We want to see Transmission Gully built properly

Transmission Gully and I go back a long way. I have been quite vocal about my concerns with the project over recent times.

When I was Mayor of Porirua, a city which has a lot of skin in the game, I negotiated an agreement to secure vital link roads between the city and the gully and watched the project kick off. Now, as the chief executive of the Road Transport Forum, I see the importance of the route from our industry’s perspective. Transmission Gully will aid the movement of freight by road and is long overdue. Truck drivers will find it easier to access the inter-island ferries and distribution hubs in the area, travel times should reduce and there will be less risk of the Wellington region being cut off in storms and other emergencies.

When I visited the road in December 2020, I was impressed and excited that an end is in sight – the road is to be finished by September this year.

So it was disappointing to get a call last week and be told that plans for a merging lane extension where Transmission Gully meets State Highway 1 at Linden have been shelved by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA). We all know that the pinch points on highways are where old roads meet new. The problem at Linden was identified before the project even commenced, and to be fair to NZTA, they have inherited the issue because the Regional Land Transport Committee at the time refused to take the appropriate action, which would have been a whole new lane for several kilometres on the existing highway.

At a cost of $1.25 billion, about 50 percent higher than its original $850 million budget, it seems ridiculous to not add vital pieces now, especially when you know you are going to have a problem. So much money is being spent, surely getting it right is the priority at this stage. What is the point of spending all that money if the road doesn’t ease the congestion that has been crippling this vital route into Wellington? If it is a question of not doing the works because it will delay opening the road, well there have been so many delays thus far, wouldn’t it be better to just finally, do it right?

The ultimate disappointment will be if Transmission Gully makes no difference to the congestion this growing region has been experiencing for years. Or if it just shifts the bottlenecks. 

Without this merging lane extension at Linden, it is expected traffic will be pushed back at both ends causing backlogs in Kāpiti and Tawa.

As I said in media last week, the shelved extension was already the “band-aid option” for traffic problems. Now, they’re not even going with the band-aid, they’re just letting it bleed.

Apparently, NZTA couldn’t find anyone to do the work at the time they wanted – during night hours. This seems to be one of the big issues of our closed border and increasingly restrictive immigration settings. 

This latest setback also shows there is a fundamental problem about the way infrastructure is done in this country. It is not future-proofed, rather there is a “suck it and see” method, doing just enough rather than factoring in future need and capacity.   

NZTA apparently wants to play “wait and see” with this merging lane extension. Wait and see if it causes any problems and maybe, if it does, the work could still go ahead in the future. I back AA, who have said that the budget set aside for this work needs to be ringfenced so it can be called upon urgently if (when) it is needed.

That begs the questions: Will Transmission Gully be completed by September 2021, or will Transmission Gully-light be what’s in place, with vital add-ons to come if there is the money and the people to complete them?

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Transmission Gully an impressive asset

This week, myself and Road Transport Forum board member and road freight transport business owner Deborah O’Brien toured the famous Transmission Gully build. We weren’t disappointed.

This road will enhance travel into and out of the Wellington region with a 27 kilometre motorway from Mackays Crossing to Linden that will be a key part of the 110km Wellington Northern Corridor (Wellington to Levin).

This will make a big difference in terms of safety and resilience for the region once the road opens in September next year. It will be better able to resist and recover from earthquakes and storms than the current State Highway 1 coastal road – which will remain as an alternative route.

From the perspective of freight movement, Transmission Gully is long overdue. Truck drivers will find it easier to access the inter-island ferries and distribution hubs in the area, and travel times should reduce.

I have been a fairly vocal critic of the time it has taken to complete this project but when you drive it from go to whoa, it is apparent what a massive undertaking it has been.

More than 10 million cubic metres of earth have been moved, which is one of the largest volumes of earth to be moved on a New Zealand roading project to date. It has a steep incline and the highest point on the motorway, the Wainui Saddle, is 253m above sea level. On the day we visited it was pretty windy and cold up there – Wellington summer – and apparently it can snow in the winter.

A lot of thought has gone into the environment and road safety, which is good to see. From a safety perspective there is a 250 metre long ‘arrestor bed’ on the long northbound descent from the Wainui Saddle. This is a gravel-filled ramp adjacent to the road that can be used to stop a runaway vehicle. It has been designed to bring heavy vehicles to a halt in an emergency, such as a brake or gearbox failure.

The project has included 27 kilometres of stream remediation and 2.5 million native trees and plants will span the roadside.

Massive infrastructure projects, such as this road, are vital to New Zealand’s economy, particularly as we face ongoing economic ups and downs as a result of Covid-19.

As a country that relies on trade, we need a modern, fast, road infrastructure – 93 percent of New Zealand’s freight is delivered by road. We need a roading network to match the supply chain task that allows the fast, most efficient and most cost-effective movement of imports and exports, and the goods every New Zealand needs every day. 

We are seeing growth in road freight transport and while there is some collective romantic notion that rail freight can replace road, it can’t. There isn’t the infrastructure, or the market demand. Even when freight is put on a train, it’s taken onto and/or off that train by a truck.

It’s no secret we want to see more investment in roads – some are at a critical and dangerous point of requiring either rebuilding, or extensive repairs. We will continue to make the evidence-based case for this as a way to power our economy and assist the road transport industry to safely and efficiently fulfill its mandate to deliver freight for its customers.

But to end on a positive note, Transmission Gully is impressive and we are thrilled to see the Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway project getting underway today, with a sod-turning event with the Prime Minister.

Let’s build more roads.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Rail not the great hope for safer roads

It was interesting to see the Government’s response to our recent request to spend some of the “shovel ready” Covid-19 cash on urgent road repairs for unsafe roads was to promote rail for moving freight.

Together with the Automobile Association, Association of Consultants and Engineers, Civil Contractors NZ, Employers and Manufacturers Association, and Infrastructure NZ, the RTF has written to Ministers and spoken with their representatives about the dire state of New Zealand roads. This has generated plenty of media and public debate this week, with the six organisations representing a broad range of interests, including private car users.

Speaking to RNZ, Transport Minister Phil Twyford said: “Our record investments in rail will help take pressure off our roads by moving more freight to rail. It’s going to take more than a few years to undo a decade of neglect.”

In the same RNZ piece he said the government agreed there had been underinvestment for a decade prior to 2017 so had increased highway maintenance spending on average by 36 percent. If re-elected, I would up that another 17 percent.

Yet early in the first-term of this Labour-led coalition government he said: “there has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

We hope the increased spending promise means he’s had a change of heart from his earlier views. The six organisations that have asked for urgent road repairs have all been hearing from our members what damages and costs they are incurring because of sub-standard and unsafe road surfaces.

The pro-rail brigade actually believes that in a long, skinny country with 93,000 kms of road and 4,000 kms of rail tracks, that rail can make a dent in the effectiveness, convenience and efficiency of road freight. This is despite all evidence to the contrary. Even in European countries with vast and efficient railways, freight movers pick road over rail.

In New Zealand, the National Freight Demand Study, commissioned by the Ministry of Transport and released in October 2019, showed that freight delivered by road was 93% of the freight task, up 16% since 2012, while rail was 5.6% of the freight task, down 17% since 2012.

It is also interesting to note, again from Ministry of Transport data, the tonnage of dairy being transported on the rail network has dropped from about 3.9 million tonnes in 2013 to 2.3 million tonnes at the beginning of this year.

Ultimately, the market will decide which is the best mode for transporting their goods. Road offers door-to-door delivery, even in the remote parts of the country; is more resilient in weather events, natural disasters, and Covid-19; and is reliable for time-sensitive perishable goods.

Only 3-7 percent of the road freight task is contestable by rail. Conversely, most rail freight is contestable by road, except maybe coal transport across the Southern Alps – trains are good for that because of the weight of the coal.

Roads are the lifeblood of the economy. All road users pay for them and we all benefit from them.

Over $2 billion in taxes (petrol tax and road user charges) is collected each year for the National Land Transport Fund to fund roads. But this is now being used to fund modes of transport that make no contribution. This cross-subsidisation is at the expense of roads and hits consumers in the back pocket.

The truth is that we don’t need rail, or public transport, over roads. We need a good balance of all three. RTF supports public transport and rail, particularly rail for public transport.

What we have an issue with is the defunding of roads for pet projects in rail that cannot provide a viable return on investment, or the efficiency, effectiveness, reliability and cost benefits of road freight.

The Government is slowing down the economy by not spending on roads. Slowing down movement of goods, particularly essentials such as food and medicines, impacts on the cost of living for all New Zealanders. Every delay in delivery costs someone.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

The road out of this mess

How do we get out of this mess? Billions of dollars have been spent by the New Zealand Government on Covid-19. That cannot go on for the years it might take to either have a viable vaccine, or to learn to live with this and other epidemics.

We’ve heard a lot from the Government about investing in infrastructure to boost the economy and getting started on “shovel ready” projects to counter rapidly increasing unemployment and financial pain. Big announcements need to be backed by delivery.

The visual that comes with the term “shovel ready” is people behind shovels building something. The reality seems to be a bit of a stretch from that – projects have to go through all the consenting processes and there have to be skilled people behind those shovels. With a closed border, getting workers is an issue.

Together with five like-minded organisations with an interest in the state of New Zealand’s roads, we wrote to Government Ministers and suggested they could add road maintenance projects to the “shovel ready” list. The advantages of these projects are that they can start immediately; provide value for money; enable job creation; and offer scalability, geographic coverage, and year-round work.

All the organisations have been hearing from our members that the poor conditions on New Zealand roads are becoming a greater cost. It’s not only a cost to businesses, but also to road safety. People die on unsafe roads.

The road maintenance programme over the past decade can be characterised by under-investment and declining levels of service on both the state highway network and local roads. The decrease in spending has meant that the volume of resurfacing and foundation replacement work has been significantly below the targets Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency sets for network sustainability. Foundation replacements were 50 percent below target for the period.

A study conducted by Waikato University this year for the RTF, showed transport operators have had a 55 percent increase in their repairs and maintenance costs between 2015 and 2020. This is largely due to poor road conditions causing damage to trucks. Interestingly, trucking operators have had a five percent increase in road user charges (RUCs) in eight of the past 10 years. Essentially, they keep paying more, but getting less value from roads.

At a meeting this week, Ministers’ representatives told our group – which includes Civil Contractors New Zealand, EMA, Infrastructure New Zealand, AA, and the Association of Consulting and Engineering – that there had been a 36 percent increase in road maintenance over two years. But that is not what road users are seeing. We are talking about road surface conditions, not the barriers and other trimmings that have been put in place in the name of safety.

Based on road maintenance cost and outputs data for recent years, we estimate that an additional $300 million per annum will be required for the next three years to return the network to an appropriate standard.

Our plea to have the ready shovels applied to road maintenance fell on deaf ears. This is despite there being an unprecedented length of the road network currently operating in a sub-standard condition.

We have also been told to wait for the release of the draft Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Land Transport. The RTF submitted on this and said: The 2021 GPS policy was written for a more settled economic climate and we wonder how much of it will continue to be valid within the foreseeable future.

Covid-19 has changed the shape of things and Government Ministers and their policy-makers need to be re-thinking how and where money is spent to deliver infrastructure projects, based on sound economic principles, that will enable economic recovery.

This might require agility governments are not known for. But there is too much at stake here to get this wrong. Roads have played a critical role in the response to Covid-19, getting essential goods moved around the country. Roads will continue to be the base of economic growth for years to come, getting exports to ports and airports to earn money for New Zealand, and moving New Zealanders to and from work. Road spending needs to be commensurate with the task.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Best minds required for economic recovery

New Zealand’s Covid-19 experience has shown how out of touch some members of our Government are with the businesses that drive the economy. This is pretty worrying when we look at the road ahead to some kind of economic recovery once the virus has done its worst globally.

This week alone, the Government referred to the five day extension of the Alert Level 4 lockdown as “two business days”; Labour MP Deborah Russell pontificated on the short-comings of small business owners who can’t keep their closed businesses operating in a global pandemic; and Employment Minister Willie Jackson said nobody would be impacted by the lockdown being extended a week.

Even more tone deaf, the Greens came out with a proposal to spend $9 billion over 10 years putting fast trains throughout New Zealand. Hundreds of people are becoming unemployed by the day, businesses are going under, our borders are closed, and this is their best solution?

Like much of New Zealand, the road freight transport industry has a good share of small and medium sized businesses. They have a lot invested in plant and property – their trucks and yards – and every day off the road costs money. The smaller the business, and the longer the days off the road, the more the damage is done.

All businesses will be to some degree reliant on the Government to stimulate the economy both during the various stages of the Covid-19 global pandemic, and once it is over and a vaccine is found.

Given the amount of debt the country will be in, and the hardship facing its people, you want the very best minds on the job and you want their decisions to be based in evidence, not ideology.

Let’s unpick this fast rail idea. The Greens say: “Building rail creates more jobs than building motorways”. We would like to see the evidence base behind that statement before the country throws away $9 billion on what is essentially a pipe-dream.

Rail will never replace roads. We need roads – the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that. All those essential goods and essential workers have gotten to where they need to go via roads. In any crisis, help comes first via roads. Investment in infrastructure to boost the economy must include investment in roads, as well as rail.

If there is $9 billion left over for a vanity project, it surely still has to measure up in a costs versus benefits equation.

As the executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, Dr Oliver Hartwich, told Parliament’s Epidemic Response Select Committee on Thursday, “What distinguishes a good project from a bad one is that a good project’s benefits are greater than its costs”.

Of course there is no mention of this in the Green Party’s statement about fast electric trains for passengers and freight, including on routes such as Christchurch-Ashburton-Timaru.

On that route alone, much of the freight is food – dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables. Food needs to travel by road and one journey will always beat the three putting it on a train would take – truck to train, train to station, truck to end destination. Trains don’t go to supermarkets, or dairies, or other food stores.

As for passengers on that route – let’s take a look at where fast trains already operate, such as Europe. In the France-Germany-the Netherlands-Belgium grouping, you’ve got a combined population of about 178 million people. New Zealand has just 4.7 million people and the Timaru-Ashburton-Christchurch grouping has about 460,000 people. The fast trains in that European cluster are fantastic, but they are also expensive. It is often cheaper to fly the route. So with the huge population base, fast trains still have to cover their costs with high ticket prices for passengers.

Expensive for passengers and not suitable for freight, how exactly is this plan going to help us during one of our worst economic slumps?

We hope the Government’s Infrastructure Industry Reference Group will recommend investing in critical roads at this time. The RTF has written to that group advocating for three road projects that relate directly to efficient movement of freight in the three major economic regions of New Zealand.

These roads are:

  • The Petone-Grenada Link in Wellington
  • The East-West Link between Onehunga and Mt Wellington in Auckland
  • Selwyn to Timaru highway, four lanes

We believe this would better serve our economic rebuild than a very expensive fast rail – which we don’t believe has been properly costed – in a country that doesn’t have the population base to use it.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Devil will be in the detail in road spending lolly scramble

This Government is very good at making big announcements, but delivery has proved to be its Achilles heel. 10,000 KiwiBuild homes promised, but not able to be delivered. Auckland’s light rail has a “stretch” timeline; now apparently 2030. Child poverty is going up, not down, with school principals saying child poverty is the worst they’ve seen as the school year started this week.

So, when the Government announced on Wednesday a big spend of $5.3 billion on roads, our excitement was tempered by a look for the detail. The devil is in the detail.

Through this term of Government, we have heard a lot of negativity about roads, including the Transport Minister Phil Twyford saying: “There has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

A change of heart came a day after the date for the 2020 general election was announced by the Prime Minister, and a big handful of the lollies in the road spending scramble landed in the pivotal political city of Auckland, and Northland, where New Zealand First is hoping to secure its five percent threshold.

But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, it is good to now have an “infrastructure Government” and a whole bunch of roads in the pipeline.

We are only sorry a couple of years have been wasted in getting on with building the vital arterial roads in New Zealand, and this is reflected in some of the timelines. The Melling interchange won’t be completed until 2026. For one of the roads we have lobbied hard for, four lanes for the Ōtaki to north of Levin stretch of State Highway 1, construction won’t start until 2025 and finishes in 2029. That’s another three terms of Government.

The Chair of the Horowhenua business and residents group Build the Road has publicly thanked the RTF for our support in pushing for this vital stretch of highway and advice with their campaign. Still, they must be disappointed about the nine year wait.

And while there are some great hits in the announcement, there are some equally important misses. At the 2018 road transport industry conference, Transport Minister Phil Twyford intimated that the East-West (Penrose-Onehunga) link in Auckland was going to happen. But it wasn’t mentioned in Wednesday’s announcement. More than 7,000 freight vehicles drive through Onehunga each day and congestion in the area needs to be eased if we want to get serious about boosting the economy.

Then there’s the South Island; not many lollies went there. Yet we are seeing speed limits reduced to accommodate the poor state of roads, at the expense of businesses using those roads. State Highway 6 from Blenheim to Nelson is an example, where road freight transporters are telling us reduced speeds over a long stretch of road will cost them considerable time and money, ultimately adding to the cost of everything.

It’s not rocket science to understand that with the base of our economy in tourism and exports we need roads that are fit for purpose throughout New Zealand. That is, at least four lanes, and engineered properly for the conditions, speed limit and in consideration of both the commercial and public use of these roads. This is another area where we have concerns. Some of the four-laning is not necessarily what we envisage – two lanes in each direction allowing free flow of traffic. We will all need to look very carefully at each road as it comes up for construction.

We are also worried about the lack of engineering expertise at the New Zealand Transport Agency, and the availability of workers required to construct massive infrastructure.

In promoting the infrastructure announcement, the Prime Minister keeps talking about getting “freight off the road and onto rail” and this is the mantra of New Zealand First as it tries to resurrect rail routes that were left fallow because they simply didn’t stack up against road freight. As one witty commentator noted, “Winston Peters invoking Julius Vogel for his rail announcement. Vogel was PM in the 1870s.” That about sums up rail.

Freight movement is driven by the market. The National Freight Demand Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Transport last year (October 2019), showed freight delivered in New Zealand is 93 percent by road (up 16 percent since 2012) and 5.6 percent by rail (down 17 percent since 2012).

It is important to note that:

  • With 93,000km of road and only 4,000km of rail, rail will never be able to meet the essential demands of delivering goods to New Zealanders
  • Only three to seven percent of the road freight task is contestable by rail – moving heavy coal being one of the main tasks that better suits rail
  • Rail offers no fuel consumption benefits for freight carried less than 400kms
  • 80 percent of freight is delivered within a region, and that is not contestable by rail
  • Road users pay for roads, but rail is heavily subsidised by the Government
  • Road delivers door-to-door, throughout New Zealand, rail doesn’t
  • Road is more resilient than rail when it comes to natural disasters
  • In Auckland and Wellington, rail has a commuter function (though you might want to speak to some of the commuters about that)
  • Not everyone lives in Auckland and Wellington and outside of those cities, good luck finding public transport
  • Trucks enable every movement of freight by rail

It would be good to finally hear this Government acknowledge that roads remain the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy – pretty much everything you need, every day, comes to you on a truck.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Wellingtonians mere pawns in Government games

I know that most of the country isn’t really that interested in what happens in the capital, but please indulge me for this one blog.

As somebody who lives and is passionate about the Wellington region, it makes me irate to see Wellingtonians and their transport issues become pawns in this Government’s ideological games.

It was disappointing this week that Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, did not force Julie-Anne Genter to release the infamous letter she sent to Phil Twyford on the Let’s Get Wellington Moving Project. Nevertheless, Minister Genter was compelled to disclose its contents and they were as bad as we all feared – she threatened the loss of Green Party support unless cycling lanes and a light rail were made priorities ahead of a second Mt Victoria tunnel. The result was a Let’s Get Wellington Moving plan that would do little to alleviate traffic congestion and delayed even turning a sod on the second Mt Victoria tunnel until 2029. Code for, it’s not actually going to be built as part of this plan.

Now, anyone who has spent anytime in Wellington knows that Mt Victoria and the Basin Reserve along with the inadequate 3-lane Terrace Tunnel are our biggest transport issues. They create bottlenecks that at busy times result in large parts of the city being locked up in congestion. Over the last 10-15 years these congestion issues have become so bad that the city really does have a transport crisis on its hands. A number of studies have confirmed that for a city of its size Wellington is one of the most congested in the world. What’s worse, is that needed roading improvements north in the form of Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway mean that more traffic will be coming into the Wellington CBD.

It has become so difficult to get across town at times that traffic is now having a measurable detrimental effect on the lives of Wellingtonians. Most people I know just refuse to go into the city on a Saturday morning, for example.

The reality is that you can add as many cycleways as you like but with the geography and weather that Wellington has, cycling will only ever take a tiny proportion of traffic off the road and will never be the primary form of transport for most Wellingtonians.

I am often accused of being anti-public transport for voicing the concerns I have regarding our road (as a a regular user of our trains to get to work, it’s simply not true). However, the last time I looked; buses also travelled on roads. Unfortunately, in Wellington the bus system is so fragile that it is actually contributing to the city’s congestion problems. The Let’s Get Wellington Moving project could have chosen to run with a project called Bus Priority, which would have meant more buses in dedicated lanes up and running within 18 months. Instead, they’ve lumbered the region and city with an unfunded, futuristic scheme that will sadly never got off the ground and make a real difference in moving freight and people around.

A fully-functioning public transport system, including a reliable bus network, that supplements private and commercial transport, requires transport corridors made up of multi-lane roads, the tunnels and flyovers to get around natural bottlenecks.

Focusing on those things rather than the folly of a pie-in-the-sky light rail project is what a responsible Government that respects the needs of Wellingtonians would do. Unfortunately, the anti-road brigade who are now occupying some parts of Government (but not all), are so fundamentally blinkered that there is little hope of genuine progress.

Finally, let me wish new Wellington Mayor Andy Foster the best of luck in his new role. It cannot be underestimated just what a difficult job he has to get agreement with our Government and sort through this mess.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Road trumps rail to meet customer demands

The 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, without fanfare, a couple of weeks ago. This is the first such study in five years and it’s a significant reminder of just how important road transport is to the New Zealand economy.

It’s important to get it straight up front, New Zealand’s freight network works best when there is a balance between rail and road. Each have their benefits, but as the stats show us, road freight is increasing its share because of the flexibility and reliability it offers in getting goods to market.

Most significantly from the report, the growth across the board in our freight task is large; up 18 percent in six years, from 236 million to 278.7 million tonnes per year. This demonstrates the growth New Zealand has enjoyed in our population and economy.

We are guessing that the absence of a trumpeted announcement on the release of the report is because changes to the proportional split across transport modes flies in the face of the rhetoric and indeed, the billions of dollars invested in rail by the Government. I’m talking about the increase in the amount of freight that road transport carries, versus that of rail.

In 2012, road transport was responsible for 215.6 million tonnes or 91 percent of freight movements and 70 percent of tonnes transported per kilometre. Despite a concerted anti-road campaign, and a Government elected in 2017 with an anti-road agenda, road freight’s proportion has increased in the recent study to nearly 93 percent of the freight task, and 75 percent when it comes to tonnes-per-kilometre.

Rail, on the other hand, has retreated from seven to six percent of freight movements. On a tonnes-per-kilometre basis, rail is down from 16 percent down to 12 percent of the freight task. The rationale given by the pro-rail authors of the report is that this drop is down to the Kaikoura earthquake, which knocked out rail in the upper South Island for a long time. But it also reflects a reduction in volume of rail-suitable commodities, such as coal.

Losing a rail line happens far more regularly than people might think. A section of rail line parallel to SH7, the main road linking Reefton and Greymouth, has been closed due to a slip. KiwiRail has been stopping the TranzAlpine at Arthur’s Pass and offering buses for people wanting to continue on to the West Coast. Freight deliveries of coal and milk have been transported by road, instead of rail. Media attention has focused on the corresponding road failure, rather than that of the rail. I guess because if rail fails, there are always other transport options.

The most significant reason for the swing towards road freight is improvement of truck payload efficiency – that means bigger trucks that carry more load, reducing the number of truck trips. Over the past six years, efficiency gains through the uptake of HPMV and 50 MAX have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution.

The growth in road freight makes the Government’s decisions to rob the National Land Transport Fund, using road user charges (RUCs) and fuel excise to artificially support rail projects, seem all the more short-sighted. This re-engineering of our transport system to satisfy ideology is not only costly, but flies in the face of economic reality. It is even more short-sighted to turn the tap off on new roads critical to the national freight task, such as the East-West Link, in order to put money into rail projects of dubious economic benefit.

Don’t get me wrong; we support asset renewal in rail as it’s badly overdue for this critical infrastructure. What we don’t support, is the Government continually selling that investment as a way to reduce “dangerous” truck movements on our roads. We also reject this investment in rail over new, safer roads. There should be investment in both road and rail infrastructure.

Roads are more flexible and immediate than rail will ever be. There are 93,000 kms of road in New Zealand and only 4,000 kms of rail track. That split isn’t changing and what’s more, the market is making its choice.

Fewer trucks on the road means fewer jobs, less economic activity and less money in the pockets of all New Zealanders. The National Freight Demand Study proves that people and businesses choose the transport mode that best suits their requirements. In the 21st century economy where timeliness and responsiveness is everything, more often than not, that is delivered via road.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Lack of investment in roads will cost us all

We continue to see evidence of the importance of roads in New Zealand. We have a geographically challenging country and the way we all connect to one another is via roads – 93,000 kilometres of them.

Last week, the 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, showing road transport is the major mode of travel for all our domestic and export food and goods, carrying about 93 percent of the total of 280 million tonnes moved during that period.

On a tonnes per kilometre basis, road transport has grown 16 percent between the 2014 and 2019 reports, while rail has dropped 17 percent. The official word in the report is that the drop in rail freight reflects the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake, and the reduction in coal traffic in 2017-18. I guess you have to grasp at excuses when the evidence doesn’t support the ideological direction of the Government. The contention of the RTF is that the improvement of truck payload efficiency is the real reason for the shift between rail and road. Over the past six years, HPMV and 50Max gains have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution, as new vehicles have replaced older, less efficient ones.

This picture, with the backdrop of a tightening economy, suggests the Government should be recognising the correlation between our roads and our way of life.

Sadly, this is not the case. While the Government has quite rightly focused on some aspects of road safety, they don’t seem to connect the importance of the roads themselves, to the safety of the people using them.

We are seeing this in the lowering of speed limits on main highways all around the country. In the South Island, residents are petitioning the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to scrap proposed lower speed limits on State Highway 6, from Nelson to Blenheim. NZTA cites accident numbers to say the road is unsafe and is proposing reducing the speed from 100 km/h to 80 km/h. If approved, the entire length of SH6 between the two towns, about 110 kilometres, would be not more than 80km/h at any point. NZTA says the “technical assessment of the state of the road” was the reason behind the proposed reduced speed limit.

This is also happening on State Highway 1, around Warkworth and Puhoi north of Auckland, where there is a proposal to reduce the speed limit from 100 km/h to 80 km/h, for 15 kilometres. This is our main state highway north out of our major city, Auckland.

And we are seeing road closures because of a lack of investment. The Manawatu-Taranaki-King Country regions are being significantly impacted by two state highways closed by slips – SH4 between Whanganui and Raetihi and SH43 between Mangaparo and Kururau Road, part of the Forgotten Highway. These road closures are of considerable concern to businesses and residents in these regions, who are facing long and expensive detours. People are losing money, daily. This is busy dairy and logging country and it’s a busy time of year. For years, locals on SH4 have been warning the road needed attention. Now, they are looking at a year, if not years of it being closed. There are school children on one side who cannot get to school on the other side of the slip. This doesn’t just affect this region. It has an impact on all of us when goods we rely on have to travel further to get to us. That means they cost more, at a time when household budgets have very little slack.

What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts – of our roads and subsequently, of our back pockets. Not fixing roads and lowering speed limits to accommodate not fixing roads will slow us down and cost us more. The Government says it’s nine minutes here, or seven minutes there, but it all adds up to a total journey. As the Nelson locals say, it also causes perverse behaviour. When people are slowed down, they do stupid things.

There’s ideology, not strategy at play. There is no big picture thinking – what is the total impact of dropping the speed limit to 80 km/h on 110 kilometres of road that is used to transport for example, valuable horticulture products to export markets? If two main roads are closed for a long period of time, what is the total impact to all New Zealanders of the additional business costs that generates?

While the Government would have people believe less trucks on the road is a good thing, it’s not. It’s less jobs. It’s less money in rural and provincial New Zealand. It’s decline not growth. It’s the inconvenience of not having what you want when you want it. It’s higher prices for essentials like food. And at the end of the day, it finally impacts those in the cities as well.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Spend that cash

On Tuesday, the Government slapped itself on the back and congratulated itself on a massive $7.5 billion surplus – the biggest surplus since 2008 prior to the global financial crisis.

This is against a backdrop of the lowest business confidence since just after that global financial crisis; a massive dive in rural confidence tagged to farmers’ concerns about the Government’s policy direction; and a slowing economy in the provincial regions that previously, had been booming.

There is something wrong with this picture. The adage that perception is reality rings true. Most of New Zealand is feeling the pinch, but the Government continues to tell us everything is OK.

For some time, we have been calling for the Government to urgently spend some money on roads – making existing roads safe and building new, four-lane roads where they are most needed. It is our roading network that keeps our economy moving and growing and food on our tables. People and goods need to get from A to B in the most timely, safe, cost-effective and efficient manner. Even if you are giving a nod to the environment, that makes the most sense, as congestion and delays on the road only increase the emissions the Government is trying to reduce.

But with the ideology in play, circular reasoning is being applied around the negative impacts of cars and trucks, rather than their essential role in our high standard of living. This sees a reluctance by the Government to follow all the expert advice that says, “spend some money on infrastructure to boost the economy”.

Back in June, the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council warned that New Zealand is at an “infrastructure crisis point”. It said there is “no overarching vision or leadership in New Zealand for infrastructure development”.

You would think this would raise some concerns, given the Government’s heavy reliance on advisory groups at the expense of core government agencies such as Treasury, who are surely recommending spending some money to make some money.

Last week, we saw stark evidence of the impact of not spending on infrastructure. A key part of the State Highway network collapsed, literally (pictured above – photo from Mark Brimblecombe). Locals say Parapara Road, on State Highway 4 between Whanganui and Raetihi, has been problematic for the past 15 years.  A sizeable crack appeared last week and then the road broke entirely, with hundreds of cubic metres of soft earth slipping and sliding and cutting off vital transport links for an indefinite period.

Drone footage and photos of the slip illustrate how significant it is. The slip is still moving and it is not going to be fixed any time soon, if ever.

This leaves farmers, school children, ambulances, and freight companies facing major detours for an indefinite period of time. The recommended detour route will add at least one hour to every journey. About 1000 vehicles use the Parapara Rd daily, about 10 percent of which are heavy vehicles. Health care professionals are looking at helicoptering out critical patients, as a road journey will now be so long. This is a critical situation.

Steve McDougall from McCarthy’s Transport has been quoted as saying the company’s logging trucks will now have to connect with State Highway 1 at Bulls, or State Highway 3 via New Plymouth, to travel northwards. He says this will have a catastrophic effect on the business that will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 per day. It will reduce productivity – less trips will be possible each day. That cost will be passed on to the forest owners and the end user customer.

The cost of not investing in roads ultimately hurts all New Zealand families. Basics, such as food costs and access to health care cause the initial pain, but the cost across the supply chain of all goods just goes up and up.

We cannot have major roads collapsing. Look at how long it is taking to find a fix to the Manawatu Gorge. The Government needs to apply some basic economics to its thinking. How much cost are they prepared to add to every Kiwi household so they can say, “look how much money we’ve got in the bank”?

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum