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

 

Rhetoric rather than action on fuel costs

Last week, we saw the Prime Minister accusing petrol companies of fleecing New Zealanders. She came out all guns blazing, but then said those of us being fleeced will just have to wait for a solution.

The report she was so incensed about was after all, just a draft. She will have to wait for the final report from the Commerce Commission into the retail fuel sector, due in December this year, before deciding what to actually do. Cynics might say slashing petrol prices as part of an election campaign could be the action taken. The Government is certainly taking enough in tax at the pump to make a price cut.

The strident prose from the Prime Minister fell a bit flat when she had no action plan to back it up. She broke about every rule of politics, management, communications, and making an announcement, by having nothing to really announce after blowing up a situation into a “really big thing”.

She’s left a void of five or six months where people will continue to be “fleeced at the pump”. If the situation was so dire, she’s the Prime Minister, she could have announced some immediate actions. Instead she promised the Government would “make a difference at the pump”, but couldn’t say when that might be, or what that might be.

So, for most people, life goes on trying to make ends meet and worrying about the increasing cost of living in an economy that no one has much confidence in.

This is all part of the confusing messaging we continue to get from this Government when it comes to roads, cars, trucks and the use of fossil fuels. One minute they are saying there is no money for roads; they are ending all support for fossil fuel industries in New Zealand, including exploration; and telling us fossil-fuelled vehicles are ruining the planet. The next minute they are the defenders of users of fossil-fuelled vehicles, ignoring the fact that the biggest fuel cost is the taxes they have imposed to further incentivise people to move away from such vehicles.

They have once again shown they are anti-business and do not understand basic economics, it is no wonder business confidence is so low.

The above graph from the Market study into the retail fuel sector Draft report (page 24) shows taxes at about $0.97 per litre on 91 Octane. The importer costs, about $0.83 per litre, are the costs of importing fuel to New Zealand. Importer margins, about $0.34 per litre, represent the gross margin available to fuel importers to cover domestic transportation, distribution and retailing costs in New Zealand, as well as profit margins. So that $0.34 per litre is not profit.

When you put the $0.97 per litre tax, which goes into the Government coffers, against the $0.34 per litre that is not profit, but the gross margin available to fuel importers, who is doing the fleecing becomes a bit blurred.

The tax take is made up of fuel excise, ACC levies, Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) levy, and the Auckland regional fuel tax; mostly fuel excise and Auckland regional fuel tax which is supposed to be spent on roads. Our industry is concerned that tax take isn’t being put back into roads, which are deteriorating badly.

As trucks will be reliant on fossil fuels for some time, until someone comes up with a viable mass-market alternative, we are also concerned this Government runs the risk of running the oil companies out of town by failing to understand they are commercial businesses that need to make profits, not benevolent societies.

If this Government really wants to make a difference at the pump, they may want to consider their high tax take on fuel and their role in creating a competitive wholesale market before they criticise the fuel companies.

And they need to be clear on their messaging and make announcements that are actually about doing something, not just more talk and blaming the previous Government for everything.

–  Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

The story behind the headline statistics

There’s an old adage: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

As this Government continues to push a negative narrative around trucks and roads, favouring its investment in rail, public transport and cycle ways, we are seeing a lot of statistics being thrown around.

The Road to Zero consultation on road safety, released this week, is a bit of a case study.

In Focus Area 3, Work-related road safety, firstly, it says: While trucks are not involved in significantly more crashes/km than other types of vehicles, these crashes are far more likely to be fatal, accounting for over 20 percent of road deaths. This is a highlighted statistic.

There are no details such as, who was at fault? What caused the crash? If a car crosses the centre line and crashes into a truck, sheer physics tells you the car will come off second best. But this does not mean the truck driver was at fault. Also, that leaves another 80 percent of road deaths caused by something else.

The discussion document goes on to say: We need to improve our understanding of the size of the challenge. To properly address the problem of work-related road safety, we need to clearly understand it. While we can piece together data from a range of sources to get an understanding of the total level of harm, we do not currently have the full picture of the key risks at play and harms that are occurring. Improving this data will help us to better target our efforts on work-related road safety, giving us a better understanding of the causes of work-related crashes, the types of vehicles involved, and the industries and sectors that have the highest levels of harm. There are also opportunities to work with the private sector to better share and coordinate work-related road safety information.

We agree with this. Let’s look at all the data before throwing stones. Let’s get the full picture behind the headline statistics.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where the headline wins and no one cares about the rest of the story.

Another case in point happened last week (12 July), with Justice Minister Andrew Little quoted as saying professional drivers who kill on New Zealand roads should be held to a higher legal standard of accountability than other road users. This is despite there being three existing laws that already allow this. The Road Transport Forum (RTF) has asked Minister Little to provide evidence to back his opinion.

While the Government stresses its focus on road safety, it rejects investment in quality roads. It’s not just truck drivers pointing out the poor design of some roads, and the dangerous deterioration of others.

The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council says New Zealand is at an “infrastructure crisis point” and advocates for the 12 roading projects presently on hold or under review to proceed, possibly with private investment. But the Transport Minister Phil Twyford says that would be “really bad policy”. He says none of those roads would have enough traffic on them to pay for them. By that count, the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which had a 0.8 benefit/cost ratio, would never have been built.

This Government’s approach to road safety can be confusing and conflicting. It seems to be captured by the “climate emergency” agenda and a desire to get any fossil-fuelled vehicles off the roads. That’s all very well if you live in the centre of a big city and have choice. But it takes choice away from those of us who live in the suburbs, provinces and rural New Zealand and those who drive the economy by getting the exports we rely on to survive, to market.

The full suite of transport modes that don’t rely on fossil-fuels simply do not exist. And it remains to be quantified just what it will cost to run everything on electricity, and if there is even the capacity in New Zealand.

The Road to Zero name is in itself, confusing. Zero implies none, yet the strategy aims to cut road deaths by 40 percent in the next decade. This is a laudable goal and the RTF will be making a submission.

Discussion doesn’t mean we don’t fully support a road safety plan that reduces deaths and harm. It means we want to hold this Government to account on its road safety promises.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum