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Labour backtracks on idealistic transport funding plans 

In brief

  • An OIA request revealed Labour was set to pour billions into transport with “emissions reductions” as top priority.
  • However, the Government  backtracked after the Opposition pointed out the priority in the plan was for bus lanes and cycleways over fixing potholes.
  • The Government said Cyclone Gabrielle had forced a rethink and reducing emissions is no longer the priority.

It’s all about priorities 

The Government released its Indicative strategic priorities engagement paper after an OIA request to do so. It isn’t a full-draft Government Policy Statement (GPS), but the 13-page document signals how the GPS coming later in 2023 will “likely” direct tens of billions of dollars from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF). The GPS is intended to guide transport investment decisions over the next decade.

The paper puts emissions reductions as a top priority for any transport related investment decisions. “Building back better” is also expressly mentioned with suggestions that adding bus or cycleways would be prioritised above routine road maintenance, which includes fixing potholes. It’s notable that at just under $2bn per year, there’s a suggestion that underfunding road maintenance had already made the damage from Cyclone Gabrielle worse.

The paper also says there’ll be a “high threshold” for any investment in transport that doesn’t reduce net emissions.

In a nod to co-governance, it states “authorities at all levels of the transport system have responsibilities to work in a way that is consistent with te Tiriti o Waitangi”. This will involve “building enduring partnerships with whānau, hapū and iwi, and national organisations, to reflect Māori aspirations in future transport initiatives.”

The paper further confirms the Government’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, as well as “congestion charging and other demand management tools”. The latter is a euphemism for strategies such as fuel taxes, toll fees, etc.

Five other priorities listed are safety, integrated freight, sustainable urban development, maintenance, and resilience.

Rubber meets road

National’s Simeon Brown called the paper’s proposals “radical and ideological” and has promised to rip up the plans and start again after the next election. Sensing discord with its Ardern-era plans, the Government backtracked within a day. Transport Minister Michael Woods says the current priorities were drafted last year, but Cyclone Gabrielle has prompted the Government to change tack towards an “emergency-style” plan.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Labour will reassess its “overarching focus” on “emissions reductions” (e.g. building cycleways) to one that is focused on “resilience” (e.g. fixing roads).

Observers see the move as a signal that Hipkins is attempting to differentiate himself from Ardern by pivoting away from the former PM’s far-left agenda. As with Three Waters, though, there is no indication from the Government on what it intends to do about its plans for partnership and co-governance.

How to pay for it all? 

Any fuel tax would be in addition to the current fuel taxes that have been temporarily suspended by the Government until 30 June 2023.

The Government has already signalled there’s less money in the coffers to fund new projects.

Considering the existing shortfalls in revenue, matched with the billions needed for cyclone recovery, commentators note it’s little wonder why Hipkins would want transport priorities brought in line with available funding.

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