Wellington Scoop

Build roads, the traffic will come

by Michael C Barnett
As Let’s Get Wellington Moving continues its consultation on potential transport interventions, there’s a growing suspicion that the Transport Agency is not being entirely transparent. Is its bias toward roading driven by a desire to please its political masters? Or are there statutory limitations that stop it committing major investment into infrastructure such as light rail? Maybe a bit of both.

Since the 1930s, land transport planning has largely focused on developing roading infrastructure. In 1954 the National Roads Board (an arm of the Ministry of Works and Development) was established with a mission to plan, construct and maintain the roading infrastructure throughout New Zealand. At that time all charges and levies associated with road and vehicle use went into a dedicated fund managed by NRB and and a benefit cost ratio (BCR) was the guiding principle for approving and funding projects. BCRs of 5 were not uncommon.

During the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the Ministry of Works and Development was corporatised, the National Roads Board was split into Transfund New Zealand and Transit New Zealand – the latter being tasked with managing the state highway network and the Land Transport Fund. In the process, funds were channeled into the Consolidated Fund and allocated back to the Government of the day.

During the next two decades, Transit NZ underwent several mutations. in August 2008 it merged with Land Transport New Zealand (formerly an arm of the Ministry of Transport) to form the New Zealand Transport Agency. The new agency was tasked with a broader mission of delivering transport solutions that would help communities thrive. In spite of these expanded objectives and a broader range of management and technical expertise, it retained a strong roading culture and a mindset that focused on road construction, maintenance and management as the means of delivering the transport solutions.

In the same year, the government published the first of a series of Government Policy Statements (GPS) outlining its strategy for land transport investment. These statements influence decisions on how money from the National Land Transport Fund is to be be invested across a range of activity classes. NZTA is the agency tasked with interpreting the GPS and allocating funds. In the process it employs an assessment framework that considers three factors: strategic fit – how a project aligns with the governments wishes; effectiveness – how the project aligns with the strategic fit; and efficiency – involving a benefit-cost appraisal.

For a project to be included in the land transport plan, the strategic fit criteria is key. Projects with a low strategic fit rating or a low effectiveness rating cannot be approved. Projects with high strategic fit can progress into the NLTP regardless of the level of benefit-cost ratios.

What all this indicates is that the process for evaluating and funding transport projects has changed markedly in recent decades.

In earlier days, projects were evaluated on a sound economic basis and funded from a dedicated funding pool. The Government now has a process dominated by a framework that allows uneconomic projects to be funded and a ‘let’s do it’ mentality to do whatever it chooses regardless of the economic benefits. Indicative of this cavalier approach are comments made in 2012 by then Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee when he is on record as saying ‘the roads of national significance would cost what they cost’, and that falling traffic volumes did not warrant a reconsideration of the projects because ‘if we build it, they will come’. What hasn’t changed is the dominance of roads in the transport planning process, while rail and other transport options play second fiddle.

In September 2009, a Cabinet Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee agreed upon a Metropolitan Rail Operating Model (MROM) with the following key objectives: to increase economic growth and productivity by reducing congestion on urban roads and more efficient utilization of the transport network, to provide transport choice to users, to integrate rail with other modes of transport, to reduce the environmental impact of the transport system. Reassuring words, but does this Government mean it?

Since 2008, the Government has part funded rolling stock and miscellaneous facilities for Auckland and Wellington rail. But that is where it stops. An under capitalised and under funded KiwiRail is responsible for providing the fixed rail infrastructure and capital upgrades. NZTA has no mandate let alone interest to fund light rail from its own budget, just as it had no desire to meet the extra costs by going below ground when constructing Karo Drive.

What are the chances for Wellington light rail being considered in this environment? Not good. All the indications suggest that NZTA is hiding behind a smoke screen, while it pushes forward with the government’s pet roads of national significance.

If Wellington is serious about achieving a congestion-free city, it needs to look beyond more roads and push for investment in a multi-modal transport system based around light rail as a core component. This involves fighting a political battle about what we want our city to be.

Len Brown and Auckland Transport fought for the City Rail Link and won. That project has been treated as a stand alone project and it required tough and persistent negotiation with the Government.

It is time that our local body politicians stand up to fight for a similar deal.


  1. Kerry Wood, 25. April 2017, 19:35

    In other words, the government’s transport policy is an irrational waste of money. Worse, it is likely to waste very much more money in the future, as ever-increasing ‘assets’ are stranded.

    — If the benefit:cost ratio falls from often over 5 in the 1960s (benefits five times costs) to rarely over 1 in the 2000s (costs equal benefit), then we need a better solution. The solution chosen must be about the worst possible: ‘Roads of National Significance’ which ‘cost what they cost.’ They will cost us dearly.

    — Falling benefit:cost ratios suggest diminishing returns. Early road projects were worthwhile because of long-term benefits and relatively low external costs such as noise, subsidies, pollution and congestion. Today the external costs are much higher, but the benefits are much lower: travel times are much faster than they were in the 1950s, and additional benefits correspondingly slower.

    — Other signs of diminishing returns are:
    – Existing roads are satisfactory at peak hours. New roads are only needed at the busy hours, and are a waste of money for most of the time.
    – Road users do not pay rates on the land used for roads, and local authorities are not allowed to impose other charges.
    – There is a price-ceiling for roads, and a classic example of an under-priced service is over-use. On the roads we call it congestion.

    — Climate change and declining oil and gas reserves are combining. By mid-century, cities that can reduce their energy demands will have a substantial economic advantage over cities that cannot. Electric cars will help, but not as much as walking, cycling and public transport.

  2. KB, 30. April 2017, 9:53

    I don’t understand the obsession by some for no more, or even less, roading, and the thinking that having more vehicles on a cities roads is a bad thing.

    A significant portion of vehicle growth is driven by population and economic growth. It’s not just more commuters on the roads, it’s more freight/cargo carrying everything from food, building supplies, factory machinery, the tools of tradies/repairmen, and trademe courier packages – all the things needed to support a happy thriving population and the economy they live in. None of the things I just mentioned are items that can be transported via buses, light rail and bicycles. They need roads. And increasing road capacity means more of these things can move around our city. By all means encourage commuters to move to public transport by way of improving public transport options – but don’t think that this solves all our transport problems, more/better reading is also part of the solution.

  3. TrevorH, 30. April 2017, 17:36

    @KB: I’m with you. A fast, efficient and reliable roading network is essential for Wellington’s wellbeing. It’s how our food reaches us, how tradespeople service our homes and how we get out of here after the Big One, God willing. As for cycling, how many people use the Island Bay cycleway these days? It was imposed against the wishes of the community by the ideologues who hate roads and private transport.

  4. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 30. April 2017, 18:58

    I don’t think many proponents of improved cycling infrastructure and public transport (myself included) fail to appreciate that roads are necessary to accommodate trucks, buses, delivery vans and emergency vehicles. Their argument is simply that if there are fewer commuters in single-occupant cars, the trucks, buses and vans etc can be accommodated by the existing roads. Having said that, we know that even vastly improved public transport won’t convert every car user, as many car journeys (especially across town or longer distance as opposed to into the CBD) are very unlikely to be able to be well served by public transport. So, as the city’s population and economy grow, some improvements to roads are inevitably required, at least in my opinion. Car commuting into the CBD is better managed via parking policy than by congestion.

  5. TrevorH, 3. May 2017, 12:37

    @Chris Calvi-Freeman: it would be useful to know what a “commuter” is in the Council’s “parking policy” argot. Does it include someone who goes into the CBD after the rush hour occasionally to visit their doctor or lawyer, or perhaps even to shop. Wellington has lost many hundreds of car-parks to the earthquakes. Now the Council is proposing to remove large numbers of very useful short-term parks in the CBD in favour of imaginary fleets of electric vehicles. This will have a negative impact on businesses and elderly users in particular. And electric cars do pollute through the manufacture and disposal of their batteries. Biodiesel is a more sustainable option, if that is the Council’s thinking.

  6. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 3. May 2017, 17:11

    @TrevorH Someone who goes into the CBD after the rush hour occasionally to visit their doctor or lawyer is not a commuter. The number of short term car parks (1-2 hours) being assigned to car share / electric vehicles is relatively very small. Many people choose to come in by bus for personal business such as visiting their doctor or lawyer. Those who choose to use their cars can generally find short-term parking reasonably easily on a weekday.

  7. David Bond, 12. May 2017, 16:15

    Yes but KB and TrevorH, the current emphasis is on roads-only, and no major expenditure at all on public transport. The new trains and upgrades in Auckland and Wellington were initiated by the last Labour government at least 10 years ago. And Auckland’s City Rail Link only received the go-ahead because an unsupportive National government was dragged kicking-and-screaming into supporting it.

    Apart from these items, all we have had for decades is roads, roads, and more roads. This is not what we need for a balanced transport policy and it flies in the face of the huge success of rail on the rare occasions that it has received meaningful investment.

    Rail patronage in Auckland and Wellington has boomed since the networks were upgraded. And according to GWRC’s Regional Land Transport Plan, “Kapiti, Hutt Valley and Porirua have a public
    transport mode share of between 44% and 50% for journeys
    to work where the destination workplace is in Wellington
    CBD. Given that most of these trips are undertaken by rail,
    this data further highlights the importance and effectiveness
    of the rail network in managing peak period congestion
    throughout the region.”.

    Why are we not investing more in rail, including extending its reach and coverage? Answer – Because the current powers-that-be are fixated on road-building and nothing else. This is why some of us say Please – No More Roads. Time to re-focus on that valuable but seriously-neglected mode – rail..