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Constant policy changes not working for transport

Constant policy changes not working for transport

Road Transport Forum News

 May 2019    RTF News

Just before Christmas, Associate Transport Minister Julie-Ann Genter announced a $1.4billion, three-year programme of investment in safety improvements to existing roads.

The funding will provide 900 kilometres of existing state highways with safety improvement infrastructure such as median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening, as well as contributing to an expanded investment in local road safety improvements.

Of course, such an investment in safety is welcome and I truly hope that it contributes to making significant parts of our roading network safer. However, the funding is also reflective of a broader change in direction from this government when it comes to the provision of transport infrastructure – and this is where I believe this country needs to rethink things.

The problem is that when it comes to infrastructure – and this goes beyond just transport infrastructure – investments are made for the long term....50 to 100 years ahead in many cases.

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Just before Christmas, Associate Transport Minister Julie-Ann Genter announced a $1.4billion, three-year programme of investment in safety improvements to existing roads.
The funding will provide 900 kilometres of existing state highways with safety improvement infrastructure such as median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening, as well as contributing to an expanded investment in local road safety improvements.
Of course, such an investment in safety is welcome and I truly hope that it contributes to making significant parts of our roading network safer. However, the funding is also reflective of a broader change in direction from this government when it comes to the provision of transport infrastructure – and this is where I believe this country needs to rethink things.
The problem is that when it comes to infrastructure – and this goes beyond just transport infrastructure – investments are made for the long term....50 to 100 years ahead in many cases.
Very often the politicians who make these investment decisions aren't around when the projects are realised – and, unless they have the longevity of Winston Peters, won't be around to see their true benefits either.
This reality leads to short-termism. The three-year election cycle, the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle, making sure you keep party activists happy, or even just the need to differentiate yourself from your opponents, are all in the front of the minds of the politicians making these decisions….and to me that is where the problem lies.
The last government invested considerably in new, modern highways as its flagship transport projects, but the current government has made a political point in pivoting 180 degrees away from that programme – and has now set off on its own programme, with its own political agenda and vision for the future.
I stated on radio recently that I believe New Zealand is too wealthy a country to have to face binary choices of new, productive roading projects or road safety. This is what happens when ideology trumps practical, need-based decisions.
The additional median barriers, shoulder widening and greater proliferation of rumble strips are useful improvements on existing routes, and will certainly help in some areas. But this latest investment does not exactly align with progress that the previous government made in building new, modern highways.
Now this is not intended to be a commentary on one government's decisions over another's, but it is pretty disappointing that we as taxpayers and RUC-payers watch millions and millions of our dollars being wasted as governments come and go…and projects that are well through their planning stages are mothballed in favour of others that are favoured by the incoming administration.
You could pretty successfully argue that the current government's new policy direction seems to be designed, at least in part, to make sure it directly contradicts the policies of its predecessor.
Genter and Transport Minister Twyford would, of course, argue otherwise and point to the fact that all their decisions are based on empirical evidence. But the last guys said that too and, as we know, in this day and age evidence can be found to support whatever policy direction you wish to take.
However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Recently it's been announced that the Government is to establish a NZ Infrastructure Commission as an autonomous Crown entity.
The Commission is being set up to carry out two broad functions – strategy and planning, and procurement and delivery support.
In announcing the new entity, Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones made all the right noises when it comes to longterm infrastructure planning: "The new Commission will help ensure we are making the best decisions about infrastructure investment to improve the longterm economic performance and social wellbeing of our country," Jones said.
"The Commission will develop a broad consensus on longterm strategy, enable coordination of infrastructure planning and provide advice and best-practice support to infrastructure initiatives.
"We want the Commission to be a well-respected public voice that has credibility among the private and public sector and helps integrate across our entire infrastructure system," Jones added.
"A short-term, project-specific focus by previous governments, along with under-investment, means that NZ is now facing an unprecedented infrastructure deficit that this Government is committed to tackling."
While everything Jones said is true – and I'm sure the Government has the noblest of intentions when it comes to this new Commission – it's hard to get too excited about it.
Its closest relative is the NZ Productivity Commission, which was established in 2011 to provide advice on how government policy can help to improve national productivity.
The Productivity Commission started off with a hiss and a roar but, as time went on, even the government that set it up seemed to deviate further and further from its recommendations, as political considerations trumped the Commission's advice.
Now that the government has changed and policy emphasis has moved away from economic productivity, the Commission most certainly has the feeling of a toothless tiger.
Unless the new Commission can truly cut through the politics of the day and redefine infrastructure planning policy as a consistent, coordinated, non-political part of government, I fear that the entrenched partisanship of our major political parties will continue to hold us back from developing a truly modern, fit-for-purpose transport network.
Legislation establishing the new Infrastructure Commission is expected to be introduced into Parliament in the very near future, and it should be operational later this year, so I guess the best we can do at this stage is just watch this space and hope for the best.
The fact is that major infrastructure improvements require consistency of investment and planning that we're just not getting from our current political leadership.
A far-sighted and mode-balanced plan for transport should be the goal – and one that is either bought-into by all sides of the political spectrum or is largely removed from the turbulence of politics by the likes of the NZ Infrastructure Commission.
The costs are too great if we don't plan and responsibly implement the infrastructure improvements that safely support our increasing population and growing economy.


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