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By road, rail, and sea…the promises do come: Transport at the 2017 Election

September 13, 2017


Partners Sally McKechnie

Government reform and public policy Public law

Getting New Zealanders (and our exports and imports) where they need to go quickly and safely has always been a challenge given our hilly geography, two main islands, and small population. The sprawl of our largest city and its serious congestion - estimated to cost $2 billion a year - is now becoming a greater challenge for central and local government.

In the sixth of our series of Election 2017 Briefing Notes, Sally McKechnie, head of the Public Law and Government team, and Kasia Ginders consider the transport options being batted about by the political parties.

Will travellers be catching light rail from Auckland Airport in the next ten years? Will Auckland’s port be moving to Whāngārei? Will the focus be on roads of national significance or railways of national importance? Who decided to build the Waterview Tunnel anyway?

Road, rail, or sea?

When deciding where to spend money on transport, the parties favour different modes. National's efforts have been directed predominantly at improving roads, while Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First are pushing for a bigger focus on rail, and even on shipping options. On both sides, there are significant sums being suggested - $10.5 billion for 10 new Roads of National Significance and a $267 million investment in commuter rail from National, whereas Labour has proposed a net $2.1 billion extra on Auckland transport infrastructure, and a proposed doubling of the funding range for transport projects of regional importance to $140-$260 million.


The Left favours trains. Labour and the Greens have (the latter before the former) adopted the recommendations of the Greater Auckland lobby group for light rail from Auckland Airport to the CBD and North Shore.

The two parties differ slightly in their ideas about implementation. Labour would complete the first stage of the route from the CBD to Mt Roskill by 2021, and have light rail through to the airport and West Auckland in ten years' time. The Greens are promising that the whole route to the airport would be completed by 2021. The Greens are also taking a more ambitious approach to light rail in Wellington. While Labour wants to fast-track a feasibility study considering light rail to the airport, the Greens are planning for light rail to Newtown by 2025, and to the airport by 2027.

Both parties have also adopted policies on passenger rail services between Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga. If the passenger service to Tauranga is a success, the parties would invest in rapid rail (up to 160km/h) and Labour has suggested extensions to Rotorua and Cambridge.

The extension of rail into the “golden triangle” of the Waikato/Bay of Plenty has been criticised by the National Party, calling Labour's plans for passenger rail services between Auckland and Tauranga unrealistic. Transport Minister Simon Bridges argues that it would displace some rail freight on New Zealand's busiest freight route unless sections of the route were double-tracked, and that the cost of rapid rail makes little sense given New Zealand's small population.

Despite these criticisms, National is not ignoring rail altogether, having allocated an additional $548 million to KiwiRail in the 2017 Budget, and proposing an additional $267 million for commuter rail as part of their election policy offering. This money would go towards improvements to Wellington rail - for example double tracking the line from Upper Hutt to Trentham - and increasing Auckland's capacity for heavy rail, by building a third main rail line for freight in South Auckland between Wiri and Westfield, and electrifying the rail line between Pukekohe and Papakura.

Labour is planning something similar for Auckland - in fact, there is a fair amount of common ground between both parties in addressing Auckland's transport troubles. National gave light rail the green light in March however on a longer time scale of up to 30 years - significantly longer than the ten years proposed by Labour.

However, Labour and National diverge on a regional fuel tax for Auckland - the National Government ruled out a regional fuel tax to fund transport infrastructure in February this year.

Nationally significant?

With the success of the Waterview Tunnel in Auckland among others, National has been emphasising the transformative possibility of better roading. Indeed, Waterview has been such a success that National and Labour are competing to claim the idea as their own - with a pointed outing by former Prime Minister Helen Clark on Twitter.

National's approach continues a focus they have had during their three terms to date; improving roads throughout the country. A substantial investment is planned for 10 new Roads of National Significance. The programme involves improving or constructing state highways, with the end results typically having four lanes, separation between traffic flows, wide lanes, and safer roadsides (and in most cases, 110km/h speed limits). Funding would be through the National Land Transport Fund and through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Some critics have observed that these proposed roads are actually not that ‘significant’ and would only save a few minutes here or there - nothing like the impact of Waterview and the Waikato Expressway.  There is a concern that political announcements of priorities sideline the cost-benefit analyses required to be done by NZTA, and which are in calmer times, used to assign priorities directly.

New Zealand First is offering a similar-sounding programme to National's but for rail, aptly called Railways of National Importance. The plan includes creating passenger train services along all rail routes between the main centres (for example, Auckland to Wellington, and Wellington to Gisborne), with connecting coach services to outlying areas, and to centres without a rail line. The current electric trains would not be replaced with diesel trains, as is currently planned. The funding would be sourced from the National Land Transport Fund, Crown grants, and user charges. New Zealand First is also promoting heavy rather than light rail to Auckland Airport. The party's other policies include user-pays charging on certain routes, and increasing funding for regional roading, to be used for sealing and improving roads, and building double lane bridges where necessary.

The Māori Party is also keen on improving New Zealand's rail network, with plans to establish 'IwiRail' to develop regional railways. IwiRail would construct new lines, take over leases of key regional rail lines and re-open closed lines to run high-speed, digitally connected, carbon neutral trains. It would offer its passenger and freight services consistently with Māori values, including affordable access and fair pricing. Funds would be raised through an initial investment of $350 million from public, iwi and private investors. It is hoped that IwiRail would boost tourism in the regions and create jobs.

ACT is taking a road focused approach to reducing congestion, encouraging the use of technology and entrepreneurship. It would look for private sector investment in road construction, introduce user-pays road charges, relax ride-sharing regulations, and review autonomous vehicle regulations to encourage their use.


While the main contest is between roads and rail, some parties are also turning their minds to New Zealand's shipping and port industries. Both the Greens and The Opportunities Party want to fund road, shipping, and rail infrastructure from the National Land Transport Fund - currently the fund can only be used for roads. The Green Party would also aim to have half of all freight moved by rail and shipping by 2027.

Speaking of ten-year plans, New Zealand First wants to move all of Auckland’s shipping operations to Northport in Whāngārei by 2027, beginning with vehicle deliveries being moved to Northport by 2019. The proposal would necessitate a new railway track from Oakleigh to Marsden Point and a significant upgrade to the Whāngārei-Auckland line. Northport would also be turned into a mega-port with a 'special economic area', stopping the current development of a port in the Firth of Thames. With Winston Peters seeking to retain the seat in Northland, and Shane Jones campaigning in Whāngārei, this policy has obvious positives for the party's dynamics. More generally, New Zealand First also plans to introduce a comprehensive ports and shipping strategy.

Environmental impact: Buses, bikes and electric cars?

The Green Party is emphasising environmentally friendly options for transport, with its transport policy explicitly addressing transport's impact on climate change and health. Its plan for tackling carbon emissions involves increased funding for public transport, promoting the purchase of electric cars by making them exempt from fringe benefit tax, and making it safer for children to walk or bike to school. Additionally, achieving lower carbon emissions is one of the reasons it is promoting the use of shipping and rail over trucks for freight.

Public transport funding is a key part of the Green Party's transport plan. In addition to a planned Congestion Free Network of public transport in Auckland, the Greens are also proposing free public transport for those 19 and under, and free off peak transport for students, and for people living with a disability on the Supported Living Benefit. It estimates this would cost $70-80 million, which would be funded from the National Land Transport Fund by re-prioritising non-urgent spending - the Green’s claim that this is cost equivalent to the cost of 1km of National's planned motorways.

However, the Greens aren't the only party considering transport pollution.

Following a "light bulb moment" when trying out an electric car in Australia, Prime Minister Bill English announced a new target of making one-third of the Government's fleet of cars electric by 2021. This would help meet National's other target of having 64,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand by 2021, and eventually the Government's electric fleet would filter through to the second-hand market, enabling a broader uptake of electric vehicles. This policy exceeds the Green Party's initial target of making 20% of Government vehicles electric within seven years, although it is worth noting that the Green Party intends to increase their target if more fit-for-purpose and affordable electric vehicles become available.

It all sounds good - but is it enough? One commentator suggests New Zealand needs to be doing more - and looking at the evidence, not just changing course when the Prime Minister personally experiences an electric car.

The National Party has also included several new cycle ways in its ongoing plans for urban and regional development. More recent announcements include cycle facilities along the planned Nelson Southern Link and working with the Nelson City Council to upgrade to the cycle way along Rocks Road.

Despite Jacinda Ardern declaring climate change to be this generation's nuclear-free moment, the Labour Party's transport policy had been slow to mention environmental factors. However, last Friday they too jumped on the electric vehicle bandwagon when they released a more detailed climate change policy, promising that all future purchases of Government vehicle fleets would be electric vehicles unless there is an exceptional reason otherwise. Labour also mentioned that walking and cycling is 'good for our environment' in its description of its policy to promote 'active transport'. The policy includes extending the Urban Cycleways Fund with an additional $100 million over the next three years, introducing a complementary Active Neighbourhood Fund with $15 million available for contestable applications each year, and promising to put $30 million towards the SkyPath cycle and walkway over the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Other minor parties are also promoting environmentally conscious transport options:

  • New Zealand First would require all government vehicles to be electric by 2025/2026 (excluding defence and emergency services vehicles), and they are advocating strongly for public transport.
  • The Māori Party wants to subsidise electric vehicles for community groups to make the technology accessible to more people, and is offering free public transport for students.
  • The Opportunities Party in particular has a strong focus on climate change, with most of its transport policies found within its climate change policy - for example, tightening emissions standards for newly imported vehicles, and allowing local authorities to introduce congestion charging.
  • Even the Act Party has cited reduction of carbon emissions as one of its reasons for promoting a move to user-pays road pricing.

So how will New Zealand be getting from A to B after September 23?

Given the number of three to ten-year plans to be completed 'by 2021' or 'by 2027', many of the proposed changes won't affect passengers and goods travelling by (electric?) car, bus, train, or boat for quite some time after the election.

In the longer term, it is shaping up to be a contest of road versus rail and public transport between the Right and the Left - but with both potential king or queen 'maker' parties promoting rail and public transport, growth in those sectors seems likely.

You can download a printable version here.

Contributor: Kasia Ginders, Law Graduate