Buried deep in Helen Clark's speech from the throne earlier this week was a hint that Auckland's long fight to persuade the Government to electrify the suburban rail network could be won. Referring to the "increasingly important" need "to align central and regional strategies for Auckland transport", the Prime Minister added that "timelines around rail electrification will need to be agreed on ... "
This is the first time the Government has conceded electrification will take place. There have been hints, but never anything as definite as this.
The last came almost a year ago, in a letter from Finance Minister Michael Cullen to regional council chairman Mike Lee, where he effectively flushed the dream of electrification down the drain. Dr Cullen said, "The clear implication of this is that electrification would not be in place for, at the very least, the next eight years".
But even this was not a clear commitment to electrify, only notice that the issue could be relitigated sometime in the future. Presumably well after replacement diesel trains had been ordered.
Since then, the lobbying from Auckland only intensified. The Treasury responded with its favourite delaying tactic - consultation. This only increased Auckland's determination. Last November a report from the Auckland Transport Strategic Alignment Project informed the Government that every stakeholder and territorial authority in Auckland were united behind electrification.
The message seems to have got through with Helen Clark referring to it as a done deal, the only debating point being "timelines".
Perhaps a grateful Auckland could name the first electric locomotive in honour of defrocked minister Taito Phillip Field. For if there's anything likely to give the electrification programme a nudge, it's Labour having to rely on Green Party support to see legislation passed. And the Greens are great supporters of electrifying rail in Auckland. Indeed they're happy for motorway funds to be used.
The Government having to cosy-up to the Greens might also embolden proposed reforms to public transport procurement legislation which the Prime Minister also foreshadowed in her speech. The planned reforms, she said, had "the objective of enabling regional councils to get better value for money in their public transport". The Auckland Regional Transport Authority wants a reform of the contracting system between itself and private operators so it can design an integrated transport network that works best for the customer rather than at present, the operators.
Currently private operators can cherry-pick the most profitable routes, declaring them "commercial" services. ARTA is then left to call for tenders for subsidised services to fill the gaps. ARTA cannot impose or enforce performance standards on the commercial routes. Nor can it introduce integrated ticketing.
ARTA wants a new contracting model, in which it sets up an integrated transport network and contracts an operator or operators to provide the service.
The outburst from Tim Brown, a director of Auckland's main bus operator, Infratil, over the weekend, suggests ARTA's submission may have fallen on receptive ears in Wellington. Mr Brown threatened Infratil would exit the industry if ARTA's proposals were adopted. Hopefully with the Greens now there to buttress Government resolve, Mr Brown's scaremongering will have no impact on the proposed legislation. We should know soon. Details are expected to be announced any day.
While the Greens' new influence in Wellington can only be helpful as far as Auckland public transport reforms are concerned, the same can't be said for those hoping for revolutionary changes to local government.
Helen Clark noted that "the Government is currently considering its response to the region's proposals for strengthening its governance". The word from Wellington is that the consensus agreed to by Auckland's local authorities last December was so bland that Government doesn't see the point of legislating. Instead of reducing the number of bodies running Auckland, the consensus model adds an advisory Regional Sustainable Development Forum to the mix. The regional council would gain a little more power.
Into the mix now come the Greens who regard calls by reformers for a supercity "an affront to democracy". They want more power for community boards. My guess is there'll be no governance reform this year.