Week in Review

Who rules the road? Fact-checking Ardern vs Bridges

Simon Bridges accuses Jacinda Ardern of stealing National's road projects and putting a Labour sticker on them. Ardern says they've been redesigned for buses and bikes. Dileepa Fonseka umpires on who is: 'The Party of Infrastructure'.

Politicians love to claim credit for spending big licks of taxpayer money on concrete projects they can open in a high viz jacket and a hard hat. In a world of endless meetings, emails, news conferences and social media pile-ons, there's nothing more real and apparently useful as a brand new road smelling of black tar and ready to carve many minutes off the regular voters' daily school run or commute.

It is the televisual photo-op equivalent of black gold.   

It's especially important in an election year battle to be the 'Party of Infrastructure'. National Leader Simon Bridges attacked Labour in late 2019 for failing to build many KiwiBuild houses or getting its Auckland Light Rail project started in Jacinda Ardern's 'Year of Delivery.' Riffing on the popularity in the provinces of National's Roads of National Significance (RONS) built from 2009 to 2017, the former Transport Minister promised a National Government would again be the 'Party of Infrastructure'.

But last week's announcement by the Labour-led Government of $6.8 billion of road and rail projects has taken a key election attack plank away from National, using what appear at first glance to be planks National had carved and shaved when in Government. The projects include at least four of the big provincial roads that National had promoted in 2017 as something they'd do in government. Jacinda Ardern denied the claim that Labour had 'stolen National's roads', saying they had all been redesigned and 'future-proofed' for 'mode shift' to buses, trains and cycling. 

So who's right?

But were all the projects as ready-to-go as National claims, or were they unfunded?

Under the Labour coalition a new Government Policy Statement (GPS) on transport (a document used to direct transport funding) gave greater priority to public transport spending when it was released in 2018. The projects were promoted by National, but had yet to get the formal green light under the New Zealand Transport Authority's (NZTA) official project list funded from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF), which is built up from fuel and road user levies.

The acronyms work like this: the GPS is set every three years and directs the NZTA to use the NLTF to build SHs (State Highways) and help subsidise PT (Public Transport). Under National, the NLTF was used to build big new motorways like the Waikato Expressway and wasn't used to build railways or rail stations. Labour and New Zealand First, with the help of the Greens, changed the GPS in early 2018 to spend a much higher proportion of the NLTF on trains, buses and road safety improvements. A GPS passed under a National government is unlikely to have had this focus, which would have left more money in the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) for State Highways.

That meant a lot of the motorway projects talked about by National were put on hold. They may have been under investigation, but they didn't have funding set aside for construction. However, the Opposition said they would have green-lighted them in government and ran high profile campaigns through 2018 and 2019 to get the projects going again, including with petitions to Parliament.

Tauranga Northern Link

Tauranga’s Northern Link (TNL) is the highway where National has the strongest case for what it claims: that it had a suite of ready-to-go roading projects that were paused when certain funding criteria were changed to better favour public transport.

TNL was set to be funded by the NLTF with funds approved at a NZTA board meeting on April 2016: “Approved funding for implementation of the Tauranga Northern Link at an estimated cost of $286 million (including property and escalation), with a planned construction start in 2018”. 

The project had been consented and requests for registrations of interest to work on the project were sent out on August 2017, but by 2018, under the new coalition Government, the project had been paused due to new public transport-focused funding priorities.

But almost double that amount, $478 million, was put forward last Wednesday as part of the Government’s $12b infrastructure package, backing up claims by Labour and the Greens that the money set aside by National in its original budget wasn’t enough and hadn’t accounted for construction inflation.

Announcing the new infrastructure investment on Wednesday, the Government alleged the new Northern Link was also different from the earlier version pushed through under National. NZTA would also explore options to dedicate two of TNL’s four lanes to public transport and road freight exclusively. Walking and cycling lanes will also be added in.

But industry and other sources have said this is unlikely to be a substantially different project or require a major redesign of the original plans. They have also questioned if public transport will prove feasible once it is investigated. There will still be four-lanes, as originally proposed, and wide margins on either side of the road set aside in the original plans look likely to be tweaked to incorporate a walkway and cycleway.

In this case the 2018 pause does seem to have affected the timeline of the project. Further evidence of that can be seen in the short lead-in proposed by the Government for the project. Having announced its projects in January it is expecting to be able to tender for the project by the middle of the year.

The conclusion: National has this one mostly. The project was consented and funded by National. Labour added cycling, walking and busing options, which some might see as a new lick of (green) paint on the same old concrete. Let's say 2-1 to National.

Mill Road

During National’s time in office, Mill Road was an Auckland Transport (AT) project with 51 percent of funding to be provided by NZTA through the NLTF. 

In an update to the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) under National, it was identified as a candidate for accelerated investment and the southern section was singled out as needing to be completed in the first decade of the project. But the recommendation makes it clear that accelerated funding would still be subject to a business case.

National also explicitly campaigned at the last election on taking over the project from AT and bringing the construction of the southern section of Mill Rd forward. 

But it hadn’t taken over the project from AT before the election so its pledge to push forward the road by fully funding it was not in place. 

A later version of ATAP, under the Labour-led Government and Auckland Council, pushed construction of that southern section into the second decade, a different outcome to what would likely have happened if the election had gone another way, if you take National at their word.

In 2017 ATAP identified Mill Rd’s BCR as 3.6 to 3.7, but for the latest version of the project proposed changes to NZTA’s discount rate, and cost updates to the project, could change that. 

The conclusion: Given the election pledge to build it, this is National's, but the project wasn't automatically in line for full funding from the NLTF and it also has been changed to be more cycling and bus friendly. Let's call this a draw at 2-2. So it's 4-3 to National so far.

Penlink

Penlink is a similar story. That too was an Auckland Transport project originally consented (but not funded) as two lanes, but later envisioned as four.

A two-lane toll road was assessed as having a BCR of 12, higher than the BCR for four-lanes. That analysis was done by Auckland Transport in 2016 and in political discussions since then the ideas that have been floated has normally involved a toll or a public-private partnership of some description. 

In 2017 the Auckland Chamber of Commerce campaigned for NZTA to take the project over and turn it into a State Highway, which would speed up its construction. 

After Labour was elected, Auckland Transport revised the plan for Penlink as a two-lane tolled highway to be constructed towards the tail-end of the decade and funded by the Regional Fuel Tax. But this two-lane scenario was also one hinted at by NZTA in 2017 when National was in power as a prerequisite for a government takeover of the local roading project. 

So while Penlink remained in the hands of AT while National was in government, Wednesday’s announcement is the first time full government funding has been given to the project. 

The conclusion: National can't claim Penlink as their own project, but Labour can't say it's all their own either. The Government can claim credit for being the first to give it the green light. Let's call this one for Labour, just. This one is 2-1 for Labour. So the score at half time is Labour and National neck and neck at 5-5.

Whangārei to Port Marsden

Simon Bridges has said an investment programme for a 22km four-lane highway from Whangārei to Port Marsden was approved under his watch as Transport Minister.

He has pointed to a briefing paper where an investment in 2017 that refers to an announcement of funding for the project and a decision to go ahead with it. But no construction funds were actually approved, and none could have been approved.

A month out from the election NZTA was still consulting Northland locals on options for the highway project, so it likely would have taken a number of years for design plans to be finalised and a construction budget to be set aside.

The timeline proposed by the Government for its investment is also longer than for other projects like the Tauranga Northern Link where plans were clearly already well advanced before Labour came to power.

On the Government's proposed timeline a construction contract will only be tendered in two years time with two years of planning and design required to bring the project up to a stage where it can be built.

The conclusion: National has a weak claim to own this one. Labour's green light is much brighter than the orange light National was sitting on. Labour wins this one 2-1. Now the score is Labour leading 7-6.

Ōtaki to north of Levin

National MPs have managed to whip up a fair amount of anti-government sentiment over the fate of Wellington's roading projects especially when it comes to the city's various tunnel projects. 

Ōtaki to north of Levin is a Wellington roading idea that goes as far back as 2008, when it was promoted as part of the Wellington Northern Corridor, one of National's Roads of National Significance(RoNs).

But as Stuff reported in 2012, while National were in power, NZTA actually abandoned the four-lane Ōtaki to Levin project because traffic modelling demonstrated that section of the motorway wasn't as prone to congestion as other parts of it were.

Population growth and the completion of other highway projects had caused NZTA to re-examine the idea in 2016, but timelines attached to consultations for the project show options weren't expected to come before the NZTA board until 2018. 

And a business case from 2018 estimated its BCR as ranging from 0.22 to 0.37, largely driven by the smaller number of people using that section of road compared to other parts of the Northern corridor.

Labour, meanwhile, have approved $817m for its construction. 

The conclusion: This is Labour's clearly, but not completely. National was still waiting on a business case for this project at the last election despite it's heavy pre-and-post-election promotion, and had abandoned the idea in 2012. This is 2-1 to Labour. Now the score is 9-7 to Labour.

Melling Interchange

Progress on the Melling interchange was promised by Bill English during the 2017 general election campaign with funds to come out of the National Land Transport Fund.

But no construction funds had been allocated to it before the election, design work for it started in 2017 and community feedback continued under the new Government in 2018. 

Under Labour the interchange was also approved as consistent with the 2018 GPS, but because its funding was drawn out of the NLTF, which was oversubscribed, it was found there would not be enough money for the project until 2028. 

With a commitment to building the interchange, and the likelihood of different GPS priorities, the Melling Interchange would have been funded before 2028 under National. 

Overall the project hasn't been delayed significantly now that funding has been given the go-ahead, but the lack of a delay is largely down to local opposition lead by National MP Chris Bishop, and local government figures in Lower Hutt.

The conclusion: This is the cleanest of the wins for National and local MP Chris Bishop in particular. But there are caveats on that win. Labour initially froze it and have now defrosted it with a bit of red and green colouring to make the mix look and taste better. So this is 2-1 to National.

The final score: There's no knockout winner, but Labour just edges it at 10-9.

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