Worker freedom and flexibility being eroded by law changes

The Government’s move to “one size fits all” with its employment and immigration law changes will restrict the freedom and flexibility truck drivers currently enjoy.

With an election year coming, the unions are flexing their muscles. Fresh from making new employees be employed under terms consistent with the collective agreement for their first 30 days, as per changes to the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2018, they are chasing Fair Pay Agreements, and Multiple Employer Collective Agreements (MECAs). There is no interest in the wider road freight transport sector for MECA agreements.

The Government continues to ignore businesses that are happily going about their business without the restrictive hands of the unions. The RTF has recently submitted on the Designing a Fair Pay Agreements System Discussion Paper and the Addressing Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation: Consultation Document. It’s almost a fulltime job trying to keep up with all the changes this Government wants to make to restrict business.

We do not support the Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs) because they will distort the market and create a number of undesirable outcomes. Unionising the workforce will not alleviate a worker shortage, or improve conditions. Quite the opposite will occur; it will make the road freight industry less attractive to people who want flexibility, including women who are enjoying working in trucking because the can start work early and get home in time to manage the day and after-school activities for their children.

This is at a time when we are focused on increasing diversity in our industry and encouraging employers to provide the flexibility to encourage that.

We believe the proposals in this particular discussion document risk returning the road freight transport industry to pre-1991 bargaining conditions, which we do not support. We want to move forwards, not back 30 years.

The employment landscape has changed since the heyday of the unions back somewhere in history. FPAs will be expensive and slow for employers and consequently, employees, particularly for the small to medium sized companies that make up the bulk of the road freight transport industry.

We believe a voluntary approach is more balanced with today’s business environment. Government support for industries, such as ours, rather than the demonising we are seeing with statements such as “getting dangerous trucks off the road”, would be more useful in solving both the road freight industry’s worker shortages and getting people who are out of work into rewarding careers.

The anti-immigration stance of this Government is making it so difficult for employers to employ the seasonal visitor workforce, those workers are no longer even coming here.

Recent changes to immigration policy also conspire against improving conditions in the workplace. Making it almost impossible to hire migrant truck drivers to pick up some of the workload will only increase the workload for New Zealand drivers. There is enough work to go around, with the road freight task increasing. There seems to be no logic in play.

We accept there is opportunity in New Zealand for worker exploitation – that is for all workers, not specifically migrants. We believe the best approach to this is to ensure first, education about rights under the law. The second step is to ensure the investigative resource is available and suitably trained to carry out effective investigations across the whole supply chain.

In our industry, drivers want choices about how and when they work. Trucking varies tremendously between different companies, regions, freight types and vehicles used. National, or even regional awards, are not going to be flexible enough to allow for that variation, or to meet driver needs. With driver shortages, good drivers have flexibility and are well paid.

The next line of attack from the Government is going to be on independent contractors, that is, people who want to work for themselves. The impacts of that go right to the heart of our industry – many owner-drivers work on contract to larger companies. This issue is currently being debated by the trucking industry in California, where the industry is saying it will dramatically affect upwards of 70,000 drivers who will possibly elect to either leave the state, or the occupation entirely. Submissions close on 14 February 2020 on the Better protections for contractors: Discussion document for public feedback, which is another one for our pile.

You are left wondering when the Government will start listening to the experts in business who drive the economy.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Sustainability makes good business sense

Regardless of your views on climate change, having sustainable practices and goals is pretty much essential to a successful customer-facing business.

Customers are demanding good environmental measures through their supply chains and if you are in the business of trying to attract younger workers, they want to work for companies that take protecting the planet seriously.

Transport is responsible for about 18% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year, and the race is on to reduce that. While plenty of car brands are developing light vehicles to run on “clean and renewable” alternatives to fossil fuels, there has not been the same progress in truck manufacturing, because the fuel alternatives available present some challenges when upping the size scale.

So, it was exciting to attend the launch of New Zealand’s first long-haul, electric-vehicle road freighter this week. Auckland-based laundry business Alsco put the Hino truck on display at Eden Park, with Energy and Resources Minister Dr Megan Woods and Climate Change Minister James Shaw speaking at the event.

Alsco’s Group General Manager Mark Roberts had a great story to tell about the company’s sustainability journey and he spoke about taking the gamble to pioneer intercity electric vehicle freight movement. He said it wasn’t about waiting for the production to be perfect, but on starting today, to focus on three important business aspects – people, planet and prosperity. He outlined Alsco’s “big, bold, meaningful goals” for 2030, including reducing water use by one-third (remembering they are a laundry business); generating zero waste; reducing CO2, including by eliminating coal as an energy source; and converting one-third of the vehicle fleet to electric energy.

It’s important to take a sustainability view across the business and to get staff buy-in. Those companies running heavy vehicles that haven’t thought about sustainability should start, right now. There is quite a bit that can be done, including adopting the current best technology to manage environmental considerations with fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. This will have an immediate positive impact on the environment.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) runs a low emission vehicles contestable fund. This supports projects that encourage innovation and investment in electric and other low emissions vehicles in New Zealand. It offers up to $7 million a year to co-fund projects with private and public sector partners and Alsco sourced some of this funding to start electrifying its fleet.

Alsco’s EV truck will do the Rotorua/Tauranga and Rotorua/Taupo routes, travelling about 286km/day. Fully laden, it will be up to 22.5 tonnes in weight.

It is estimated to save at least 25,000 litres of diesel and 67,610 kilograms of CO2e per year. Roberts said there was in fact, a compelling argument that supported the higher investment for a heavy EV compared to a diesel equivalent, due to a swift payback on operational expense. He said operational savings would justify the higher capital expense by recouping the additional investment in less and six months, thereafter providing a consistent financial advantage over a similarly tasked diesel truck.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said in his speech that “innovation is a function of constraints”. There is no doubt that the constraints on fossil fuel vehicles are tightening and for the wider heavy vehicle industry, Alsco’s journey will be one to watch.

You can find out more about Alsco’s EVs and sustainability plans here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Port move makes no sense

Anyone who has been to Rotterdam in the Netherlands will know it is a port city that embraces both its rich history, and its future as Europe’s largest sea port. Real estate with a view of the port is prized. Government has always considered the enormous economic might of the port in making decisions about Rotterdam’s development.

It would be good to see the New Zealand Government holding such pride in, and support for, the port in our largest city of Auckland, which is a critical part of the country’s infrastructure. Instead, Ports of Auckland has become a political football.

In December, the Cabinet of the New Zealand Government will consider relocating to Northport, in Northland, the movement of goods currently carried out by Ports of Auckland. The economic advice behind that proposal has been called into question by two reviews from economic analysts, released by Ports of Auckland this week.

Castalia’s report says it will cost about $6.7 billion to move the freight activities of the port in Auckland to Northland. That is almost four times higher than EY’s predicted net cost of $1.8 billion that has been used to sell the idea of the move.

As representatives of freight movers, the RTF strongly urges the Government to take a good look at all the facts and figures before making a decision. If the aim is to boost Northland’s economy, does that really stack up against the impacts for Auckland and the rest of New Zealand?

It’s clear that making Northport the main port for Auckland will require massive investment in road and rail, and frankly, it makes little sense from either an economics or a logistics position. Why would you move goods destined for delivery in Auckland and further south away from the closest port, when the road and rail infrastructure required to then get those goods from that far away port back to Auckland and beyond does not even exist?

You can’t just one day close a major port and open another one that same day. There would need to be overlapping operations for years, with costs galore that would have to be passed on down the line to the end consumer. New Zealand’s location at the bottom of the earth already makes it expensive to import and export goods; we can’t really afford to add to that.

Rather bizarrely, those advocating to relocate the port operations are only talking about freight. They want to keep the economic benefits of having cruise ships and their many well-heeled passengers spending their cash in Auckland. The port has to remain in some capacity, which defies logic.

It smacks of a desire to kick out the blue-collar industries because inner-city businesses and residents don’t like the look of them. Reverse sensitivity seems to be a peculiarity of New Zealanders. People move to the inner city and then don’t like the noise, or bars, or trucks, or cars, or people. International city dwellers at least understand where more than a million people gather – and let’s remember Auckland is a very small city in global terms – there is noise and a changing landscape.

Castalia says the freight that currently flows out of Ports of Auckland would have to travel an extra distance to and from Northport of about 200km by rail and 150km by road. The additional freight task (approximately 400,000 twenty-foot container equivalent unit round trips between Auckland and Northport) will require additional transport infrastructure. On the possibly inaccurate assumption that 70 percent of the additional freight task was handled by rail, there would be more than 500 additional truck journeys per day travelling between Auckland and Northport for container traffic only, with more if the car import business uses the road network. This is just not feasible with the current road network between Auckland and Northport.

The freight task is increasing and the upper North Island is expected to account for most of New Zealand’s population and economic growth over the next 30 years. Ports of Auckland has a 30-year plan, which gives it the capacity to handle the expected freight increases.

On one hand you have an established business with a plan to match growth and on the other you have a pipe dream. The Government cannot sink billions of dollars into this without much better analysis than it currently has before it. New Zealand has to remember its place in the world and not price itself off the market on an act of sheer folly.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Evidence base means better buy-in for change

It’s good when government officials listen to industry. It means better policy and greater buy-in, if people feel they have some control over their own destiny.

It’s also good when policy, law, rules and regulations are shaped by robust evidence – it makes for credibility.

So, the Road Transport Forum (RTF) is working with Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) as it looks at developing a replacement for the Operator Rating System (ORS) that has been used by Transport Service Licence (TSL) holders to understand how the regulator views their performance around compliance. ORS formally commenced in 2004 and many questions raised about its fairness have been raised over the years **.

RTF has been involved in workshops with NZTA to talk about how the system could work best for all.

We believe carrot works better than stick when it comes to applying road safety regulations to the road freight transport industry.

Trucking companies want to see their drivers return to base safely after every journey, without incident, and with no negative impacts on the safety of other road users. We want a safety system for commercial heavy vehicle operators that is based on most people doing the right thing, but has the capacity to work with those who fall below an acceptable safety standard.

New Zealand is highly regulated and road freight transport is bound by various laws (Acts of Parliament), regulation and rules. Businesses work best when regulation allows for innovation and productivity and doesn’t hinder individual freedom. The regulatory environment in New Zealand is expensive and that means costs for the end consumers that may not compare favourably with overseas competitors.

We want to see a transparent, risk-based regulatory approach, backed by evidence. The evidence shows us for example, only seven percent of accidents are as a result of faulty machinery, while 93 percent have other causes, including driver behaviour. We wouldn’t want to see an over-emphasis on compliance around machinery and gear when we know focusing more on human behaviour and driver distraction would yield us much greater improvements in reducing accidents and incidents on our roads.

The big opportunity in reviewing the ORS is to examine the data held by NZTA, to ensure the emphasis is on the right place. The industry must have confidence in the data and its interpretation and therefore, any subsequent actions taken by the regulator.

Another opportunity arising from this process could be a co-operative compliance model where an industry master code of practice is developed in line with an ORS replacement. This could be practice and process advice to guide operators in meeting standards and achieving best practice to improve safety outcomes. Independent assessment would be a vital component of such a structure, as would regulatory oversight, and any incentive offerings for operators going beyond compliance and being able to demonstrate an improvement in safety outcomes – both individually and industry-wide.

The road freight companies who are committed to safety for their staff and service for their customers could use best practice as a selling point for their business, as more customers seek assurance around the ethics of their business partners. We believe however a new system looks, regulator recognition of better practices through incentives should be key.

An ORS replacement is about the development of a shared lens between the road freight industry and the regulator. The aim of that lens is to improve safety and ensure that regulation is fair, reasonable and effective for all parties.

Where an operator doesn’t meet the standards, and subsequently compromises safety not only of their own staff, but of other road users, we support the regulator taking the appropriate action.

The goal is to end up with fewer accidents and incidents based on good operator performance, safer roads for everyone, and a regulatory environment that allows businesses to do what they do best.

We are committed to engaging in that process.

–  Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

** It’s important for operators to note, while the ORS has been suspended, NZTA continues to collect data on all TSL holders and is using its own internal assessment tools to judge compliance and take appropriate actions.

Water policy will hurt us all

A strong New Zealand economy relies on a healthy primary sector. If the farmers and growers who produce our food and related primary products are doing well, that positively impacts the whole economy. That includes those in the road freight business of moving those goods around New Zealand and to ports and airports for export, as well as all the goods down the track made from all those primary products.

Conversely, if farmers are feeling pain, that ripples far beyond the farm gate and will hurt us all – prices go up and jobs get scarce.

This Government’s ideologically driven environmental policies are costing and hurting farmers and growers who are not solely responsible for all New Zealand’s environmental ills. So last week, the Road Transport Forum joined about 17,500 others and submitted on the Action for healthy waterways – A discussion document on national direction for our essential freshwater.

Unlike the Government, we have been listening to farmers and growers, who are the customers of transport operators. And transport operators are concerned that if business dries up in rural and provincial communities, we are all going to be in trouble. This is why business and farmer confidence is so low – no business owner likes uncertainty and New Zealand’s competitors in export markets are clapping their hands as they watch our businesses get priced off the global market with expensive rules that don’t apply anywhere else.

This is not to say we are against changes to improve our environment. And while we are not experts in water, we very generally support the Government’s intent to improve water quality on the grounds of benefits to all New Zealanders.

However, we have an issue with the process this water reform is taking, the rapid timeframe, and the lack of robust economic analysis that has been applied to a policy direction that will have long-standing and detrimental impacts on our whole economy. It is on that basis we have submitted.

We contend that the Government has not considered how its proposals will affect whole communities and we believe that the trade-offs that will be needed will have to be well understood by all New Zealanders before proposed changes in land use practices are implemented.

We believe the Government has taken a very narrow focus and has not applied its own economic measure of the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, to fully explore the four capitals – natural, social, human, and financial and physical – collectively to this policy.

There’s a lot of environmental science, and a lot of talk of returning New Zealand waterways to a state that existed when there were hardly any people here, but not a lot of consideration of how the way of life for all New Zealanders will change when our food producers take such a massive hit – to the point they are saying they will no longer be able to produce food and they won’t be able to sell their land, losing all their equity.

In the documentation supporting this policy is it concerning to see this objective in the Draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management:

The objective of this National Policy Statement is to ensure that resources are managed in a way that prioritises:

first, the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems; and

second, the essential health needs of people; and

third, the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing, now and in the future.

This can only be interpreted as suggesting that the essential health needs of people are secondary to the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems, and that the wellbeing of communities is a distant third.

If this is the Government’s view, in order of priority, we suggest it is likely that the economic activity that keeps New Zealand operating will be seriously compromised, with untenable flow-on impacts in terms of employment, productivity, and community health and wellbeing across the rural, provincial and urban communities. This is pure “planet over people” ideology.

Regarding the process, we are not confident all 17,500-odd submissions will be read and considered. There is now no opportunity to have any further input. A small group selected by the Government will summarise the submissions and then it is straight to Cabinet for decision making.

We would like to see more breadth in the process that gives consideration to the social, human and financial impacts beyond the farm gate, region-by-region, with an over-arching analysis of economic impact to New Zealand as a whole.

A report released yesterday (Thursday 7 November) further illustrates our concerns about an ideological approach. Environment Commissioner Simon Upton said in his report, ‘huge’ gaps in data and knowledge leave an unclear picture of the state of our environment and whether it’s getting better or worse. He said this could be costing us in the form of poorly designed policies or irreversible damage.

“Further, the costs are not just environmental – they have real consequences for the economy, society and our wellbeing,” Upton says.

“We can’t make economically efficient or socially fair environmental rules if we can’t measure authoritatively what’s happening to the physical resource base on which our wellbeing ultimately depends.”

You can find our submission here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Wellingtonians mere pawns in Government games

I know that most of the country isn’t really that interested in what happens in the capital, but please indulge me for this one blog.

As somebody who lives and is passionate about the Wellington region, it makes me irate to see Wellingtonians and their transport issues become pawns in this Government’s ideological games.

It was disappointing this week that Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, did not force Julie-Anne Genter to release the infamous letter she sent to Phil Twyford on the Let’s Get Wellington Moving Project. Nevertheless, Minister Genter was compelled to disclose its contents and they were as bad as we all feared – she threatened the loss of Green Party support unless cycling lanes and a light rail were made priorities ahead of a second Mt Victoria tunnel. The result was a Let’s Get Wellington Moving plan that would do little to alleviate traffic congestion and delayed even turning a sod on the second Mt Victoria tunnel until 2029. Code for, it’s not actually going to be built as part of this plan.

Now, anyone who has spent anytime in Wellington knows that Mt Victoria and the Basin Reserve along with the inadequate 3-lane Terrace Tunnel are our biggest transport issues. They create bottlenecks that at busy times result in large parts of the city being locked up in congestion. Over the last 10-15 years these congestion issues have become so bad that the city really does have a transport crisis on its hands. A number of studies have confirmed that for a city of its size Wellington is one of the most congested in the world. What’s worse, is that needed roading improvements north in the form of Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway mean that more traffic will be coming into the Wellington CBD.

It has become so difficult to get across town at times that traffic is now having a measurable detrimental effect on the lives of Wellingtonians. Most people I know just refuse to go into the city on a Saturday morning, for example.

The reality is that you can add as many cycleways as you like but with the geography and weather that Wellington has, cycling will only ever take a tiny proportion of traffic off the road and will never be the primary form of transport for most Wellingtonians.

I am often accused of being anti-public transport for voicing the concerns I have regarding our road (as a a regular user of our trains to get to work, it’s simply not true). However, the last time I looked; buses also travelled on roads. Unfortunately, in Wellington the bus system is so fragile that it is actually contributing to the city’s congestion problems. The Let’s Get Wellington Moving project could have chosen to run with a project called Bus Priority, which would have meant more buses in dedicated lanes up and running within 18 months. Instead, they’ve lumbered the region and city with an unfunded, futuristic scheme that will sadly never got off the ground and make a real difference in moving freight and people around.

A fully-functioning public transport system, including a reliable bus network, that supplements private and commercial transport, requires transport corridors made up of multi-lane roads, the tunnels and flyovers to get around natural bottlenecks.

Focusing on those things rather than the folly of a pie-in-the-sky light rail project is what a responsible Government that respects the needs of Wellingtonians would do. Unfortunately, the anti-road brigade who are now occupying some parts of Government (but not all), are so fundamentally blinkered that there is little hope of genuine progress.

Finally, let me wish new Wellington Mayor Andy Foster the best of luck in his new role. It cannot be underestimated just what a difficult job he has to get agreement with our Government and sort through this mess.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Road trumps rail to meet customer demands

The 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, without fanfare, a couple of weeks ago. This is the first such study in five years and it’s a significant reminder of just how important road transport is to the New Zealand economy.

It’s important to get it straight up front, New Zealand’s freight network works best when there is a balance between rail and road. Each have their benefits, but as the stats show us, road freight is increasing its share because of the flexibility and reliability it offers in getting goods to market.

Most significantly from the report, the growth across the board in our freight task is large; up 18 percent in six years, from 236 million to 278.7 million tonnes per year. This demonstrates the growth New Zealand has enjoyed in our population and economy.

We are guessing that the absence of a trumpeted announcement on the release of the report is because changes to the proportional split across transport modes flies in the face of the rhetoric and indeed, the billions of dollars invested in rail by the Government. I’m talking about the increase in the amount of freight that road transport carries, versus that of rail.

In 2012, road transport was responsible for 215.6 million tonnes or 91 percent of freight movements and 70 percent of tonnes transported per kilometre. Despite a concerted anti-road campaign, and a Government elected in 2017 with an anti-road agenda, road freight’s proportion has increased in the recent study to nearly 93 percent of the freight task, and 75 percent when it comes to tonnes-per-kilometre.

Rail, on the other hand, has retreated from seven to six percent of freight movements. On a tonnes-per-kilometre basis, rail is down from 16 percent down to 12 percent of the freight task. The rationale given by the pro-rail authors of the report is that this drop is down to the Kaikoura earthquake, which knocked out rail in the upper South Island for a long time. But it also reflects a reduction in volume of rail-suitable commodities, such as coal.

Losing a rail line happens far more regularly than people might think. A section of rail line parallel to SH7, the main road linking Reefton and Greymouth, has been closed due to a slip. KiwiRail has been stopping the TranzAlpine at Arthur’s Pass and offering buses for people wanting to continue on to the West Coast. Freight deliveries of coal and milk have been transported by road, instead of rail. Media attention has focused on the corresponding road failure, rather than that of the rail. I guess because if rail fails, there are always other transport options.

The most significant reason for the swing towards road freight is improvement of truck payload efficiency – that means bigger trucks that carry more load, reducing the number of truck trips. Over the past six years, efficiency gains through the uptake of HPMV and 50 MAX have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution.

The growth in road freight makes the Government’s decisions to rob the National Land Transport Fund, using road user charges (RUCs) and fuel excise to artificially support rail projects, seem all the more short-sighted. This re-engineering of our transport system to satisfy ideology is not only costly, but flies in the face of economic reality. It is even more short-sighted to turn the tap off on new roads critical to the national freight task, such as the East-West Link, in order to put money into rail projects of dubious economic benefit.

Don’t get me wrong; we support asset renewal in rail as it’s badly overdue for this critical infrastructure. What we don’t support, is the Government continually selling that investment as a way to reduce “dangerous” truck movements on our roads. We also reject this investment in rail over new, safer roads. There should be investment in both road and rail infrastructure.

Roads are more flexible and immediate than rail will ever be. There are 93,000 kms of road in New Zealand and only 4,000 kms of rail track. That split isn’t changing and what’s more, the market is making its choice.

Fewer trucks on the road means fewer jobs, less economic activity and less money in the pockets of all New Zealanders. The National Freight Demand Study proves that people and businesses choose the transport mode that best suits their requirements. In the 21st century economy where timeliness and responsiveness is everything, more often than not, that is delivered via road.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Lack of investment in roads will cost us all

We continue to see evidence of the importance of roads in New Zealand. We have a geographically challenging country and the way we all connect to one another is via roads – 93,000 kilometres of them.

Last week, the 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, showing road transport is the major mode of travel for all our domestic and export food and goods, carrying about 93 percent of the total of 280 million tonnes moved during that period.

On a tonnes per kilometre basis, road transport has grown 16 percent between the 2014 and 2019 reports, while rail has dropped 17 percent. The official word in the report is that the drop in rail freight reflects the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake, and the reduction in coal traffic in 2017-18. I guess you have to grasp at excuses when the evidence doesn’t support the ideological direction of the Government. The contention of the RTF is that the improvement of truck payload efficiency is the real reason for the shift between rail and road. Over the past six years, HPMV and 50Max gains have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution, as new vehicles have replaced older, less efficient ones.

This picture, with the backdrop of a tightening economy, suggests the Government should be recognising the correlation between our roads and our way of life.

Sadly, this is not the case. While the Government has quite rightly focused on some aspects of road safety, they don’t seem to connect the importance of the roads themselves, to the safety of the people using them.

We are seeing this in the lowering of speed limits on main highways all around the country. In the South Island, residents are petitioning the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to scrap proposed lower speed limits on State Highway 6, from Nelson to Blenheim. NZTA cites accident numbers to say the road is unsafe and is proposing reducing the speed from 100 km/h to 80 km/h. If approved, the entire length of SH6 between the two towns, about 110 kilometres, would be not more than 80km/h at any point. NZTA says the “technical assessment of the state of the road” was the reason behind the proposed reduced speed limit.

This is also happening on State Highway 1, around Warkworth and Puhoi north of Auckland, where there is a proposal to reduce the speed limit from 100 km/h to 80 km/h, for 15 kilometres. This is our main state highway north out of our major city, Auckland.

And we are seeing road closures because of a lack of investment. The Manawatu-Taranaki-King Country regions are being significantly impacted by two state highways closed by slips – SH4 between Whanganui and Raetihi and SH43 between Mangaparo and Kururau Road, part of the Forgotten Highway. These road closures are of considerable concern to businesses and residents in these regions, who are facing long and expensive detours. People are losing money, daily. This is busy dairy and logging country and it’s a busy time of year. For years, locals on SH4 have been warning the road needed attention. Now, they are looking at a year, if not years of it being closed. There are school children on one side who cannot get to school on the other side of the slip. This doesn’t just affect this region. It has an impact on all of us when goods we rely on have to travel further to get to us. That means they cost more, at a time when household budgets have very little slack.

What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts – of our roads and subsequently, of our back pockets. Not fixing roads and lowering speed limits to accommodate not fixing roads will slow us down and cost us more. The Government says it’s nine minutes here, or seven minutes there, but it all adds up to a total journey. As the Nelson locals say, it also causes perverse behaviour. When people are slowed down, they do stupid things.

There’s ideology, not strategy at play. There is no big picture thinking – what is the total impact of dropping the speed limit to 80 km/h on 110 kilometres of road that is used to transport for example, valuable horticulture products to export markets? If two main roads are closed for a long period of time, what is the total impact to all New Zealanders of the additional business costs that generates?

While the Government would have people believe less trucks on the road is a good thing, it’s not. It’s less jobs. It’s less money in rural and provincial New Zealand. It’s decline not growth. It’s the inconvenience of not having what you want when you want it. It’s higher prices for essentials like food. And at the end of the day, it finally impacts those in the cities as well.

– 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

Road builders in la-la land

I am once again, disappointed – and dismayed – to find Wellington policy makers driving ahead with significant changes to critical infrastructure without fully understanding user needs.

This week, I found out that at this late stage of the Manawatū Tararua Highway build – the Manawatū Gorge replacement – the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) is proposing what was going to be a full four-lane piece of highway (two lanes each way) will reduce to two lanes at a pivotal point, for three kilometres.

This is at the steepest point and will slow down trucks using the road, create congestion, and impact safety.

Not only that, despite engagement with, and outright pleas from our industry, a Stock Effluent Dump Site (SED) has not been included within the scope of works – NZTA previously advised it was included – no land has been purchased for this, and it is off the table.

To rub salt in that wound, the NZTA has asked truck drivers to use an existing SED near Woodville, knowing it is not safe.

This defies logic and all the road safety rhetoric. Ridiculous statements from a safety review of the more recent design work which say that going to one lane for a short section “reduces the perception that the new road is a motorway” and is “more in keeping with a rural look and feel for the road, to better fit in with the character of the landscape” reflect that ideology, not fit-for-purpose design, is behind these changes.

Let’s be clear, this is a highway and first and foremost, it should be built properly, for purpose. It is a key east-west connection for the Lower North Island to get New Zealand’s food and primary products to market. First build the road. Then if someone wants to spend millions of dollars making it look pretty, go for it. But don’t make that part of the road building costs. For most of us, a drive through the New Zealand countryside is pretty enough.

A single lane each side at the road’s steepest point is an unnecessary design approach given the carriage way appears to be wide enough, as shown in this flyover. Most light vehicle users will be frustrated to be caught behind a truck when they find their passing opportunity evaporate in front of their eyes. This could well cause safety issues.

On the matter of stock effluent, it has been made clear to the NZTA that the existing Woodville SED is unsafe – as the photo above shows – because:

  • The turning space in and out of the facility has a concrete curb that the units have to drive over causing judder bar effects (these have been asked to be removed previously)
  • The fence separating the temporary exit is not consistent causing a narrowing toward the exit point (this has been advised previously)
  • The culvert on exit needs lengthening 2 -3 metres, as it does not allow 5-axle trailers the correct cut required to exit safely (this has been advised previously).

With no safe stock effluent dumping sites accessible before taking on the hill, effluent spillage all over the new road is likely. This may incur infringement notices, which will be heavily defended by our industry due to the deliberate oversight of this issue by NZTA.

I sometimes wonder if I’m in an alternate reality where the cost of living is of no relevance, food is unnecessary, and we are all walking and cycling in happy unison. But in the real world, I’ll keep asking for us to get this right first time – if the project is not funded correctly, it will slow down our economy and cause frustration to all drivers on that road.

The RTF is concerned that the current course of action will only see a mammoth cost in the years ahead when the under specification will have to be corrected. Our view is that NZTA needs to ask the Government to increase the construction budget to get this road built right – it is after all, the only new road build currently on the books.

Kiwis expect to see first-class infrastructure and high quality roading, given the increases in petrol tax and Road User Charges that they have had to endure.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum