AT – the unaccountable empire at the heart of the Super City
The following article is taken from my speech notes that I gave in introducing the recent mayoral candidates debate on transport organised by PTUA, CBT & NZ Transport 2050..
Transport and the way it is being managed is one of the most important issues concerning Aucklanders – it’s also the most expensive. A recent Weekend Herald investigation piece by Bernard Orsman ‘Super Rich in the Super City’ reported 20 corporates (the majority overseas owned) were paid $10 billion by Auckland Council between 2010 & 2020. Auckland Council itself divvied out $1bn, Watercare $2bn, but most of it, a remarkable $7bn was funnelled through Auckland Transport. The numbers would be a lot higher today.
It is interesting how Auckland Transport which was established by the National led Act-Māori Party coalition government as a key component of the ‘Super City’ amalgamation in 2010, unpopular as it is, ‘AT’ as it likes to be called, seems to be an accepted part of life in Auckland. So extensive are its powers and influence it’s impossible to discuss anything about Auckland transport without mentioning ‘Auckland Transport’.
But the existence of such a large, powerful, undemocratic bureaucracy is unprecedented in local and regional government New Zealand. No such equivalent existed before or anywhere else in the country. Remarkable, given the vast amounts rates money it commandeers, is the fact that AT doesn’t actually do anything practical by way of transport services, except interestingly parking enforcement. All the rest, literally billions of dollars worth of what were once core local government services, from roadworks to bus services, is outsourced to private companies. Just on $2b for foreign owned bus companies. So lucrative has this become that large profit-taking foreign-owned corporates now control all public transport services in Auckland – buses, ferries and rail. One can now see pretty clearly why it was that big business interests, including (especially?) Australian interests, in the lead-up to the ‘Super City’, (as one APN executive told me at a function in 2011) became so actively involved in how we organise our local government in Auckland. And given the sheer scale of the money at stake it’s really no surprise that unlike anywhere else in New Zealand the Super City model was simply imposed on Aucklanders.
So now it seems we have the worst of both worlds fully privatised public transport and an enormous largely unaccountable, very expensive public sector bureaucracy. Despite it being so unpopular with the public, no government, nor any media opinion leader will touch AT because AT is one of the most outstanding success stories of the neo-liberal project.
For many years the received wisdom was that Auckland, was not spending enough on transport. However that notion is long out of date. In fact the people of Auckland, especially over the last 12 years through rates and taxes and indeed their fares, have and are paying more than their share – billions of dollars worth.
The real question is: are they getting value for money from this investment? The answer has to be a resounding NO! I am going to focus here on rail, rail public transport
When I became the chairman of the ARC in 2004, rail public transport in Auckland was emerging from a period of strategic muddle.
During my time in the ARC from 2004 to 2010, the agreed strategic direction eventually settled on with the Clarke government was to extract as much value as possible from our existing though chronically under-used rail network, some 200 km of tracks. This was achieved by double tracking the Western Line, launching an as-new fleet of rolling stock, rebuilding some 46 stations, recommissioning the Onehunga Branch Line and campaigning successfully to persuade the Labour government and then after 2008, the National government to electrify Auckland’s rail network.
The next agreed step was to complete the missing link between the western and eastern components of Auckland’s rail network – the City Rail Link. CRL. Interestingly this was designed virtually along exactly the same route as was first proposed in 1950.
The CRL became a very popular campaign pledge in 2010 by the first Super City Mayor Len Brown. The 3.4 km tunnel was originally priced at $2.4b in 2011 (already high by international standards). In 2016 this increased to $3.4b (at the same time deducting the cost of the originally planned Grafton Station) then in 2019 it blew out to $4.4b. It now looks like blowing out again – by at least another billion. But the scale of the latest blow-out is being deliberately concealed until after the election. Albany councillor John Watson aptly called this the ‘mother of all hospital passes’ from outgoing mayor Goff.
The CRL project is managed by an entity called CRL Ltd, largely staffed by ex Auckland Transport personnel, owned 51% by the government and 49% by the council. Oversight of such a critical project has been minimal (last time I looked most of the virtually invisible board members hailed from outside of Auckland (Wanaka, Blenheim and Wellington). The massive failure by CRL Ltd to hold the foreign-owned construction companies to the tendered price also applies to the completion date – originally set for 2021 when construction began in June 2016, it is now years behind schedule – now promised for some time 2025.
Despite the massive incompetence in the building it, on the face of it at least the CRL project maintains the original strategic coherence i.e. maximising the use of our rail network which in the beginning lent it so much public support.
But no. This is no longer the case. Instead of leveraging this massive investment, the government and the council are intent on pushing ahead with a completely different transport mode – light rail to the airport (or should I say Mangere). Originally announced at $6b in 2018 by the former Minister of Transport, the hapless Phil Twyford, which included for a time a line to Kumeu (parallel to the existing rail line) the light rail project is now priced at $14.6b though Treasury warns that could increase to $29b.
So not only gross incompetence at the operational level, but also at the strategic level – in other words the Government.
Already over the last four years it was revealed in parliament that $42.5m has been spent on this light rail project on consultants – a look at the list suggests just about every consultancy house one could think of has been at the trough for its share. And yet not one centimetre of track is even close to being laid.
For a small country like ours, this is strategic chaos and financially ruinous.
To be fair, I’m not getting too upset by this, as I pointed out some years ago in a series of articles published in the NZ Herald and The Daily Blog, the light rail to the airport project (‘KiwiBuild on wobbly wheels’) will surely capsize under the weight of its shear irrationality. I’m just amazed how long its been allowed to run.
But getting back to existing reality, there is remarkable contradiction at play here – a strange paradox. While enormous amounts of money is going into rail, it has become quite obvious through a a recent string of decisions, that AT does not actually believe in rail at all and is quietly stymieing rail from assuming the key role, originally planned for it. (A role which also includes reductions in transport driven carbon emissions which also should include incentivising containers off our congested roads and motorways and onto rail.)
My suspicion is bolstered by a long list of decisions pushed through by the AT bureaucracy going back at least 10 years.
- The cancellation (without consultation) of original plans to extend passenger rail to rapidly growing Kumeu-Huapai in 2013 and the stubborn refusal to revisit that decision
- The eviction from Britomart of the Auckland to Wellington service, the Northern explorer, in 2015, and so damaging its patronage
- The refusal to complete the work to make the Parnell Station fully operable (connecting the platforms with an underpass)
- the refusal to complete the western line (North Auckland Line) and the central line at Newmarket with a south-facing link
- The replacement of the previously planned heavy rail connection to the airport with light rail
- the recently announced permanent retrenchment of popular Onehunga services without consultation, on the dishonest pretext of temporary CRL related work at Britomart
- the premature withdrawal of Pukekohe services (though ostensibly until the line is electrified in two years? time)
- intended permanent removal of platforms at Britomart which means less trains will be able to use it.
We have in Auckland Council a looming massive financial crisis and the mismanagement of rail is a key part of it.
In Auckland it seems we have the worst of both worlds. Through a series of deliberate policy decisions our public transport services, bus, ferry and train are operated as profitable concerns by foreign-owned companies, at the same time we are burdened by a huge, costly, all-powerful, largely unaccountable bureaucracy called Auckland Transport and its offshoot CRL Ltd.
There is no longer any strategic coherence in our critical transport policies – the only consistent strategy I can see is the resolute adherence to the neo-liberal policies which led to the creation of the Super City in the first place. This has and will continue to enable the transfer of billions of dollars from the public of Auckland to foreign owned corporates.
This article was published in Sept 2022 in the Daily Blog