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Keith Rankin: Auckland Traffic And The Public Good

New Zealanders are at their worst when they are "provincial", using the pejorative sense of that word. First there was that irritating minder of Peter Jackson at the Bafta awards who had to spoil the moment by saying "Up the Mainland" or something to that effect. And then, the moment the government decided to raise a modest new tax to fund, among other things, some solutions to Auckland's transport problem, the people of the Middle Island (as it was called in Thomas Bracken's day) cry foul. Auckland is a parasite, they insinuate. Auckland's problems are not our problems, they say. They will happily sink the other end of the waka (Aotearoa) that they live on.

To be a province is to be a part of a whole. To nurture the whole, we must nurture each part. Yes, even Auckland needs a bit of tender loving care.

The alternative is that each province has its own Treasury, raises its own taxes, fully funds its own education, health, defence and welfare bureaucracies. Surely we saw enough of the regional health authorities in the 1990s to know that provincial economic autonomy involves wasteful duplication?

Auckland contributes as best it can to the prosperity of the nation. It produces more than its share of gross domestic product. With a decent transport system, Auckland would contribute even more to New Zealand.

Auckland's past failure re transport is partly the fault of dithering and disagreement by Aucklanders. (The worst decision was to shift the rail terminus from Queen Street to Beach Street in the 1920s.) But it's not clear that a group of non-Aucklanders would have done any better. It wasn't Aucklanders who removed Wellington's trams.

In the 1980s, the national priority in capital formation was to build financial centres in Queen Street and Featherston Street. (Remember, we were going to be the Switzerland of the Pacific.) Public capital formation was not at all fashionable. These priorities came from Wellington, although it must be conceded that Roger Douglas came from Manukau City and Don Brash twice stood for Parliament in North Harbour.

Much of the problem arises from Auckland's unique geography. The container port - New Zealand's largest - is (unusually) in the heart of the city. The harbour bridge created a residential super-suburb of people who work, to a large extent, not in central Auckland but on the opposite side of central Auckland. The lack of investment in rail infrastructure at the port and to the north (especially in the critical 1960s) was in line with national priorities. New Zealand Rail was a government department.

So the Auckland CBD became New Zealand's biggest traffic roundabout. Much of the traffic on that roundabout are big trucks, either serving the port, or crossing from North to South, or East to West. So Aucklanders came to avoid the central business district, leaving it to tourists and stockbrokers. So Aucklanders increasingly made the kinds of journeys that can only be made by car. Even bicycles are no option. Aucklanders value their lives.

The solution has to be pragmatic, has to recognise the realities of Auckland as Auckland is. It's not a matter of public versus private transport. What's required is a creative mixture of the two. Further, the solution must give value for each dollar of public revenue invested.

The problems that must be solved are:

  • Getting traffic - commuter and commercial - to flow from Auckland's south-east to Auckland's west, thereby moving arterial traffic away from the CBD roundabout. The absolute priority is to complete the south-western motorway. (Just as a man with blocked arteries needs an immediate arterial bypass and not a lecture about his past lifestyle.)
  • Recognising the social costs imposed on Auckland (and therefore on New Zealand) of having large numbers of people commute across the harbour bridge to jobs south of the CBD. This is a classic "negative externality" (ie social cost) that could be managed by a Singapore-style road tax.
  • Putting the 3½ rail corridors to work. (The ½ is the Onehunga "branch" line, the North Island's oldest railway.) That means commuter trains from Papakura (south-east) and from Henderson (west) should be running to the CBD every 10 minutes, before the new downtown transport centre opens.
  • Converting the third (eastern) rail corridor into a truck/rail/bus/cycle way. (I have in mind a 2-lane road beside a single rail track, with a cycle path on the other side of the rail track. Cars would be verboten.) This would resolve the port problem without having to ruin the tourist heart of Auckland by building an expensive environmentally disastrous eastern highway.

If Auckland gets it right, it will be a case of national money well spent, for the benefit of all New Zealanders. If Auckland (and Wellington) mess it up again, then the country will be even more reluctant to give Auckland another chance.

Textbook economic theory of public goods and social costs can be very useful in formulating Auckland's transport policy.

Roads are public goods. Economies are most efficient when public goods are free rather than tolled. However, people who incur social costs by regularly making peak-hour journeys through central Auckland - such as people who commute from North Harbour to southern or eastern parts of Auckland, and people who drive their children to schools in distant parts of the city - should face a charge for the costs their choices impose on others. (Removal of school zoning laws by a future National government could aggravate the social costs of traffic congestion. We already know that the morning gridlock virtually disappears during school holidays.)

In the meantime, Aucklanders stuck in traffic jams will be paying the lions' share of the new petrol tax that will pay for whatever solution - effective or ineffective, appropriate or inappropriate - is finally implemented in Auckland.

©2002 Keith Rankin

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