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Labour has pledged to refresh Sea Change and let projects that allow for improved use of coastal shipping to be funded from the National Land Transport Fund

Rail, coastal shipping and cycleways set to gain coalition boost – By Dave MacIntyre

Light rail in our two biggest cities, more investment in rail, a possible dilution of the roads of national significance (RoNS) policy, and more investment in cycleways and walkways – these are some of the key transport policies we can expect to see coming from the Labour/NZ First/Greens coalition government over the next three years.

While the published coalition agreements between the parties give a glimpse of what the partners are committing to, a deeper analysis of their respective election manifestos for transport reveal where further policy initiatives may arise.

Much has been made of what NZ First demanded as a prerequisite for supporting Labour, or what Labour had to concede, but in truth an analysis of the transport policies of all three coalition parties shows remarkable common ground.

The future for rail

One example is rail. Labour’s commitment to rail’s future is shown by its determination to maintain an electrified network between Hamilton and Palmerston North, and to work on an evidence-based plan to progressively electrify other parts of the network. Labour would also reopen rail lines where there is evidence the service would be sustainable.

NZ First is similarly committed to rail. It would prefer to split KiwiRail into a NZ Railways Corporation (NZRC) owning and managing the network, with the remaining KiwiRail becoming the operator, using leased NZRC locomotives and rolling stock. A ‘railways of national importance programme’ would then be formulated.

Passenger rail services linking Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga are likely to find support from all three coalition partners.

The compatibility extends to light rail. Labour wants to build a light rail link from the Auckland CBD to the airport and another link from the CBD to Westgate, and will look at a similar possibility in Wellington. NZ First wants a light rail network in Auckland too. The Greens want to build a light rail system from Wellington Railway Station to the suburb of Newtown by 2025, extending it on to Kilbirnie and then to the airport by 2027.

The end of the RoNS?

If rail is to be a big winner under the coalition government, what then of the National Party’s pride and joy – the RoNS programme? It is hard to see the coalition supporting the programme to anything like the levels preferred by former Prime Minister Bill English and outgoing Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Auckland’s East-West Link has already been dumped in its current form. The focus will tend to become more balanced between national and regional projects.

One of Labour’s election planks for transport was to double the funding range for transport projects of regional significance. This sits comfortably alongside NZ First’s focus on regional development, with the party committing to upgrade roads and highways serving key transport hubs such as ports and airports.

The Greens’ transport policy also foresees reprioritising spending away from low-value and non-urgent motorway expansion projects.

Funding

Indeed, transport funding as a whole could be in for a shake-up. NZ First wants to create a single fund for land transport, with state highways and railways coming under a comprehensive land transport strategy. 

Leader Winston Peters says this strategy will guide investment towards creating an integrated strategy – “that starts by keeping our transportation assets, our roads, rail, ports and airports in Kiwi hands and not those of foreigners”.

Labour also rejects the existing funding model. It says the current transport funding framework heavily favours planning and funding of state highways above other transport options. Reform is needed to ensure a mode-neutral approach is taken to planning and investment decisions.

Cycleways and walkways

Another clear area of transport policy compatibility is in supporting cycleways and walkways. Labour has promised to commit more funding to urban cycleways, ‘active neighbourhoods’ programmes, and the SkyPath on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. 
All three parties have promised to commit more funding to urban cycleways and walkways, including the SkyPath on the Auckland Harbour Bridge

The Greens are fully behind creating more cycling and walking spaces nationally, with a particular pledge to invest $135 million over ten years to make Wellington a safer place to cycle. They would also complete the Wellington-to-Hutt Valley cycleway.

NZ First is similarly positioned, vowing to increase funding for cycleways and walkways, particularly commuter routes in cities, and to and from schools and tertiary institutions.

Public transport

Public transport looks to be a big winner, as the three parties’ transport policies all give support to better services.

Labour has pledged to invest $100 million into Christchurch public transport, including commuter rail from Rolleston to the CBD as a first step. The Greens would make Wellington the first New Zealand city with a fully-electric bus system by 2030, and would focus on expanding the zero-emission bus fleet. 

NZ First, like the Greens, is keen to see the uptake of more electric vehicles (EVs) and a network of fast EV charging points created. It would require government and council vehicles to be 100% zero emission by 2025/26.

Coastal shipping

An interesting area where all three parties have some similarity of view is coastal shipping. Labour has a track record of wishing to stimulate a New Zealand domestic fleet, having introduced the Sea Change programme of incentives just before it lost the 2008 election. National dumped the programme shortly after taking power and has not introduced any measures to encourage coastal shipping, even after the role the local fleet played in maintaining a freight link after the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

Labour’s pledge now is to refresh Sea Change and let projects that allow for improved use of coastal shipping to be funded from the National Land Transport Fund. Labour says it will “invest intelligently, based on solid business cases, in multi-modal freight transport. We are not ideologically committed to one mode over another. In each instance, for each freight corridor, we will make the most beneficial, cost-efficient, and sustainable investment choices.”

Both NZ First and the Greens would look at taxation or other incentives to boost the local fleet.

Differences

There are some differences in focus between the three parties in terms of transport policy.

The principal example is NZ First’s commitment to freezing Ports of Auckland’s growth and designating Northport as its successor. The policy is in line with NZ First’s focus on regional development, and because Northport would require a rail link in order to become a viable container port, it also aligns with NZ First’s desire to expand the rail network.

The policy has its critics from a freight and logistics perspective, and goes against the recommendations of the Port Future Study, which reported last year. Northport didn’t even make the shortlist in that. It recommended further investigations into building a new port at Manukau or the Firth of Thames. 

Both have challenges and both would require huge investment, as would Northport. But they are both closer to the target freight market than Northport, and are crucially both south of the city and the isthmus, meaning they can cater for freight traffic to and from the south.

Should the Northport expansion go ahead, replacing the current Ports of Auckland in its entirety, a natural expectation is that more freight from the south Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton ‘golden triangle’ would choose to hub through Tauranga rather than trek to Whangarei.

Tainui’s inland port, currently being constructed at Ruakura in Hamilton, would also increase markedly in significance as an inland hub.

The scene is set for marked change in our transport policy over the next three years.

Dave MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand; he can be contacted at d.macintyre@xtra.co.nz


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