Can National get off the road to nowhere?

A major infrastructure announcement by the National Party slated to take place today needs to defy stereotypes about what they are all about.

(Editor's note: The National Party has postponed this announcement following the resignation of leader Todd Muller, which occurred after this piece was written and published)

COMMENT: It didn't take a genius to realise that a major infrastructure announcement down south by the National Party would turn out to be a road of some kind. 

Turns out that wasn't just any road, but a 60km, $1.5 billion, four-lane state highway that will likely carry fewer cars per day than some single-lane roads in Auckland. 

We have the third-highest car ownership rate in the world so roads are usually a popular election promise. Especially in lower density towns and provinces where they're the only practical way to move freight and people. 

However, with a growing awareness of climate change and concerns in our urban centres around congestion, it is becoming increasingly apparent that roads will not be a popular election promise everywhere.

Along with high car ownership we are also one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with over 86 percent of our population living in urban areas. A big chunk of these areas are represented by National Party MPs and there is a growing awareness in all of these centres that roads alone will not cut it. 

And the place where they're likely to be the least popular is in the "upper North Island" - Auckland - where it would be a waste of valuable land to build roads without adding any extra public transport capacity. 

It's not just in Auckland though. Talk to the Mayors of Hamilton and Tauranga - places you didn't used to be able to win a local body election without shouting out slogans from a ute about free parking in the CBD - and they don't bite your ear off about new roading projects, but about how their cities might be be able to squeeze the Government for a new mass transit system.

And there has been change in the air within the National Party as well. The party of roads has been increasingly keen to be seen as the party of both. On Tuesday we'll see how far National MPs like Chris Bishop have been able to drag the party towards a more public transport and rail-focused outlook. 

It comes at a time when a rare opening has emerged for the party to surprise voters and those who would never have considered voting for them.

For starters, this election may be one where it can still be seen as pro-rail and pro-public transport without supporting Auckland light rail.

At the moment only the Greens support light rail the way it was sold to voters back in 2017. Labour has backed away from that streetcar idea and pivoted to light metro. While it might have merit, the latter looks like it will take much longer to put in place than a streetcar system.

Privately, some public transport advocates have been getting increasingly nervous about the whole concept. They're sold on the technology and the need, but sceptical about whether this country can pull it off.

An interim rapid bus solution might be better than nothing. Same too for trackless trams (basically a long expensive bus that looks like a light rail street car). 

Scarred by light rail failure, Aucklanders concerned about transport might be willing to take a punt on a less-than-perfect new public transport system that carries a 100 percent possibility of being implemented now rather than a gold-plated one that is touch-and-go.

None of this stuff will be cheap. Providing a balanced transport system might sound like a reasonable thing to do, but it is expensive to build both roads and public transport at the same time (one of the financial benefits of public transport is that it often allows you to stretch out the use of your existing roading assets for longer). 

That's why governments have often made trade-offs. When National was in power it kept the purse strings tight and pushed NZTA to spend on roading projects out of its National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) - funded through fuel taxes rather than general taxation.

A key detail to look for in Tuesday's announcement is whether these projects are being funded off the Crown balance sheet or by NZTA.

The NZTA board has a lot of discretion over the use of this fund and requires business cases to stack up before the funding can be approved, but the Government can set broad priorities for it. 

However, this fund will be more stretched than ever in the years to come. It will have less money to spend thanks to better fuel efficiency and the rapid uptake of electric vehicles.

Many a pet transport project has crashed on the rocks of that NZTA business case requirement. The second harbour crossing is one example of a project the previous National government was keen on, but its reported $10b cost saw NZTA try to defer having to consider spending NLTF money on it.

Todd Muller said the party's infrastructure offering this election would be the largest in this country's history, but a more expensive package will not fix the party's image when it comes to transport. It needs to help the party defy its current image too.

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