Debate heats up over New Zealand’s transport future

Debate heats up over New Zealand’s transport future

In a growing debate about New Zealand’s transport future, Prime Minister John Key’s recent claim that building the Kapiti Expressway would create “about one thousand jobs” was slammed by youth climate change organisation Generation Zero, who said that this made the project a costly taxpayer subsidy of about $500,000 per job.

Key made the job claim one week ago at a visit to the site of the proposed expressway, also posting it on his public Facebook page.

Generation Zero spokesperson Louis Chambers:

Louis Chambers

“If the benefit-cost ratio is 0.2, that means we are only seeing $127 million of value for the $635 million spent. Mr Key’s best justification for wasting the remaining $508 million is that it will create 1,000 jobs, but at $508,000 per job, that’s a hefty price for New Zealand to pay.

“If the Government is building the Expressway to create jobs then we can think of much more sensible ways to do that.”

“Instead of creating temporary jobs to fund uneconomic motorways, the Government could increase its investment in decent public transport infrastructure.”

Right now, road congestion and public transport inadequacy in Auckland is reaching breaking point, and encouraging more people to get on the roads will add to the problem.

At the heart of this debate are changing transport trends in the 21st century. Professor Ralph Sims, an international contributor to the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is skeptical about the motorway: “I am not convinced that all other options have been fully considered given global trends towards lower car travel per year by younger people, increased use of light rail and encouraging cycling, walking for shorter journeys”.

In 2012, data from the Ministry of Transport’s household travel survey showed that vehicle kilometres travelled per capita has fallen by 7.8 percent in the five years from 2006 to 2011.

Central Regional Director, Jenny Chetwynd, from the consortium delivering the Kapiti Expressway, says the expressway will bring “a reduction in travel times and an increase in travel reliability to and from Kapiti district and the greater Wellington region”.

Chambers says: “The question isn’t whether there’ll be some minimum benefit from the project. The real question is whether the benefits are overwhelming enough to justify the massive investment of taxpayer money.”

Last October, a leaked report by engineering consultants BECA prepared for the New Zealand Transport Agency found the Expressway had a benefit-cost ratio of just 0.2. The report was commissioned as part of the NZTA’s legal case for resource consent, but was never submitted as evidence to the Board of Inquiry or released.

NZTA is forging on in spite of the criticisms. On March 18, the NZTA lodged a consent application with the Environmental Protection Authority to build the Peka Peka to Otaki section of the Kapiti Expressway – replacing the current SH1 north of Waikanae.

Not only do Generation Zero contest the benefits of the project, they say it is also unnecessary. In documents obtained under the Official Information Act, a NZTA official stated that, “there is not a congestion problem between Palmerston North and Waikanae”.

Chambers: “I’m surprised the Government is willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money, supposedly to relieve congestion and support economic growth, when their own agency claims that a congestion problem doesn’t exist.”

The dubious economic case has some questioning the roads of national significance programme more generally. The Kapiti Expressway is part of the Northern Corridor, one of seven roads of national significance. Dr Michael Pickford, a former chief economist at the Commerce Commission, warns that, “After the unhappy experience with the Muldoon-Birch ‘Think Big’ energy projects of the 1980s, New Zealand could be burdened with massive new debt to fund the Key-Joyce ‘Think Big’ roading projects of equally dubious merit.”

Professor Sims says that the transport mix is changing: “There’ll always be a demand for cars for long distance but I think more people will change to public transport, cycling, walking modes for short journeys.”

Local councils agree. The Auckland Council plans to build the Auckland City Rail Link, Christchurch has just committed $69 million to building Copenhagen-style cycleways, and the Dunedin City Council is investing in a strategic cycle network.

Generation Zero points to studies from the US showing that public transport creates more jobs per dollar invested than motorways. In one study of American stimulus spending, the authors found that investing in public transport created two times as many jobs as investing in highway infrastructure programs.

Chambers says: “The Government likes to say it doesn’t pick winners with its economic policy, but that’s exactly what they’re doing with their road-building agenda. It’s time the Government started investing in durable jobs in low-carbon sectors, which will be the real winners for New Zealand in the long-term.”