twenty year period the three networks would provide safe, reliable, stress-free travelling of a standard that is taken now as a given in the rest of the developed world.

They would help spread around growth and development as has occurred in the Waikato with the new expressway, and much earlier on Auckland’s North Shore with the Northern motorway.

They would lower the road toll by eliminating the temptation for dangerous passing manoeuvres on our busiest two-lane roads, as we have seen with the Tauranga Eastern Link and Waikato Expressway.

This sort of plan would be an upgrade worthy of the name, and would require simply upping the pace of the last ten years. . . 

So it’s a start, but only a start and a late one on borrowed money at that.


4 lanes from Cape to Bluff

December 20, 2019

It used to take an easy 3 1/2 hours to get from home to Christchurch.

Last Friday I started the journey nearly four hours before I was due to officiate at a wedding rehearsal and I got there with only a minute to spare.

It was one of those trips with lots of big trucks, lots of slow traffic and lots of times when the vehicle following a slow one wouldn’t pass and didn’t leave enough room between it and the one it was following to pass it when it was safe to pass one but not two vehicles.

And of course most of those slow vehicles went faster when we got to passing lanes.

This is not unusual. There is much more traffic and our roads are not up to carrying it.

The government’s announcement that at least some of the extra debt it’s going to incur will go on roading is a welcome change to the anti-road stance it’s had but it’s not going far enough.

We need a four lane highway from Cape Reinga to Bluff. It couldn’t all be done at once but it needs to be done.

It will make travel both more efficient and safer, helping productivity and reducing the human and financial costs of accidents.


Derailing business confidence

October 21, 2019

In Thomas Coughlin’s analysis of the derailing of the government’s light rail plans this stood out:

. . .Evans gave a stark warning to the Government, saying that the messed-up process could stop firms from bidding for other government projects in future, making it even more difficult for the Government to plug it’s infrastructure gap. . .

Paul Evans is the chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers.

His view is yet another example of how this government is derailing business confidence.

Firms have wasted time and large amounts of money on this project and having been bitten so badly will be shy about bidding for others.

Meanwhile all of us are paying more for fuel by way of increased tax for a project that looks like it was never on the right track from the start.


Roads to wellbeing

July 12, 2019

The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council has a strong message for the government: infrastructure is at a crisis point.

Fran O’Sullivan writes:

The warning came in a June 26 letter to Ardern — released to this columnist — where the council said New Zealand lacks a “national masterplan” to tangibly map out “our immediate, medium and long-term infrastructure future in an integrated way”.

The Business Advisory Council, chaired by Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon, has presented a damning indictment of New Zealand’s infrastructure regime saying there is “no overarching vision or leadership in New Zealand for infrastructure development”.

“This means there is no nation-building narrative upon which to build a strategic direction,” it says — although it excuses the Ardern Government of any culpability for the mess which it says is intergenerational.

Apart from a national masterplan — which is heavily redolent of the Singapore Government approach to infrastructure development favoured by some council members — it wants to see funding and financing mechanisms that would allow for long-term, debt-funded or investable opportunities. It notes the incentives between central and local government are misaligned and New Zealand is poor at execution and delivery.

“The public sector does not have the capability to manage a programme of projects of national significance and the private sector operates in a boom-bust cycle,” the letter warns. . .

This government made much about its wellbeing budget but is ignoring the part infrastructure plays in that:

The council’s letter says that Infrastructure, in its broadest sense, underpins wellbeing.

“The success of regions relies upon their effective connectivity to urban centres; linking the city fringe with the centre can reduce income inequality; mature, unclogged and functioning cities (especially Auckland) are our critical engines of growth; swimmable beaches rely on major storm water and sewerage projects; energy certainty is a basic building block for investment; larger bridges can enable higher loadings, fewer truck movements and lower emissions; broadband connectivity empowers business to occur anywhere, any time; and a connected vision for infrastructure enables wealth to flow into and around the country, building an equality of opportunity for all Kiwis.”

The government scrapped several reading projects which would have improved travel times, safety, and productivity.

They would have been roads that led to improved wellbeing.

It then added insult to injury by increasing fuel taxes to fund trains and cycleways.

“Unfortunately, the system that sits beneath effective and sustainable infrastructure development in our country is fundamentally broken.” . . 

Improved infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue but this is an anti-roads, anti-cars government.

Walkways, cycleways, buses and trains all have a role to play but they can’t replace safe and efficient roads.

The government doesn’t appear to realise that improved infrastructure Is an important component of sustainability, bringing economic, environmental and social benefits.

Its transport blind spot stops it seeing that poor infrastructure is a roadblock on the journey to wellbeing.


Cost of higher fuel tax

July 2, 2019

An extra four cent tax was imposed on motorists yesterday.

The direct cost is obvious – it will be more expensive to buy fuel.

The indirect costs won’t take long to take effect – higher prices for everything that has a transport component.

That will hit individuals, community organisations and businesses.

And for what?

. . .Half-way into the “year of delivery,” and all we’re seeing is key projects delayed, down-sized or discarded. The public are seeing noticeable asset deterioration at a rate we haven’t seen previously. It’s across New Zealand, Forum members advise, not just Auckland. . . 

Where’s the money gone? What exactly has it been spent on? Auckland transport users certainly aren’t seeing the benefits.

The rest of New Zealand isn’t seeing any benefits either.

We’re paying higher prices for fuel and getting less spent on roads.


Driving on another planet

June 6, 2019

A New Zealand Transport Association tool shows 87% of road speeds are higher than is safe:

. . . The agency’s online risk assessment tool, Mega Maps, uses a range of factors such as road width and stereotype, shoulder width, roadside hazards and alignment to calculate the safe and appropriate travel speed.

Mega Maps suggests only 5 percent of the open road should have the current 100 kilometre an hour speed limit, and in most cases a speed of 60-80 km/h should apply.

For most urban areas, Mega Maps suggests the safe and appropriate speed would be 30-40 km/h . . 

Road design is one factor in making driving less safe. New Zealand roads could be much better but plans by the previous government to improve some by building four-lane highways were canned by this one.

I do most of my driving on the open road and it’s rare to have a longer trip when I’m not caught behind someone dawdling along at 10, 20 or more kilometres an hour below the legal, and safe for most, speed limit.

There are times when the road is hilly and windy, the light is poor and/or the weather inclement when slower speeds are appropriate but driving at 60 – 80 kph on most roads most of the time, providing the driver isn’t distracted,  tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, would be a recipe for frustration.

It would also put a handbrake on the economy:

A wholesale reduction in speed limits could do more harm than good by further isolating regional New Zealand and weakening the economy, National’s Transport spokesperson Paul Goldsmith says.

Media reports today reveal the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) estimates 87 per cent of our roads have speed limits that are too high for the conditions. Its mapping tool suggests many roads with a 100kmh speed limit should be reduced to as low as 60kmh.

“We all want safer roads, and while reducing speed limits across the board might be the easiest thing to do, it is too simplistic and would have huge implications for our way of life,” Mr Goldsmith says.

“Slower roads would impact regional New Zealand severely. Drastic speed limit cuts might mean it would take 45 minutes longer to get to New Plymouth from Hamilton, for example. In terms of isolation, that’s the equivalent of shifting the city another 60 kilometres out to sea.

“There would also be significant economic costs. If it suddenly took 30 per cent longer to move freight the same distance our national productivity would drop substantially, freight costs would rise and our international competitiveness would fall.

“A smaller economy would invest less in healthcare, for example, ultimately costing lives. Houses would be more expensive to build and the price of food would go up. These broader implications need to be considered fully.

“Over the past three years the road toll has risen, and we should absolutely be focused on understanding why. But it’s worth remembering that speed alone is not the cause.

“Other factors include drugged-driving, enforcement of current laws around drink-driving, not wearing seat belts, the quality of our roads, driver distraction and a huge increase in tourism.

“The Government should reverse its policy of not investing in quality new roads, and deal with its blind spot on drugged drivers. It has resolutely ignored the issue for nearly 18 months and it is appalling that the Minister in charge of road safety, Julie Anne Genter, is opposed to roadside drug testing because of her Green Party’s liberal approach to drugs.

“If the Government is truly concerned about saving lives on our roads, then why did the Budget show a cut, in real terms, to road safety policing?”

Most people don’t drive on a whim for the sake of it. We drive to get somewhere we need to go and want to get there in the shortest time we can safely do it.

Then there’s the people who drive for a living, many of whom are those who transport goods.

Slower legal speeds would add to the hours truck drivers would take to get from one place to another and curtail the distance they could travel without going over the time limits imposed on their driving for safety’s sake. It would also raise issues of animal welfare for those transporting stock.

Recommending that only 13% of roads can be safely driven at 100 kph suggests the tool is designed for driving on another planet.


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