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Bridge over troubled fiscal waters

Bridge over troubled fiscal waters

Ashburton Mayor Neil Brown remains confident that the town's second bridge won’t fall into what could be a $24 billion fiscal hole.

The NZ Herald reported a New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi (NZTA) document prepared in November included updated cost estimates for various transport projects and shows a potential fiscal hole of up to $24 billion.

NZTA estimated 17 major projects, including Ashburton’s second bridge, could collectively cost between $30.9b and $46.6b, but National had budgeted only $22.2b for the same projects.

NZTA outlined in the document the costings were preliminary and based on the “latest known project scope”.

The business case for Ashburton’s second bridge came in at $113m but NZTA’s estimates place the project between $100-$200m.

There is bound to be some variance to the business case prepared in 2022 due to inflation, but Mayor Brown couldn’t understand the estimate being as high as $200m.

“This bridge is needed and if those prices are escalating as NZTA says, they need to look at their costs that are way higher than inflation.

“Traffic management may be one place to start.”

When now Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was on the election campaign trail last year, he stood in the Ashburton Events Centre in April and pledged construction on the second bridge would start in his party's first term in government.

The possibility of a cash shortfall casts some doubt on delivering on that pledge, but the Mayor remains very confident they will.

“They just need to sort the funding.

“There is always a possibility it could fall into a fiscal hole but the bridge is ready to go, why delay it and have those costs further increase.”

It is all conjecture until the Government releases its revised policy, Mayor Brown said.

Transport Minister Simeon Brown is finalising the revised draft of the Government Policy Statement on land transport as part of the coalition Government’s 100-day plan.

“The GPS will outline the Government’s priorities across transport, including how projects will be funded.”

The Minister declined to comment further on project details, funding, and what projects may be prioritised, deprioritised or even cancelled ahead of the draft policy announcement.

Rangitata MP James Meager said Ashburton’s second bridge remains a high priority.

“Escalating construction and project costs are a concern, which is why it's so important we get started on key infrastructure projects as soon as possible.

“I have complete confidence that we will meet our commitment to start construction on the new bridge in our first term and continue to work closely with the Minister's office to ensure that happens."

Labour’s transport spokesperson Tangi Utikere said it was "only a matter of time before the Government would be caught out by the numbers they used during the election".

"NZTA’s figure not only proves Christopher Luxon was not honest about the books in his State of the Nation speech, it also shows the lengths they are going to save face over tax cuts.

"I implore Simeon Brown to uphold his promises to Ashburton."

By Jonathan Leask