What is the best administrative structure for public transport?

In New Zealand, since 1989, public transport around the country is governed by regional councils, whilst territorial councils are responsible for funding road-based infrastructure for PT that uses roads, such as buses. Where rail is a form of PT, the local infrastructure, however, is generally under the ownership of the regional council, the rail line and corridor being owned by the Government. Unitary authorities work in a similar way to a territorial council that has taken over regional functions. Auckland is in a unique position of being a unitary authority with all of its transport and roading functions placed under the control of a CCO, a company owned by Auckland Council which it only has governance oversight of, not direct operational control. This essentially means the board of Auckland Transport is not elected directly by ratepayers and therefore not accountable to them.

There is no perfect system for administering public transport because the sticking point is the source of funding for local infrastructure. Ratepayers in local government areas are very reluctant to see their rates being spent on public transport infrastructure, or road space being prioritised for public transport ahead of cars. So in Christchurch, bus priority takes forever to implement, and bus shelters and interchanges tend to be scarce. Residents opposing the operation of a bus down their street is also an ongoing issue.

Rail has a relatively easy ride compared to road transport because the rail network is a central government asset, and they are not directly accountable to local ratepayers. The operation of trains has to be contracted out, but the regional council governs the service just as they do with bus services. The crucial difference is that local ratepayers cannot hobble the operation of the train services. Train services are also different in that local infrastructure such as stations is owned by the regional council rather than by a territorial council.

Public transport therefore works best when it is governed by a non-territorial authority. This is precisely the reason for the system we have now. The problem is that as a long as roads are under the control of a territorial council, which is guaranteed to kowtow to the owners of private motor vehicles, public transport will always remain second priority and second rate because the money will never be found from rates to fund the infrastructure that is needed to improve the services.

The solution for road based public transport is probably to keep the governance of the services themselves at regional council level as is the case now. The second step that is needed is for central Government to fund public transport infrastructure directly, through either the regional or territorial council, preferably the former. Therefore for example, giving the regional councils the powers necessary to designate and manage a public transport network and the necessary infrastructure, is probably the improvement necessary to ensure that road based PT systems operate much better than is possible now. This essentially would mean giving the regional councils the power to override local councils in the matter of bus routes and corridors, and the funding to build the supporting infrastructure themselves. At that point, the operation of a road-based public transport system is similar to that of a rail network.

There are those who argue that the answer is to give full governance control to the territorial authority. This will result in the services being subsumed to the all-dominant motor vehicle interests. In short it is not going to improve on the current system as funding will still be at the whim of ratepayers.