Great Work! Now What About the Rest?
By Rohan G.H. Quinby
By my estimation, the opening of the spectacular Britomart station has put Auckland somewhere in the mid-20th century. Hey, I’m not complaining. Just that every other city in the western world of comparable size got to this point decades ago. Of course, getting the train schedules right will take some work, considering the absence of double-tracking and the lack of money for rolling stock.
New Zealand is, however, a peculiar place. The neo-liberal reforms brought in by Labour and National set back the ability of local government to provide public services by forcing local bodies to divest their assets. That’s why the bus system in the city is so awful. And while most cities in the western world have merged their cores with surrounding suburban areas to provide for more comprehensive planning, the Auckland area is still a disorganised group of squabbling local bodies holding up development of critical public transport.
Sure, there’s the Auckland Regional Council. And thank goodness. But ARC’s powers under the local bodies legislation in this country are meagre. Not only are public policy initiatives often undermined by local politicians responding to narrow interests, but ARC’s lack of statutory power means that good ideas take a long, long time to implement.
Want an example of how bad it is? Auckland has to be one of the only cities where a bus driver has to count out change to every passenger. It’s a quaint system, but it’s also time consuming and a security hazard for drivers. In most other places, machines were installed decades ago that take fares, dispense tickets and give change. Quickly. So ARC has initiated a program to replace the current system with a modern one. It will take an estimated seven years to put in place. Why so long? Well one reason is because the current system of private contracts for providing transport prevents ARC from acting quickly.
Now that ARC seems to be pushing along with plans for better transit, it has decided that it has to raise the rates it charges homeowners. Aucklanders have protested vigorously; letters to the editor of the New Zealand Herald have threatened to withhold the assessed ARC rates. This kind of anti-tax sentiment means that many Auckland residents would rather choke on congestion than see the development of a modern transit system. It seems that in Auckland at least, the legendary Kiwi sense of equality is really nothing more than a desire to see everyone suffer at the same level, i.e., tall poppy syndrome by another name.
But wait! Above the primitive smog of unregulated emissions, there is a bright spot. It’s the proposed Land Transport Management Bill currently being considered a select committee down in Wellington. The proposed bill would enable regional councils to work with Transfund and Transit New Zealand to develop long range, sustainable transit infrastructure just like any other civilised country. Most importantly, the bill will allow regional councils to own and operate infrastructure.
The bill hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention. But it should. John Banks, sensing a diminishment of power, has already attacked ARC’s ability to manage infrastructure, advocating instead for private sector management of Tranz Metro. Surely, after years of privatisation, lack of investment, crappy service and congestion, Aucklanders would welcome a return to the normal world of public bodies providing public services. Wouldn’t they?