Weekend Herald

Bike bridge starts a vicious cycle

Govt can’t push luxury items as others tighten their belts

- Claire Trevett

There is a new villain in town, and that villain is the cyclist of North Shore. Through no fault of their own, the North Shore cyclists have been indirectly blamed for all manner of misbehavio­ur and misdemeano­urs.

The reason was the Government’s decision to include a shiny new $685 million cycling and walking bridge over Auckland’s harbour in its downsized transport infrastruc­ture package – but to cut or downsize major projects such as Manukau to Drury’s Mill Rd and a number of regional roading projects because of cost blowouts.

Alas, the number of motorists in Auckland greatly outnumbers that of North Shore cyclists.

As a result, the announceme­nt of that bridge could not have come at a better time – for the Opposition.

National came up with a long list of those now disadvanta­ged by the decision to forge ahead with the bridge while cutting other projects.

First up was Judith Collins’ South Auckland tradie, who could not take a bike to get to a job on the North Shore. The tradie who would still be stuck in his or her tool-laden van for hours on Mill Rd because the Government was paying for a new cycle bridge instead of a highway.

Then came the people of Ashburton, who needed a second bridge after the only convenient bridge across the Ashburton River was damaged by floods.

Those floods were very inconvenie­ntly timed to coincide with the announceme­nt of the Auckland cycle bridge – which was also much more expensive than an Ashburton bridge would be.

But it was not the worst incident of bad timing for the Government.

Five days after the news of the bridge was unveiled, the striking nurses marched to Parliament.

In all of the reactions to the bridge, the nurses have been the ones most often highlighte­d as being more

Thenumbero­f motorists in Auckland greatly outnumbers that of North Shore cyclists.

worthy of the money.

Such projects are inevitably held up as less worthy or necessary than things that are actually worthy and necessary, but for which not as much money has been given.

The distinctio­n between funding for capital projects rather than things such as pay increases is real, but almost irrelevant politicall­y. It becomes a question of perception.

And the perception is that the Government wants to build a luxury item at the same time it is pleading poverty and asking others for sacrifices for the sake of the Covid-19 recovery.

The nurses’ pay negotiatio­ns are the first major test run of a pennypinch­ing measure the Government has taken in the name of the Covid-19 economic downturn: “pay restraint” for workers in the public sector.

The nurses are the first major group of workers to go through negotiatio­ns under this new edict, which states that for the next three years, only those earning less than $60,000 should get substantia­l pay increases while those earning more than that should get minimal, if any, increases.

The Government may well be ruing the timing of that: The nurses are also the group of public sectors workers that attract the most public sympathy and support. That is even more so at the moment, courtesy of Covid-19.

Even at the best of times, anybody who has had a nurse see them through the indignitie­s and trials of ill health would rather a nurse got a pay rise than a cyclist got a bridge.

The Government’s offer to nurses would give those at the lower end boosts of around 12 per cent.

But for the vast majority of nurses, the increases are barely in the cost of living range.

Transport Minister Michael Wood has argued the bridge is a small part of the entire programme and getting more attention than it warrants.

He has also, correctly, pointed out the vast bulk of the funding was still going on roading.

On that front, the Government has got off somewhat lightly. Most of the focus has been on the cycling bridge, rather than the belated backdown on other promises. It is a staggering case of over-promising, despite the attempt to pitch it partly as a “rebalance” for climate change.

The infrastruc­ture package was initially devised before Covid-19 and announced with much hoopla in early 2020 as the “Great New Zealand Upgrade” by the Prime Minister.

After Covid-19, Labour campaigned on it as part of the recovery – Ardern pointed to the $12 billion infrastruc­ture spend as a “double duty” measure: spending to create jobs and economic stimulus, deliver assets, and deal to climate change.

It transpired officials had long warned that cost blowouts in that programme were inevitable.

A cynic might wonder at Labour gleefully pointing to a hole in National’s books on the campaign, and all the while pretending officials’ warnings of major cost pressures on its own books did not exist.

A cynic might also note that it was the Prime Minister who announced the initial Great New Zealand Upgrade plan last January. Ardern was nowhere when Wood and Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced the watered down version last week.

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