Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Key Government downgrades small city bus service funding

Saturday morning in Raglan - backpackers, younger teenagers and children, and elderly - the sort of comprehensive quality public transport social services in smaller centres likely to be shafted by the Key Government's public transport policies. Photo; NZ in Tranzit 2010

NZ Transport Agency has told regionally operated bus systems outside the main centres the Government funding contribution towards their social services will not increase for three years.

Needless to say with inflation and escalation in oil costs this represents not so much as a levelling out of funding as a significant cutback in Government support for smaller cities.

recent article in The Southland Times;   "Council's dream of better bus service kneecapped as funds cut" quotes the Invercargill City Council senior traffic management officer Eddie Cook as saying -

"The NZ Transport Agency's decision not to increase funding to the council meant if the number of bus routes was not reduced, then ratepayers would have to pay extra in the long term", he said.  

The de facto cuts have substantially reduced new Invercargill bus services planned, including an innovative plan to create several orbital routes. Currently services carry 370,000 passenger trips per year. 

Not mentioned  is that the Key Government move basically reduces the inherent value of a SuperGold Card for retired people in smaller centres, many any way cheated of adequate  transport for all the taxes they paid in their lifetime. 

In the same Southland Times article; "Acting chief executive [of NZTA] Stephen Town said it was being upfront with councils that there was no additional funding for new off-peak public transport services in smaller centres. The focus for public transport investment was congestion relief in large urban areas, where it was needed most to help grow the country's economy".

There is of course a very direct source of funding for bus services in our many smaller cities and country towns  - asking the 120,000 or so parents* of children catching country school buses to front up and pay their share of children's transport costs, just like every other parent**. 

No one expects a real cost per actual kilometre but it is clearly ludicrous that hundreds of thousands of city parents must pay to get their children to school, including many city suburbs without convenient high schools such as Halswell or North-East suburbs in Christchurch while country parents pay absolutely nothing.

There is no moral case for free transport for some kids and not others.

Currently country school buses cost the country around a massive $160 million a year to transport about 80,000 children*. To give some context this is three quarters of the $200 million taxpayer share of subsidising operating costs for ALL other public transport services across New Zealand.

This figure includes the taxpayer share of operating rail and buses in Auckland and Wellington and bus services in about fifteen other centres, in rough terms the Government quarter share of public transport income (the other income; the largest source, fares, nationally just under 50% and city or regional rates, usually about 25%).

A standard country school bus fare (regardless of distance), roughly equivalent to children's fares in main centres, say $2.50 per day, applied in the school bus runs would generate over $50 million per year. This is even allowing for added operation costs, such as computer chip cards (or dare I say it, far too sensible and easy to maintain,  a simple old fashion multi-trip concession "punch-hole" card which the child writes their name upon  and the school sells at small commission).

This frees up taxpayer money to upgrade public transport available for all, hundreds of thousands of rail and bus users nationwide, but especially improving the school bus services themselves and local and urban bus services in multiple smaller cities and larger provincial towns.

Studies have shown overall average income in rural areas is higher than cities (not counting de facto resource access such cheaper rents, land for gardens,chooks,home kill etc). Even more repulsive to most fair-minded New Zealanders is that the average dairy farmer is paying less tax than a couple on the pensionAnd unlike Australia  New Zealand  farmers pay no capital gains tax - de facto in most cases creating a huge untaxed superannuation retirement bonus to complement Government superannuation. What farmer would not invest in value adding technology etc, aiming  for added tax write offs and his or her run annual accounts as near to ostensible loss as possible in these circumstances? 

Sure, there are also some rural poor - but specific social welfare systems are in place to subsidise parenting costs for the extremely disadvantaged - it is not the role of bus systems to be a welfare agency!

Why are the two million or so people (all taxpayers, in one way or other) in New Zealand living outside the three main centres, and in most cases still living in urban centres, subsidising Auckland and Wellington public transport and country school buses for rural parents fo hugely?

Why is middle New Zealand (almost half the population)  getting so little by way of quality public transport services for their own centres while a tiny sector get this huge freebie?

And what cost benefits can accrue to their local commerce and tourism and ability to attract and hold residents if only token or no services at all operate? Drift to the cities leads eventually to loss of land value and downgrading of services.

Far from cutting funding to to city and town bus services, most notably at the expense of the mentally and physically disabled, the retired, those on benefits and parents or older children working part-time, the Government should be working to create a bottom line infrastructure to minimise transport poverty and reduce the humiliations of transport dependency on others in all centres - or connected urban settlements - with a population of over 5000. 

As suggested in previous NZ in Tranzit  blogs, funding should be adequate for an attractively branded  hourly service (and in centres over 10,000 population, half hourly service) in a circuit or "S" or "8" route embracing most of the town's and smaller city's residential areas and main commercial, educational, medical, recreation and tourist facilities in user friendly ways to different social sectors.  

Service operations need to be 7am - 6pm weekdays and Saturdays, sufficient to allow a range or work and socially related trips. Anything less is (a) unlikely to be attractive (b) to infrequent to lift above the transport poverty bottom-line (c) will not attract work and study attending commuters.

It is ludicrous to think services running erratic times, only every two hours or only middle of the day or not linked to schools, hospitals etc can be deemed effective transport - they are a mere tokenism, a piece of patronising crap, lacking adequate Government backing and professional support in design. 

It seems to NZ in Tranzit that the Key Government policy on public transport borders on the insulting and derisive and largely based on ignoring the huge damage rising fuel costs will do to those on lower and fixed incomes. 

It also ignores the important role a modern frequent and sophisticated bus system can play - even on a small scale - in upholding the quality of life and commercial, tourist and social vitality of smaller centres.

NZ in Tranzit says - Municipal authorities through-out New Zealand must not let the many recent improvements to public transport in smaller centres be eroded by a Government that sees easy pickings in bullying down a dispersed and largely voiceless electorate of thousands of public transport users and transit dependent persons. 

NZ needs a nationwide strategy to create or upgrade urban bus services in all towns over 5000, to meet consistent criteria in providing an effective, frequent and attractive mobility for all sectors. 

* Extremely ballpark figures!! - I am presuming here a percentage of children only have one present-parent or some families have more than one child catching a school bus.

** Property values, rates and rents typically go up, town or country in relationship to the degree of  proximity to schools and local service hubs - where kids can walk or ride bikes to school an inherent "child transport" cost is still being paid; those further a field in outlying areas faced reduced costs yet get totally subsidised school transport!

*** Extremely ballpark figures, possibly a bit out of date, the Department of Education suggests current School bus figures have [mysteriously] dropped a bit -  but relevant enough for readers to get the ghist

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