National Land Transport Programme: the big bucks for transport
“Follow the money”! It’s that time again: government setting out what’s getting the lion’s share of public spending on transport. With the need to slash transport emissions by 60% if we’re being honest, and a government enjoying strong popular support, are we seeing them do more than just talk?
The short answer is a disappointing “Yeah, and nah”.
Greater Auckland have done a great breakdown post with a handy reminder of what the NLTP actually is and does. And the observations in the comments are also quality. Stuff’s Todd Niall covers the Auckland issues well, and Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne sums it up well here .
Some highlights for us:
More funding for walking, scooting, and cycling infrastructure than ever before – the first time the dosh is properly following the GPS’s apparent direction, and it’s above the funding range. It’s a 40% increase on the last three years. Huzzah!
First time EVER that the “State Highway Improvements” class (i.e. building bigger or new state highway infrastructure) isn’t the single biggest activity class. State highway maintenance plus Road to Zero (“let’s kill and maim fewer people“) are together bigger.
Active modes (walking, scooting, cycling) still only 4% of our transport budget. This is crazy low, given our very low starting point and the vital importance of cash to make our streets safer and more appealing so we can do our short trips with less car use. As Greater Auckland observes the UN recommends countries should fund active modes as 20% of national funding budgets. And we are 4%. Yup, 4%.
Within the active travel budget, a few megaprojects are sucking up crazy amounts of the money from this tiny pot. Te Ara Tupua, for example, should be funded out of the highway pot or even the rail pot (because let’s not forget, it’s mostly about protecting the highway and rail line from sea level rise). But no, it’s the tiny undernourished sibling that has to bear this burden.
So don’t expect a proliferation of neighbourhood cycling, scooting and walking projects in areas of transport poverty anytime soon. Which is a massive shame as low-traffic neighbourhoods have such huge power to do us good besides reducing emissions, like making us healthier and happier. See further reading below.
No extra funding for public transport. Seriously.
Big road-building projects (“state highway improvements”) that will increase transport emissions – or at least handicap decreases – are vacuuming up a LOT of money. Waka Kotahi has been given a big loan for this stuff – $2 billion of your and our money. Yowch. They’re mostly the big ones being done as public-private partnerships as a way to manage the capital risk.
Some of these mega highway projects with their eyewatering cost blowouts, like Transmission Gully, have plenty of good reasons to do them but others really don’t. And for even the better ones, seeing them in context makes you really wonder if they’re a net benefit.
For example: projects like the Ōtaki to North of Levin expressway (a shedload of money with seriously, and we mean seriously flaky investment rationales), and rail investments lagging behind, are still creating a bad gravitational pull for other investment.
So new housing in Horowhenua, for example, is all likely to be pretty car-centric “because they’re building us a lovely big motorway that’ll connect us to Wellington!”, instead of being oriented around a proper self-sustaining urban centre with rail as the main Wellington connection. (The Regional Growth Framework has a lot to answer for here too, talking like it’s a done deal that O2NL is going ahead.)
When even really “no brainer” highway improvement investments like Karo Drive / the Wellington Bypass fail to deliver on even their own very narrow, driving-centric reasons for being…. well, it makes you wonder about these huge investments that are bending the whole region towards a car-centric, high-mobility future.
Non-NLTP cool stuff: congestion charging progress
And a bright spot is the cross-party support for progressing congestion charging. (You know, that vital nudge for people’s behaviour, that woldwide has helped take the edge off peaktime traffic congestion.)
Coincidentally, congestion charging also brings in a bunch of cash from folks who continue to drive in private vehicles at the peak times or places. What do you do with that cash?
In Auckland’s case, if the cash was pointed at the modes we need to be doing more of, and at buffering the equity effects for those who are poor and have genuinely no choice, transport planners MR Cagney calculate it would make a properly massive difference to the number of people able to get around with “turn up and go” public transport especially benefiting folks in poor areas. Phwoar.
What could a congestion charge do for Wellington, besides taking the edge off our peaktime traffic jams?
Finally, keep any eye out for bad reporting on the NLTP – like our old favourite, clickbait headlines rarking you up about the wrong thing. There’s plenty to get mad about in the Canterbury funding allocation, for example, but it’s the exact opposite of what The Press’ clickbait headline would have you think:
That hardly sounds like a priority to me? And road safety gets a 12% cut: big bucks, but again not exactly top of the tree.— Sophie McInnes (@sophie__mcinnes) September 8, 2021
In comparison, over 50% of Canterbury's NLTP share will be spent on road maintenance and around 20% on public transport improvements (mostly corridors).
So read on into the finer print and if possible check out some nerdier sources.
The awesome power of low traffic neighbourhoods: we should invest in these! The excellent Shared Path report