Did Canterbury get screwed? – What’s going on with transport funding in the region

So what happened?

The Government announced billions of dollars in transport infrastructure funding last week, perhaps one of the single biggest in New Zealand’s history! Mostly it was roads, in a throw back to the RoNS programme, but there was some rail and cycling there too. Auckland got $3.48b, Wellington $1.35b, Waikato/Bay of Plenty $991m, and Northland got $692m. Canterbury got $159m.

Infra Map 1

Wait, what? Canterbury got just $159m!!!??? That seems disproportionately low!

It does. It seems incredibly odd given that Canterbury is New Zealand’s second most populous region after Auckland, and contains the second largest city in Christchurch. It’s worth remembering that almost half a million people live within 30km of Christchurch, the largest concentration of people outside of Auckland. And it’s growing too, at more than 10,000 people per year. That’s a comparable rate to Melbourne!

Also, from a political perspective, although Christchurch has traditionally been beneficial for Labour – and even the Greens – it has swung to National periodically (i.e. 2011/14). It seems doubly odd to leave it largely out of your big infrastructure spend up aimed at alleviating doubts on delivery heading into an election.

Super odd. Has a reason been given?

Yes and no. The documents themselves – and the  Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration in the media – note that the city has received $1.4b in motorway spending over the last decade, plus expenditure on the post-earthquake rebuild.

Chch motorways
Christchurch’s motorways. Complete end of 2020.

Okay, yeah, seems fair enough…

Except that it is quite a misleading statement. The $1.4b on motorways was Canterbury’s share of RoNS projects. Other recipients include…

Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Wellington?

You got it! Think the Waterview Connection, Waikato Expressway, Tauranga Eastern Link, Kapiti Expressway and Transmission Gully. Not to mention the money spent on rail in Auckland and Wellington. Hamilton is even getting a commuter rail service this year! Earthquake recovery is, by the way, recovery and inconsequential to the debate in the context of this funding.

Okay, wow. Now it seems even more strange. So what’s the real reason Canterbury got such a paltry amount of funding?

I’m glad you asked! Two key criteria for the infrastructure funding announced last week were that they had to be capital projects, and that they had to be shovel ready. The implication is that Canterbury just didn’t have any capital projects ready for this funding.

Is this true?

Er, little bit yes, tiny bit no. It’s complicated.

So who is to blame for this? It must surely be an oversight!

The blame game is a favourite past time, and also complicated in this situation. First, it seems odd the Government could not find at least some projects to fund for Canterbury, avoiding criticisms and rumblings of discontent from the second region and city (a hilariously ridiculous number of Christchurch City Councillors called it a ‘slap in the face‘). They did, of course, find a few, but they amount to a few intersection improvements, an over bridge, and 2.5km of bus lane. Hardly what I’d call “revolutionary”.

“…this package has the potential to revolutionise the way we get in and around the region.” – Megan Woods, Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration

There were also some projects which arguably could have fit the funding criteria. Given the roading love fest it turned out to be, it seems incredibly strange that the reasonably well advanced Woodend Bypass – an approximately 7km extension of the Christchurch Northern Motorway – did not make the cut. That would have added about $200-300m to the sum. In terms of vehicles per day, at almost 20,000 through Woodend, it certainly seems as justified, if not more so, than the Northland road. There were also extensions to the city’s successful cycleway network that could arguably have been funded, while there is also potential for more bus lanes. Then there is the question of the $100m for commuter rail promised at the previous election. Where has that got to? Apparently nowhere.

(And if you want to hear the Minister of Greater Christchurch Regeneration attempt to explain why the Woodend Bypass project wasn’t considered “shovel ready” (not sure it’s any less shovel ready than some of the others) and what is happening with commuter rail, listen to her interview here.)

So central government is to blame?

Well, not entirely. A lot of the blame must surely go on local government too. Canterbury/Greater Christchurch hasn’t exactly got its act together in terms of prioritising transport infrastructure. This contrasts with Auckland, Wellington and the other regions.

To say that is a bit of a slap in the face is unfair, because one thing that needed to happen was for Canterbury, both at a regional and city level, to come to Government with proposals that work” – Duncan Webb, Central Christchurch MP (Labour)

An example is regarding the aforementioned commuter rail money. The regional council (ECan) believe Christchurch’s public transport needs can be met through buses alone. Christchurch City Council seem intent on light rail (or an equivalent) within the city boundaries. No one can agree, and no progress has been made. Rather than taking an initiative, they prefer to look a gift horse in the mouth, it seems. Admittedly, a business case for rapid mass transit was to be tendered, but has been delayed. Both sides seem to blame each other on that one.

That seems as far as anything has got over the last decade. It feels like every player is waiting around, hoping whatever eventuates supports their own theories and ideas. There is a lack of alignment, a lack of strategy, and a lack of action.

RTcorridors
What will rapid transit take the form of, and will it ever happen for Christchurch?

Wow. That’s pretty sad. What does this mean, then?

I’m glad you asked that too. Christchurch’s final RoNS projects will be completed by the end of 2020.

Then what?

Well, apart from not having any big local transport projects to move on to for the companies and their workers, the city is continuing to double down on a regional strategy of urban sprawl.

That sounds unsustainable…

It is. The motorways themselves are going to empty onto already crowded inner suburban streets, and Waimakariri and Selwyn continue to experience population growth among the highest in New Zealand.

It sounds like there is a perfect storm brewing of a lack of planning and foresight!

You could say that.

Is there any hope?

Maybe. There is, apparently, another $4b in infrastructure to announce at a later date. The government has also said the commuter rail money is still on the table if the region can agree on it. Seems an opportunity not to ignore, so perhaps the local authorities should quit their obsession with buses and get onboard?

So…

It’s definitely a “we will have to wait and see”. What can change between now and then, I don’t know. It seems the relationship between local government in Canterbury and central government isn’t great. But then the local authorities really aren’t showing signs of working together well either. Maybe both sides have a point.

Some key people have been conspicuously quiet, haven’t they?

Canterbury and Christchurch have certainly never been one for beating a loud drum over these things. Auckland and Wellington, meanwhile, embody the idea of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. It’s no coincidence they get a lot of infrastructure built, and they both have rail networks…

Perhaps local leaders need to be a little more vocal?

Perhaps they do. I’m just gonna leave this here:

MapChch1

 

 

2 thoughts on “Did Canterbury get screwed? – What’s going on with transport funding in the region

  1. The problem is that central government has already made copious funds available for public transport and the local government has simply not used them. If Ecan will not improve public transport and is locked in a case study, and RoNS is already nearing completion, then what good will more money do? ‘Shovel-ready’ projects in Canterbury are hampered by ECan’s refusal to lift a finger, let alone a spade.

    However, there is still a deeper problem. Given the underfunding of hospitals and mental health in Canterbury, spending on these facilities would be both popular and logical. No such projects have been announced. This suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of Canterbury by Wellington.

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    1. The opex vs capex tension is a big part of that too. The most immediate need in canterbury is not capex, it is higher opex – annually we currently spend only a third what auckland and welli spend per capita. But because opex is only ever given out if local govt match it then ecan havent been keen. The express service to waimak is a classic example where nzta have their share sitting there ready to go but ecan need to increase rates to fund their share so the politicians are hesitating. We either need government to fully fund opex, somehow get more local public appetite for increased rates for pt spend, or do something like raise parking rates to fund opex a la queenstown.

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