Devil will be in the detail in road spending lolly scramble

This Government is very good at making big announcements, but delivery has proved to be its Achilles heel. 10,000 KiwiBuild homes promised, but not able to be delivered. Auckland’s light rail has a “stretch” timeline; now apparently 2030. Child poverty is going up, not down, with school principals saying child poverty is the worst they’ve seen as the school year started this week.

So, when the Government announced on Wednesday a big spend of $5.3 billion on roads, our excitement was tempered by a look for the detail. The devil is in the detail.

Through this term of Government, we have heard a lot of negativity about roads, including the Transport Minister Phil Twyford saying: “There has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

A change of heart came a day after the date for the 2020 general election was announced by the Prime Minister, and a big handful of the lollies in the road spending scramble landed in the pivotal political city of Auckland, and Northland, where New Zealand First is hoping to secure its five percent threshold.

But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, it is good to now have an “infrastructure Government” and a whole bunch of roads in the pipeline.

We are only sorry a couple of years have been wasted in getting on with building the vital arterial roads in New Zealand, and this is reflected in some of the timelines. The Melling interchange won’t be completed until 2026. For one of the roads we have lobbied hard for, four lanes for the Ōtaki to north of Levin stretch of State Highway 1, construction won’t start until 2025 and finishes in 2029. That’s another three terms of Government.

The Chair of the Horowhenua business and residents group Build the Road has publicly thanked the RTF for our support in pushing for this vital stretch of highway and advice with their campaign. Still, they must be disappointed about the nine year wait.

And while there are some great hits in the announcement, there are some equally important misses. At the 2018 road transport industry conference, Transport Minister Phil Twyford intimated that the East-West (Penrose-Onehunga) link in Auckland was going to happen. But it wasn’t mentioned in Wednesday’s announcement. More than 7,000 freight vehicles drive through Onehunga each day and congestion in the area needs to be eased if we want to get serious about boosting the economy.

Then there’s the South Island; not many lollies went there. Yet we are seeing speed limits reduced to accommodate the poor state of roads, at the expense of businesses using those roads. State Highway 6 from Blenheim to Nelson is an example, where road freight transporters are telling us reduced speeds over a long stretch of road will cost them considerable time and money, ultimately adding to the cost of everything.

It’s not rocket science to understand that with the base of our economy in tourism and exports we need roads that are fit for purpose throughout New Zealand. That is, at least four lanes, and engineered properly for the conditions, speed limit and in consideration of both the commercial and public use of these roads. This is another area where we have concerns. Some of the four-laning is not necessarily what we envisage – two lanes in each direction allowing free flow of traffic. We will all need to look very carefully at each road as it comes up for construction.

We are also worried about the lack of engineering expertise at the New Zealand Transport Agency, and the availability of workers required to construct massive infrastructure.

In promoting the infrastructure announcement, the Prime Minister keeps talking about getting “freight off the road and onto rail” and this is the mantra of New Zealand First as it tries to resurrect rail routes that were left fallow because they simply didn’t stack up against road freight. As one witty commentator noted, “Winston Peters invoking Julius Vogel for his rail announcement. Vogel was PM in the 1870s.” That about sums up rail.

Freight movement is driven by the market. The National Freight Demand Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Transport last year (October 2019), showed freight delivered in New Zealand is 93 percent by road (up 16 percent since 2012) and 5.6 percent by rail (down 17 percent since 2012).

It is important to note that:

  • With 93,000km of road and only 4,000km of rail, rail will never be able to meet the essential demands of delivering goods to New Zealanders
  • Only three to seven percent of the road freight task is contestable by rail – moving heavy coal being one of the main tasks that better suits rail
  • Rail offers no fuel consumption benefits for freight carried less than 400kms
  • 80 percent of freight is delivered within a region, and that is not contestable by rail
  • Road users pay for roads, but rail is heavily subsidised by the Government
  • Road delivers door-to-door, throughout New Zealand, rail doesn’t
  • Road is more resilient than rail when it comes to natural disasters
  • In Auckland and Wellington, rail has a commuter function (though you might want to speak to some of the commuters about that)
  • Not everyone lives in Auckland and Wellington and outside of those cities, good luck finding public transport
  • Trucks enable every movement of freight by rail

It would be good to finally hear this Government acknowledge that roads remain the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy – pretty much everything you need, every day, comes to you on a truck.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum


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