Round the buoys

A public meeting to discuss recent developments on the vexed issue of Waiheke’s unregulated passenger ferry service is in the wind after Local Board chair Cath Handley’s announcement at the end of June that  the Minister of Transport, Michael Woods, has already initiated the process required to move Waiheke’s service into Auckland Transport’s Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM). 

Both ferry runs were excluded from regulation by former government minister Stephen Joyce in 2013. Few details are yet known, she said. 

Waiheke’s Fullers360 Mātiatia ferry regulation voyage goes back three decades during which the Gulf Ferries service (and Devonport, the same operator) declined subsidies which allowed them to keep financial information confidential. It got even more impenetrable in 2013 when government minister Steven Joyce agreed to leave both of Waiheke’s monopoly ferry companies out of the PTOM, signing away subsidies and fare regulation indefinitely.

Things were at boiling point by 2019 when islanders – Waiheke business owners, pensioners, commuters, tourism entrepreneurs, young mothers, tradesmen, café workers and local and minor city politicians – crammed the usually-expansive MORRA Hall, gathered out onto the street and around side doors. 

The purpose of the Sunday afternoon meeting was to canvas the issues of not one but two monopoly ferry services and the feeling of having been sold down the river by council and its entities like Auckland Transport. 

Many of those present had queued in the rain through the winter to board the rival ferries on principle, ultimately in vain as the newcomers failed to find a level playing field at AT’s passenger wharves. Speculation on Fullers’ profit margins are the stuff of gossip and the secrecy lost nothing in the telling. Fullers’ owner was in Scotland and his double-decker buses were a crushing assault on the island’s distinctive – and marketable – characteristics of peace and scale.

For the diehards, there was also the issue of wharf taxes collected for decades by a dollar a day levy on tickets to provide for the wharves and services at Mātiatia and Kennedy Point. It was garnering Auckland City $1.8 million in 2007 when Gulf News finally managed to get figures. Since then, somehow, it’s dodged the issue, dropping down to $1.2 million before Covid and now, in the annual accounting in May, to only $1 million.

Promises were made and inevitably broken. Delay is a deadly form of denial and there was plenty of it.

In the meantime, fares rose and rose, quite awful queuing regimes had driven us mad and we’d missed out on three months of the 50 percent fare discount applied across the rest of the country’s public transport.

While suffering some of the highest priced ferry transport on the planet.

AT wrote to the previous Minister of Transport in 2019 seeking to change the historic exempt service status and bring it under the PTOM, either by surrendering the registration or through an Order in Council by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Minister of Transport and Waka Kotahi.

It was told that AT and Fullers should work together to resolve issues created by the exemption and AT says it has since been negotiating with Fullers for removal of the exempt status for Devonport and the implementation of a Quality Partnership Agreement (QPA) umbrella on Waiheke which would retain the exempt status. 

Whether or not the alternate ‘quality partnership’ has been explored is a moot point but It’s still the exemption model with some negotiated concessions that would not entitle islanders to participate in public transport network subsidies and benefits as well as having  limitations on AT’s ability to include Waiheke passenger customer fares. 

According to AT, Fullers have said in the past that they will ‘not negotiate the transition of the exempt status to be contracted, leaving a Quality Partnership Agreement (QPA) as the next best option.’

There is a glimpse of back-room intentions in the briefing paper in March this year, Auckland Transport said it had considered three options for the application of the 50 percent public transport fare discount paid out this autumn through Regional Councils and, in Auckland, the transport CCO AT. 

The first excluded both Devonport and Waiheke from the subsidy which could get messy owing to ongoing negotiations in Devonport. The second Included Devonport but excluded Mātiatia because “Waiheke can be easily excluded from the system”; and the third included both Devonport and Waiheke in the subsidy that was rejected as the $300,000 funding for net impact for Devonport was considered manageable, but the transport CCO said, “existing funding constraints may not extend to $2.5 to $3 million for Waiheke, and part of the subsidy would be utilised for non-core AT business.”

Council and AT went with the cheap option of including Devonport, leaving hard-pressed Waiheke commuters and families to pick up the tab for Fullers two years of Covid operational losses in the midst of a cost of living crisis. • Liz Waters