I got a shock on Monday to read an article about the top transport priority of the government being decarbonisation and that roads would again be defunded in favour of bike lanes. I say shock, because I had taken heart from Prime Minister Hipkins, immediately post cyclone, stating that building resilience in our roading infrastructure was going to be vital and that somehow, New Zealand would find the money to invest in them. Was this all just post-disaster spin by the PM? Turns out, no, thankfully.

Thanks to a clarification on Monday afternoon by Chris Hipkins, he restated that resilience (read, better more reliable roads) would in fact still be the priority and that Transport Minister Michael Wood was not speaking off the latest song sheet when he defended the defunding roads policy statement released on Monday.

This came as a big relief to us in the transport industry. Now we must ensure the government rethinks its focus long-term and ensure its latest move is not just a one-off emergency-style adjustment.

Yes, addressing climate change is important. Our industry is committed to decarbonisation, as evidenced by the recent launch of our Green Compact. However, feel-good policies shouldn’t take precedence over the practical and pragmatic measures we need to keep our economy moving through high quality and safe roads that will be more resistant to extreme weather.

A one-eyed focus on emissions mitigation isn’t an effective way to future-proof our transport system. Cyclone Gabrielle and severe Auckland flooding have clearly demonstrated what happens when our infrastructure is neglected: state highways and rail links severed, rail often for months, communities cut off, communications in disarray, vital supplies unable to get through or only with difficulty.

The number one priority for our transport system is keeping New Zealanders safe and connected. Simply put, we need to design and build better infrastructure if we are to avoid the devastating impact of severe weather events on our communities and economy.

That includes better roads (especially the main state highways), bridges, and rail so that communities can keep moving when the next big storm hits. And make no mistake: We can expect to see more frequent and more severe weather events which will strike with little or no warning.

The government’s draft “indicative strategic priorities” for transport, if still pursued after this so-called “emergency” U-turn, would make emissions reduction the “overarching focus” of transport investment – and divert funding from road maintenance towards alternative transport options like cycling. Cycling should be part of the picture, but we must continue to reject this binary black or white choice. Roads vs public transport, roads vs rail, roads vs cycleways. The truth is we need more invested in all modes of transport so people have choice and we decarbonise our transport system.

The problem with what the Government was promoting in their pre-U-turn document, was a relegation of climate resilience (adaption), maintenance, freight connections, urban development, and safety to secondary considerations in favour of a so-called decarbonisation agenda. As an industry that contributes significantly to New Zealand’s carbon emissions (around 7% pa), we know that coming technological advancement is the key driver to lowering our emissions.  Rather than focus on ideologically driven pet-projects that simply won’t move the dial to where we need it to go, we need the government to think about the policies and incentives that will help transition industries like ours.

We also need the government to walk and chew gum at the same time. They can – and must – tackle both emissions and resilience together. Once again, it’s not one choice over another; it’s both. When it comes to emissions reduction, industry and government need to be focused on immediate, pragmatic action that works. Here are just a few examples that Transporting New Zealand is driving:

The government could roll out fuel-efficient driver training, tax incentives for low and zero carbon vehicles, and remove regulatory blocks to larger emissions-reducing high productivity trucks almost immediately. Doing so would make a dramatic difference by reducing fuel use and emissions. Building better roads is also good news for the environment because free-flowing traffic substantially reduces emissions, different types of construction such as concrete roads could lower emissions immediately. Newer, better roads also enhance safety and boost economic activity. And don’t forget fuel efficient driving which can knock off around 7% emissions from a vehicle that is driven properly.

Instead, we’re subject to bureaucratic inertia and are stuck waiting around for the government to give the go-ahead for these practical solutions.

Come on, let’s do what the road transport industry does every day, get on with it and just deliver.

-Nick Leggett is chief executive of Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand.

Photo from Newshub

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