Driving around Auckland the other day, I saw that one of the candidates for the Auckland mayoralty is promising to sack the board of Auckland Transport. He’s got my vote was my immediate reaction!
Of course, I know that the performance of Auckland Transport is not the only important issue in this local body election, but for me it is arguably the most important single issue. Why? Because it is an enormously large organisation, wielding a budget of billions of dollars, which gives every impression that it is intent on behaving in ways which show not the slightest interest in the wellbeing of most Aucklanders.
At the end of May, Andrew Bayly, the Member of Parliament for the Hunua electorate, had an article in the New Zealand Herald lambasting Auckland Transport for “playing havoc with our rural roads”, proposing to drastically reduce the speed limit on 251 roads in his electorate, narrowing roads in new subdivisions to the point where “emergency services dislike them because they can’t get fire trucks down them”, and refusing to allow him or even the Franklin Local Board to see the submissions commenting on the speed limit proposals.
On the same day that the Herald published Andrew Bayly’s letter, a group of us, led by well-known car safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson, issued a public statement calling on the Government to institute a full public inquiry into the conduct and practices of Auckland Transport and the various organisations which interact with it, including NZTA, Auckland Council, MRGagney and lobby group Greater Auckland. The group went further and said that Auckland Transport’s current powers should be suspended immediately, and that an independent commissioner should be appointed to supervise Auckland Transport’s activities until the full public inquiry is concluded.
Four things prompted me to back this demand.
First was Auckland Transport’s quite extraordinary proposal to drastically reduce speed limits throughout the city – to 30 kph in the entire central business district and to 60 or 80 kph on most rural roads within Greater Auckland, much of it rural. Yes, I can see some grounds for reducing the speed limit to 30 kph in very congested streets such as Queen Street, but 30 kph is a ridiculous speed limit for, for example, Nelson Street and Hobson Street, and 60 kph is a ridiculous speed limit for most rural roads.
Mike Lee, an Auckland Councillor and himself a former director of Auckland Transport, asked Auckland Transport to explain their speed limit proposals but they failed to supply any relevant information on three occasions. Eventually, Mr Lee complained to the Ombudsman and while Auckland Transport eventually did provide an answer, it was grossly misleading.
The second example of Auckland Transport’s total indifference to the public interest was their recent decision to narrow Quay Street from four lanes to two. Quay Street is one of Auckland’s main east-west thoroughfares, used by a huge volume of cars, trucks and buses every day. It was congested even before Auckland Transport decided to drastically narrow it. I have been told that Auckland Transport hoped to drive traffic off Quay Street onto Commerce Street. That may or may not make sense in the long-term, but it certainly makes no sense at all at the moment when Commerce Street itself is jammed up with the construction of the CRL. Those who use Quay Street are paying the price for Auckland Transport’s arrogance in wasted time. The environment pays a price too, in the fumes from thousands of barely-moving vehicles.
Third was Auckland Transport’s advocacy for a tram system from Britomart to the airport. The construction of this so-called light rail system would be enormously expensive in dollars and enormously disruptive for all the businesses down Dominion Road for years as the system was built. And this in a situation where it is entirely unclear why people would use such a tram to get to and from the airport; where there is already an excellent bus system which is dedicated specifically to taking people and their luggage from Britomart to the airport, along both Dominion and Mt Eden Roads; and where a far less disruptive rail option exists by extending heavy rail the relatively short distance from the Puhinui station to the airport.
And fourth, Auckland Transport appears to be totally indifferent to the views of Aucklanders: they build expensive and often substantially unused cycleways at a cost not only in dollars but in extreme inconvenience to the retailers whose businesses are disrupted, and in some cases destroyed; they seem to delight in the lack of responsiveness of traffic lights to the flow of traffic; they have shown a total lack of sympathy to the devastating impact of the construction of the CRL on the businesses in Albert Street; they refuse to engage with local communities desperately concerned with the impact of Auckland Transport’s high-handed decision-making (think St Heliers, and the refusal of anybody from Auckland Transport to attend a public meeting of 600 people on “safety grounds”); they add e-scooters to footpaths, apparently indifferent to the safety of pedestrians; they place bus lanes in some places where they seem designed only to increase congestion, as in the one-block-long bus lane on Hobson Street directly opposite where the new convention centre is being built; one could go on.
The attitude of Auckland Transport was visible for all to see when one of their senior policy managers was interviewed by the National Business Review recently. He said that Auckland Transport liked events like the America’s Cup because they enabled Auckland Transport to get away with doing things that the Auckland public would never tolerate under ordinary circumstances.
Dr Don Brash is an economist and former Member of Parliament. He served as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand from 1988 to 2002.