Saturday, April 13, 2024

National unveils $24bn transport plan

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Critics jump on it as ‘woefully underestimating’ true cost of package.
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National is promising to build 13 major new roads as part of a transport package costed by the party at $24 billion – a figure critics say is far too low.

Christopher Luxon, Simeon Brown and Chris Bishop jointly fronted the Transport for the Future policy announcement this week, which includes a massive spend-up on new roads of national significance and the cancellation of Auckland light rail and Let’s Get Wellington Moving.

The party promised to release a new government policy statement on land transport, which directs spending priorities from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF), within six months of being elected, as well as reforming the planning process so that the National Land Transport Programme operates on a 10-year investment cycle instead of three.

In a statement, Luxon touted past infrastructure projects undertaken by National governments, including the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband and the Christchurch rebuild. 

“National’s vision is for New Zealand to become one of the world’s leading small, advanced economies and our transport plan will help drive prosperity and lift the standard of living for all New Zealanders,” he said.

A previously announced National Infrastructure Agency would help co-ordinate funding and connect domestic and international investors with infrastructure projects, he said.

“The $24bn Transport for the Future package will be funded through reallocated money from the National Land Transport Fund, additional government investment and other innovative funding tools like value capture – where developers who benefit from new infrastructure contribute to the cost, and equity finance opportunities for local and global investors.”

However, critics have already questioned National’s figures.

A key plank of the transport plan is creating four-lane highways from Whangārei to Tauranga. National costed one section, between Warkworth and Wellsford, at $2.2bn, similar to a figure used in a 2019 Waka Kotahi business case.

As 1 News has reported, however, more recent costing put the figure at more like $4bn. Matt Lowrie of transport blog Greater Auckland said it could be even higher.

“It looks like National has woefully underestimated the cost of this project, and that the actual cost would be considerably more – in the region of probably $10bn just for Northland alone,” he said.

“There’s simply not the money in the NLTF available to cover those sorts of costs.”

A statement from Brown listed the 13 new roads as Whangārei to Port Marsden and Warkworth to Wellsford in Northland; stage one of Mill Rd, a new east-west link and an alternative north-west highway in Auckland; SH29 Tauriko West and stage two of the Tākitimu Northern Link in Bay of Plenty; Cambridge to Piarere and southern links in Waikato; the Petone to Grenada link road, cross valley link and a second Mt Victoria tunnel in Greater Wellington; the Hope bypass in Nelson; and the Belfast to Pegasus motorway, including the Woodend bypass, in Canterbury.

“National’s vision is to provide New Zealanders with safer, faster and more reliable transport options so they can get to work, get their kids to school and freight can move around the country more easily,” Brown said.

The plan would unlock tens of thousands of houses in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Wellington, he said.

“It will also deliver more low-emission transport options by providing better public transport including a rapid transit network in Auckland with transport corridors in the northwest, from the airport to Botany, and the full eastern busway.”

While National intends to scrap light rail, the party intends to progress a rapid transit connection between Massey in the fast-growing northwest and central Auckland.

To do this, National pland to run a competitive tender process using an equity financing model where its National Infrastructure Agency would seek and assess proposals from local and international investors to deliver the project.

The developer might have long-term rights to build, own and operate the network, for example. In its transport plan, National charges that Labour has been averse to using private funding sources to deliver projects, an approach favoured by sector group Infrastructure NZ.

“National believes that if we want to deliver a world-class, modern transport system as soon as possible, we should be willing to embrace private funding with models that have worked well around the world,” the plan says.

The party also talked up the need to improve regional resilience and recover from Cyclone Gabrielle.

As part of this focus, it wants construction on a new Ashburton bridge (either a replacement or an extra crossing) to be under way within three years. 

“National will rebuild regions affected by this year’s weather events – including the Hawke’s Bay expressway, a Brynderwyn Hills bypass in Northland and upgrading the Napier to Taūpo and Napier to Gisborne roads,” Brown said.

“We will also upgrade transport infrastructure in Ashburton, Queenstown, Otago and Southland to deliver a better roading network for the South Island.”

National remains committed to an additional Waitematā Harbour crossing, although its transport plan contains few new details, other than a commitment to seek private funding to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Labour has yet to announce its preferred option for a new crossing, which Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has said construction would start on in 2029. 

Light rail in Wellington, which is being considered as part of Let’s Get Wellington moving, would be scrapped by a National government, despite support from local councils. 

Bishop, National’s housing and infrastructure spokesperson, said the transport plan would require Waka Kotahi to prioritise funding for state highways in four areas in need of new housing.

“National’s plan to build the North West Alternative State Highway in Auckland at an estimated cost of $2.3bn, will be a key component in unlocking urban growth in Auckland’s northwest, supporting projected growth of 107,000 additional people and 44,300 new houses,” he said.

Both greenfields and in-fill housing developments are needed to address the housing crisis, Bishop said.

As well as NLTF funding, National would take advantage of private capital to deliver the new roads, including looking at tolls, “value capture” and other funding mechanisms.

Before the full plan was released, Labour had already hit back at some of the costings, with Transport Minister David Parker describing them as laughable.

“The costs are as woefully light as is their explanation of how they will fund these roads – the cost will be many hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars more than they are admitting,” Parker told 1 News.

Infrastructure NZ chief executive Nick Leggett, meanwhile, was enthusiastic about National’s stated ambition to draw on private funding sources.

“Given the scale of what New Zealand has to do in terms of building its infrastructure, it’s obvious the government cannot fund all projects by itself,” he said.

“We are excited to see opportunities for external partnerships in order to provide the funding for our necessary nation-building infrastructure.”

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