Transport has been one of the big dividing lines between the parties in this election. How is a voter supposed to make an informed decision? Given the current state of public information, they can’t.
On one hand we have the incumbents National, which has been investing in Roads of National Significance on the basis of dubious cost benefit arithmetic. During the election campaign, National have thrown in a few sweeteners – $212m more for regional roads and $100m for cycling. The first was no doubt a reaction to Labour’s offer of a regional development lolly scramble (sorry, ‘project fund’), the second initiative was pinched from the Greens – pragmatic politics at its best.
On the other hand, we have Labour and the Greens promising a bigger investment in public transport. The Greens want the rail network to extend to the regions, but Labour sees roads as part of the mix too – as long as the trucks stay out of the fast lane on the motorway. Finally the Greens have shown they aren’t above pinching a vote winner – using Winnie’s Gold Card idea to appeal to the student vote with free off peak public transport.
There are a lot of issues in here, and there is a lot at stake. Overall it is almost impossible for the average voter to sort their way through. Which policy really is best? This is more confused when local authority plans for public transport are based on the government roading plans for their area. Why not have one, agreed, ideal plan for transport in our major cities that covers road, rail, cycling and walking? Heaven forbid – it might even join up to the plan of where people are going to live and work.
Initiatives like the Congestion Free Network, and organisations like Generation Zero have been doing their best to inform the public on alternatives. But they don’t have the resources at their disposal of the New Zealand Transport Authority. It should not fall to voluntary groups to design our transport network, they simply point out what is possible.
How do we cut through this mess? We need to depoliticise funding across roads and public transport. It’s easy – just make NZTA’s analysis public and comprehensible. To their credit, Labour have promised a more ‘rational’ approach to transport spending, but they then leap to what they think that means without clear evidence. The next government should make the cost benefit ratios of all transport options public so that voters are fully informed about what the alternatives are. In other words, what else could we do with the money? If National are in power for example – what are the most cost effective transport projects are being overlooked in order to invest in the Roads of National Significance?
Another idea would be to devolve the transport budgets to local government, at least in our big cities. This might help transport spending link up with a plan to develop our regions. How are Auckland Council supposed to design a public transport system when Roads of National Significance are handed down to them from on high?
Finally we also need to ensure a long-term price of carbon is built in to all calculations, to make sure any projects are future-proofed. Think of it as planning for the inevitable – petrol prices will keep rising.
The only way to build a consensus around something as important and long term as transport spending is to inform the public. Transparent information is the first step on that journey. That needs to span the issues of where to invest, how much, and on what transport types.