Road users should fund roads, not rail

This week, the Government laid down the track to siphon money out of the state purse for building and fixing roads and into the bottomless money pit that is rail.

With the first reading in Parliament of the Land Transport (Rail) Legislation Bill, the Government is on its way to extending the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) to subsidise rail. That means, the fuel tax and road user charges that people who use roads pay to help fund those roads, will now be “competitive” dollars, available to rail. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use rail, you’ll still be paying for it when you use the road. And given the fund is already not enough to pay for roads, you can expect to pay more for everything to add the dollars needed to prop up the Government’s pet project, rail.

While the legislation introduces track charges for rail service providers that will place revenue into the NLTF, there is little detail on this and it is unlikely this money will come close to funding the likely draw-downs for rail. And rail projects going through the NLTF will not have to go through the rigour roading projects do – they can just be signed off direct by the Minister of Transport.

Let’s be clear, KiwiRail is a State-Owned Enterprise that is supposed to make its own way by making a profit. We think the NLTF should be ring-fenced for roads and other funding sources should be found for rail.

It is also clear there is a place for rail.

Rail is important in cities, where it is electric and it can provide public transport to ease road congestion and reduce emissions. As a user of commuter rail, I know it’s effective at removing vehicles off roads and therefore, relieving congestion. To continue to do that, public transport must be convenient, affordable and reliable.

Outside the cities, New Zealanders rely on roads because there is no public transport and the distances travelled are too great for most people to walk or cycle. They use roads, and they pay for them. The Government’s carless nirvana is a wee way off yet.

Rail’s place in the regions needs to be considered with economics and facts, and without all the romanticism and emotion that seems to be associated with it when it comes to the freight tasks.

In its rather breathless press release backing the Government’s Bill, the Rail and Maritime Transport Union said:

“As the smoke from Australian bush fires stains New Zealand glaciers the colour of old blood, we are all forced to consider the burning urgency of confronting and defeating climate change.

“The only way to do that is through dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, and the only way to do that is by replacing dirty and inefficient modes of transport with cleaner and greener technology. Rail is the future we’ve been waiting for, and we don’t have any time to delay.”

Let’s not pretend this is a win for the environment. Outside the city boundaries rail is powered by diesel, the same as the trucks that are in fact, the preferred freight movement option. Trucks win every day because they deliver door-to-door, on time. Road carries 93 percent of New Zealand’s freight task. Rail carries six percent.

To have any comparative environmental benefits, a rail journey needs to be long, like about 400km at least. And one of the things that rail is good for is heavy loads, like bringing coal out of the mines to end-users; not a task favoured by the environmentalists.

We are sick of the rhetoric, double-standards, and of the Government demonising trucks. We are keen to look at better ways of funding both road and rail, but if it is to truly be a level playing field, rail needs to pay their way. Large parts of the rail network are very old and will need billions of dollars in new investment and we think that should come from Government borrowing, rather than the NLTF. That’s of course, assuming the case for pouring those billions of tax payer dollars into rail stacks up economically.

Merry Christmas, and if you are still waiting for a package for under the tree, it will come to you via road.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Spend that cash

On Tuesday, the Government slapped itself on the back and congratulated itself on a massive $7.5 billion surplus – the biggest surplus since 2008 prior to the global financial crisis.

This is against a backdrop of the lowest business confidence since just after that global financial crisis; a massive dive in rural confidence tagged to farmers’ concerns about the Government’s policy direction; and a slowing economy in the provincial regions that previously, had been booming.

There is something wrong with this picture. The adage that perception is reality rings true. Most of New Zealand is feeling the pinch, but the Government continues to tell us everything is OK.

For some time, we have been calling for the Government to urgently spend some money on roads – making existing roads safe and building new, four-lane roads where they are most needed. It is our roading network that keeps our economy moving and growing and food on our tables. People and goods need to get from A to B in the most timely, safe, cost-effective and efficient manner. Even if you are giving a nod to the environment, that makes the most sense, as congestion and delays on the road only increase the emissions the Government is trying to reduce.

But with the ideology in play, circular reasoning is being applied around the negative impacts of cars and trucks, rather than their essential role in our high standard of living. This sees a reluctance by the Government to follow all the expert advice that says, “spend some money on infrastructure to boost the economy”.

Back in June, the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council warned that New Zealand is at an “infrastructure crisis point”. It said there is “no overarching vision or leadership in New Zealand for infrastructure development”.

You would think this would raise some concerns, given the Government’s heavy reliance on advisory groups at the expense of core government agencies such as Treasury, who are surely recommending spending some money to make some money.

Last week, we saw stark evidence of the impact of not spending on infrastructure. A key part of the State Highway network collapsed, literally (pictured above – photo from Mark Brimblecombe). Locals say Parapara Road, on State Highway 4 between Whanganui and Raetihi, has been problematic for the past 15 years.  A sizeable crack appeared last week and then the road broke entirely, with hundreds of cubic metres of soft earth slipping and sliding and cutting off vital transport links for an indefinite period.

Drone footage and photos of the slip illustrate how significant it is. The slip is still moving and it is not going to be fixed any time soon, if ever.

This leaves farmers, school children, ambulances, and freight companies facing major detours for an indefinite period of time. The recommended detour route will add at least one hour to every journey. About 1000 vehicles use the Parapara Rd daily, about 10 percent of which are heavy vehicles. Health care professionals are looking at helicoptering out critical patients, as a road journey will now be so long. This is a critical situation.

Steve McDougall from McCarthy’s Transport has been quoted as saying the company’s logging trucks will now have to connect with State Highway 1 at Bulls, or State Highway 3 via New Plymouth, to travel northwards. He says this will have a catastrophic effect on the business that will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 per day. It will reduce productivity – less trips will be possible each day. That cost will be passed on to the forest owners and the end user customer.

The cost of not investing in roads ultimately hurts all New Zealand families. Basics, such as food costs and access to health care cause the initial pain, but the cost across the supply chain of all goods just goes up and up.

We cannot have major roads collapsing. Look at how long it is taking to find a fix to the Manawatu Gorge. The Government needs to apply some basic economics to its thinking. How much cost are they prepared to add to every Kiwi household so they can say, “look how much money we’ve got in the bank”?

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum