Time to address our infrastructure deficit

Proper and sustained investment into good infrastructure is one of the few direct drivers of economic growth that any government can undertake.

As published in Local Government NZ magazine, September 2021

With an approximate investment of about $42 billion annually that the New Zealand Government invests in areas such as roads, schools and hospitals, as well as a range of other services, spending wisely on behalf of taxpayers is a critical function. However, recent developments have highlighted shortcomings in the Government’s approach.

The first was the decision to prioritise a cycle and walking bridge over the Waitematā Harbour for Auckland. This announcement was poor in three crucial aspects.

The first aspect is the elevation of this project, with little supporting analysis of its likely benefits, above a range of other worthy projects. In essence, this was a political decision, rather than one that had undergone a rigorous decision-making process that allocated money to a project that would offer the greatest advantage to many.

In the case of the harbour cycle bridge, this meant prioritising a bridge that would cater for an estimated 3,000-4,000 people a day over the 60,000 who will have to continue to trudge up and down the Southern Motorway every day because Mill Road was cancelled.

The second aspect is the breakdown in the decision-making process between Auckland Council and central government. National’s approach was to agree on a set of priority transport projects in a 30-year plan called the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (more commonly referred to as ATAP). The purpose of this approach was to agree on the priorities and then reach agreement on the funding plan.

Mill Road has consistently been one of the highest-priority projects on this list. The blatant override of this plan by the current Labour Government with hardly a squeal from Mayor Goff shows a breakdown in good decision-making.

The third aspect the cycleway decision shows is a failure of Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to stand up to such overt political intervention. Waka Kotahi is tasked with prioritising and overseeing the investment in our roading infrastructure, and while it is fair to say there has always been some political interference in their decision-making, it is really disappointing that this so-called independent entity bended so significantly to the Labour Government’s decision to delay significantly four really important high-priority projects.

These are Mill Road in south Auckland, the triple-laning of the Southern Motorway from Papakura to Drury (for which work had already started), the four-laning and upgrades to State Highway 2 west of Tauranga (regarded as one of the most dangerous sections of road in New Zealand), and the four-laning of State Highway 1 between Whangārei and Port Marsden Highway (the busiest and deadliest highway in Northland).

Having been involved in infrastructure projects for years both in New Zealand and the UK at a local and central government level, my observation is that one of the biggest failings in New Zealand has been the failure to create a work plan and stick to it.

Lack of certainty is the single biggest issue for construction firms because this is the essential ingredient if they are to invest in training staff and buying the latest plant and equipment.

Firms have choices where they wish to operate. Whilst this Government has trumpeted a large infrastructure plan, their record is one of stop start stop. Furthermore, we are a small market internationally. The level of investment in infrastructure that has been ‘announced’ in New Zealand pales even against states such as New South Wales and Victoria.

We need to take a different approach if we are going to actually address our infrastructure deficit. The first is to better prioritise projects across all of Government and then stick to it. This should be the role of the newly created Infrastructure Commission, but the jury is currently ‘out’ on whether it will deliver this plan. Under National it will be required to do this.

The second is to take a more strategic approach to laying out a pipeline of work. For example, rather than building the Waterview Tunnel and then waiting several years before commencing the Central Rail Link (CRL) tunnelling project as well as the $1.4 billion Central Interceptor wastewater tunnelling project currently been undertaken by Watercare, we should have laid out a 20-year plan of tunnelling works so we could attract the best companies to work here and invest in training New Zealanders.

This plan would have said: let’s do Waterview, then the CRL, then Watercare, then down to Wellington to tunnel under the Basin Reserve to alleviate Wellington’s transport issues, and then back to Auckland to do the cross-harbour tunnel, and then finish off by putting in a new tunnel through the Kaimai Ranges to open up better road and rail links between Hamilton and Tauranga.

The third is do the project right first time. Too often our government agencies focus on the cheapest cost and do not adequately take into account the ‘whole of life’ costs, which include maintenance of the asset throughout its life and its deconstruction and disposal at the end. This means that the firm undertaking the construction must also ensure the asset is and can be maintained properly over time.

Finally, let’s give our local construction and maintenance firms a better shot at the work. If we are doing regional projects, let’s prioritise local operators. They are going to be the firms still in business locally long after the initial construction has been completed.

Putting in place better co-ordination of Infrastructure will be a main focus for a National Government. We will be judged on delivering outcomes rather than on the size of Government announcements.