ANALYSIS: Efeso Collins isn’t sure exactly how his flagship policy of free public transport would be funded, but he’s confident it can.
It is one of the biggest political calls in the 2022 Auckland Council election, and possibly the biggest ticket since Len Brown’s winning pledge in 2010 to build the city rail link $4.4 billion, despite government resistance.
When pressed, the Labor and Green-backed candidate points to large sums of money in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project’s (ATAP) $31billion ten-year budget that could be repurposed.
However, Collins admits he doesn’t know if the expenses these buckets are loosely earmarked for — like customer experience — can really be cut.
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“What needs to happen is when we take office, sit down with transport planners and budget people, and take their advice,” he said.
“Determine which (projects) might be delayed and which don’t need to move forward,” Collins said.
Removing tariffs, he estimated, would cost $236 million a year to start. The true cost is hard to pinpoint as it requires knowing how many people would normally have traveled and paid, and attendance is still 30% below pre-Covid-19 levels and in trouble.
An estimate from Auckland Transport put it at $500 million a year by 2030, but for a city separately requiring a nine-fold increase in public transport use by that year, any type prediction is very uncertain.
Collins acknowledged that something would have to give, the policy fund.
“It’s about recognizing that in any budget discussion there are trade-offs,” he said.
Free is a policy, much like City Rail Link, the twin rail tunnels that will create a loop around the city centre, which requires a leap of faith without spreadsheets that can guarantee a return on health, fairness, land climate congestion.
The risk of selling this to Auckland’s 1.2million voters is with Collins and if elected he can claim a mandate to explore the details.
He does not want to phase out tariffs, for example starting with students and/or low-income people. Community service card holders were already required to travel at half price from mid-2022, before the introduction of the government’s general half-price scheme, until January 31, 2023.
Opponents criticize the plan for its cost and say lost revenue could be better used to improve services and attract customers by making public transport a more attractive travel option.
Collins took a political risk, in the mold of Len Brown, running his campaign with big politics, backed by an aspiration to make the city fairer and more affordable for the less well off and the young.
There are other policies that signal style rather than committing large sums of money, even the establishment of a council-government liaison office in Wellington, which Collins does not consider costly.
In a race so far polite and non-confrontational, Collins – a two-term Manukau ward councilor who has not served as committee chairman – has received few serious questions from his rivals.
Collins was briefly described as a candidate for high rates, aided by his use of a confusing description of rates being “affordable” if not more than 5% of household income, but returned to promoting the 3 increase, 5% expected for next year, but possibly threatened by budgetary pressures.
Past opposition to social issues such as same-sex marriage, which Collins openly addressed as ideals that reflected the important role of his upbringing in the church in the past, views he has since abandoned.
Perhaps Collins’ biggest challenge is making sure his core constituency gets out and votes, in a city where turnout for council elections is down from just 35% in 2019.
His Otara heartland had the lowest turnout at just 23%, and Oct. 8 will show how effectively Collins campaigned in less left-leaning communities, such as the eastern suburbs and the north.
Collins’ publicity appears to have moved to tackle issues that rivals make a big deal of, with its latest newspaper ad advocating ‘Take back control of Auckland Transport’ by reinstating two advisers to its board .
The directors of advisers were in place under Len Brown, but abandoned by Phil Goff, and what exactly they would achieve, apart from an appearance of more political “control” of the agency, is unclear.
Slightly ironic, a rival camp had been told that when running for the presidency of the University of Auckland Students’ Association, Efeso had promised an ice cream stand in the students’ quad, and not delivered.
“I really don’t remember,” Collins said of her student campaign a quarter century ago, but noted that you can now get good ice cream in this part of campus.