Comment: Auckland Transport, the $20 billion all-powerful mess


COMMENT

Auckland Transport wanted $1.4 million from the Government back in June for a project hardly anyone knew about – and they were intent on keeping it that way until they got the cash.

The Queen St project was controversial, but the issue wasn’t the cash.

A million and change is nothing to a council-controlled organisation that oversees billions in infrastructure projects and owns more than $20 billion in assets.

The project had been canvassed in a public meeting agenda document – available online if you knew where to check.

I guess it was “public” but I’m not so sure it meets the definition of being transparent with ratepayers.

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As a reporter who regularly covers Auckland Council issues, I had to read it four times before it was clear to me exactly what was being proposed.

Scrap that – it still wasn’t exact in my mind. It was more that all indicators within bureaucratic jargon such as “transitioned in a streamlined workstream” and “trials of temporary street treatments” pointed to the same conclusion: Queen St – the faltering once-grandest shopping strip in the country – was to remain one lane each way for the indeterminate future.

That’s a four-lane street that sees 12,000 cars on an average day.

Auckland Transport was using Covid-19 social distancing barriers it had dug into the asphalt along Queen St as the framework to fast-track a pedestrian-friendly trial.

That trial, devised in 2019 as part of the refreshed City Centre Masterplan, was to begin “sometime before March 2021”.

The logic, ostensibly, was to save money from digging the barriers up to reinstall them sometime early next year.

But was that the innocent rationale?

I heard it from one Auckland elected official that the project was “tactical urbanism” – that AT was taking advantage of the Covid-19 social distancing measures to enforce a pro-pedestrian agenda earlier than they had said they would and for a much longer period. Maybe even permanently.

It is unclear how much longer Queen St Auckland will have the Covid-19 social distancing barriers in place and remain one lane each way. Photo / Alex Burton
It is unclear how much longer Queen St Auckland will have the Covid-19 social distancing barriers in place and remain one lane each way. Photo / Alex Burton

This decision was also made during a year where the Auckland CBD had already been brought to a standstill with roadworks affecting 63 separate streets.

These disruptions revolved around the dual Goliath projects of the City Rail Link up Albert St and the Downtown Programme for the America’s Cup along the Quay St waterfront.

Hey, what’s one more lane taken away other than a mocking insult to any schmuck who hasn’t got the message that AT doesn’t want you driving through the city?

But what is most striking about the whole episode is how typical this kind of obfuscation of information is by AT.

Not only their ability to keep it from the public, but silence Auckland councillors, local board members and the largest business association in the country – Heart of the City – to keep quiet about it until AT themselves announce it.

They did so on June 18 – four days after I wrote about it in the Herald on Sunday without the benefit of any confirmation on specifics from AT.

They had obtained $1.4 m from the NZ Transport Agency, and $600,000 from Auckland Council to bring forward the Queen St Access For Everyone pilot.

Queen St Auckland showing the lanes that have been cordoned off following the coronavirus pandemic. Photo / Alex Burton
Queen St Auckland showing the lanes that have been cordoned off following the coronavirus pandemic. Photo / Alex Burton

Any other comment I sought from the multiple other sources who were sitting on the Auckland City Centre Advisory Board to give feedback on the pedestrian pilot batted me away as they referenced AT as the “lead agency on this”.

This board included: Mayor Phil Goff, two Auckland councillors, the Waitematā Local Board chairman and 13 other representatives from major universities, design firms and the corporate sector.

The greatest silencing of information in this episode was illustrated by Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck, who did not provide comment to the Herald’s request for information before AT’s official announcement on the Queen St trial.

This is despite Beck being chairwoman of the Auckland City Centre Advisory Board that actually reviewed the Queen St pilot.

Perhaps this would be fair enough if they had been aligned with AT in endorsing the pedestrian trial, and merely thought it was AT’s project to officially announce before they commented on it.

Wrong.

That same day, Heart of the City put out a media release scathing of the trial, saying 79 per cent of businesses along Queen St wanted the barriers gone and that they posed a risk to revenue and jobs.

Heart of the City’s Beck said she was “astounded at the lack of interest in hearing the needs of our businesses and property owners before making this decision”.

Beck told the Herald that AT had given assurances they would remove the Covid-19 Queen St barriers once the country returned to level 2 – but then reneged on it.

“The reality is they’ve left the street in a mess at a time when we’ve got people trying to get back on their feet in a major economic crisis,” Beck said.

“It’s poor quality. It’s unappealing. It doesn’t represent Queen St well. There are multiple construction projects going on around it. The access is very very difficult. There’s a whole range of safety and functional issues.

“So it’s pretty disingenuous to just say, now we’ve got that [the Covid barriers] we’re just going to carry on.

“What’s worse actually is we’ve been really genuinely trying to talk to them [AT] about the issues, and at the end of the day they’re now going to make some further changes to kind of supposedly try to improve it but the reality is they’re doing that before they start the co-design. So it makes a complete mockery of a co-design process.”

Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck.

Beck also said AT had shut off Fort St without any discussion.

“It’s just extraordinary. They’ve cut it off without any discussion with property owners around that area or the businesses that are affected,” Beck said.

Added to this, a group of Queen St businesses have now banded together and employed a QC to write a letter of objection to Goff.

“It [the letter] does indicate the degree of sentiment about this. Because these things weren’t discussed,” Beck said.

“I think at the end of the day there were a lot of questions about the [Queen St] works in the first place, but I think people think ‘Okay, it was done in an emergency, all right.’ But at least honour the commitment made and be genuine about co-design and what goes forward.

“It’s not a great way forward if you’re pressing on without discussion. I mean things like roads don’t get closed without discussion.”

AT asked for $600,000 of funding for the Queen St pilot in a pitch to the Auckland City Centre Advisory Board council meeting on May 27. Photo / Alex Burton
AT asked for $600,000 of funding for the Queen St pilot in a pitch to the Auckland City Centre Advisory Board council meeting on May 27. Photo / Alex Burton

There are other examples of AT’s dismissive attitude to scrutiny from the media, local politicians and business people.

Outgoing Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye held a crisis briefing with AT executive general manager Mark Lambert in February this year to ask for an explanation for the CBD roadworks chaos.

At the time, Lambert assured her that “we are looking at opportunities for regulatory change to enable greater enforcement of delays to third party works programmes”.

Basically, penalise private construction works that don’t finish on time. Lambert claimed that about 70 per cent of the disruptive city works were from private developers – not AT or council.

A follow-up from the Herald on the potential regulatory changes was responded to with: “AT’s doing a review of our regulatory powers to see if we need more enforcement powers… We are looking at whether we need a new transport bylaw to make it easier to penalise private companies which do not stick to their work programme.”

However, an official information request of AT around the documentation, emails and groundwork into this review for a potential bylaw change revealed not a single reference to it within the entire organisation other than Lambert’s email to Kaye.

This included any time prior to the February 28 AT meeting with Kaye, to the end of April this year.

Nikki Kaye held a crisis briefing with AT executive general manager Mark Lambert in February this year.
Nikki Kaye held a crisis briefing with AT executive general manager Mark Lambert in February this year.

A lip-service response to Kaye if ever there was one, I’d suggest.

Presented with these facts in early July, Kaye said she was “concerned” with the state of Auckland Transport.

“They need to improve the way they operate and there is a need for greater accountability,” Kaye said.

“We have had a lot of chaos this year in the CBD, whether it’s roadworks or other issues. They’ve said they’re working on it but they need to do better.”

Then in 2020, there were the following AT planning decisions:

– Implementing, similar non-permanent Covid-19 social distancing barriers along Ponsonby Rd and Tamaki Dr. The Ponsonby Rd cones faced fierce community objection, with a mock Facebook page set up for residents to “sponsor a cone”. The cones that reduced the street to one lane each way were eventually removed by residents after serious concerns and formal complaints that they actually made the street more dangerous for pedestrians. An email “stoush” between AT chief executive Shane Ellison and a Waitematā Local Board member also ensued.

– Building a $5.3m cycleway along Victoria St that will be dug up again in a few years for an already planned “linear park” with native trees along the east-west city street route. AT said in late-2019 that construction of the cycleway “will be a dig-once approach”.

– In November 2019, AT similarly ripped up a $2.85m cycleway along Quay St, which had only been installed in 2016 – to build a $13m rain-garden stormwater system.

– Beginning a new bus lane trial along Khyber Pass Rd in Newmarket to include non-peak hours during the middle of the day and the weekend, which netted AT an extra $2.2m in fines in three months.

– There was also the eventual scrapping of the $17m Queens Wharf mooring dolphin project in June this year as part of Auckland Council’s emergency budget. Unfortunately, according to one Auckland councillor, this was not before substantial extra funds, they claim in the millions, were spent in design and consultation by AT over the previous two years.

– Scheduling the closure of one of the city’s busiest intersections, Wellesley St West and Albert St, to begin City Rail Link construction on the same Monday that March Madness traffic began – as uni students returned to class. A one to two-week delay of this intersection closure would have seen off the worst of the traffic chaos, as car commuters adjusted to the added student travellers.

– And of course, there was the time in April 2019 that Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson claimed he had not been informed by AT before the public of the Quay St roadworks start. The Downtown Programme works along Quay St were to massively disrupt the sole road entrance to the port for the next two years, but Gibson said he was unaware of the start date.

Several streets around Auckland had their footpaths makeshift widened using road cones during Covid-19 levels 2, 3, and 4 including Queen St. Photo / Alex Burton
Several streets around Auckland had their footpaths makeshift widened using road cones during Covid-19 levels 2, 3, and 4 including Queen St. Photo / Alex Burton

Automobile Association spokesman Barney Irvine says surveys show members are often very frustrated with AT’s consultation method, which tends to present projects as a fait accompli and merely a box-ticking exercise.

“There’s a lot of talk within AT about being a customer-focused organisation, but AT only seems to really care about the customers who use public transport, walk and cycle. There’s little interest in talking to motorists at all, let alone in really trying to understand their needs and preferences, in order to better respond to them,” he said.

Irvine says such priorities are “ridiculous” given cars make up 85 per cent of all the travel on Auckland roads.

“When AT does talk to motorists, it’s typically to tell them that their behaviour is wrong, and that they need to change, and get out of their cars,” Irvine said.

“AT doesn’t seem to understand that, in so many cases, people drive because they have no choice – they need their cars for work, or for personal or family commitments.”

AT's dismissive attitude to scrutiny from the media, local politicians and the business community has hit a high point in 2020. Photo / Sarah Ivey
AT’s dismissive attitude to scrutiny from the media, local politicians and the business community has hit a high point in 2020. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Irvine also said AA’s experience of AT was defensive and reactive from the get-go.

“It’s almost as if they think that, no matter what they do, the public isn’t going to like it. So, instead of engaging proactively and getting people on side, they keep quiet and hope that no one will notice.

“The problem is, people do notice, and very quickly they reach the conclusion that AT is trying to hide something from them”

But there was sympathy within AA for AT’s position dealing with council, who Irvine says often haven’t done enough homework.

“Sometimes it’s not actually AT’s fault. They get caught between the council’s agenda on one hand and a sceptical public on the other,” Irvine said.

“We’ve heard of a number of situations where AT has raised concerns with a council-led project, but has been overruled, and left with no choice but to deliver on the council’s plans.”

And then there is my own frustration with AT’s communication skills.

In covering transport issues in Auckland for about three years, and contacting AT on at least a fortnightly basis, I have only met one AT staffer in person.

That was AT’s programme director of the Downtown Programme, Eric van Essen, in November last year in a meeting arranged by Auckland Council’s communication team – not AT.

I cannot remember the last time I had a phone call with an actual employee of AT – other than the media team – with expertise of the actual transport infrastructure they spend Auckland ratepayers money on.

Aotea Station is the next major step for the City Rail Link (CRL) in Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker
Aotea Station is the next major step for the City Rail Link (CRL) in Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker

This silence rang equally flat in my dealings with AT the week beginning June 15 as I attempted to clarify whether the Queen St pedestrian trail was essentially already in place in the form of the unmoved Covid-19 barriers.

With every other source at the meeting for the Queen St pedestrian pilot unwilling to speak to me – from councillors to academics, to local board members to business leaders – I had to go off the convoluted details in the online council meeting agenda.

Wanting to get AT’s perspective on their efforts at consultation for this article, I attempted to ring AT executive general manager risk and assurance Rodger Murphy, whose mobile number was passed to me from an Auckland councillor.

I had hoped to have a conversation with a real person about weekly internal consultation meetings I was informed AT had begun in the last year.

But AT’s media team intervened.

“I’ve had a message from Rodger Murphy that you were trying to contact him,” the comms email came back.

“Can you tell us what you’re after – Rodger is our exec GM Risk and Assurance so possibly isn’t the right person to help you.”

And in that fell swoop, I was sucked back into the carefully contrived email matrix of the AT comms team.

I explained my interest in this AT consultation meeting and that I was “keen to speak to someone” so I could get genuine, spontaneous answers on AT’s consultation efforts for this comment piece.

But the desire to speak, not type, fell on deaf ears.

“No that’s not quite right, we have a weekly internal meeting, which mainly looks at small consultations. Things like installing pedestrian crossings, putting in speed bumps and changing traffic lights,” I was told via email.

Then the final predictable ploy.

“Get back if you have any questions.”

Vet the questions so you can vet the answers. At that point, I abandoned my own consultation with AT.



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