It’s a real struggle to get funding for public transport projects – particularly for rail projects it seems. There are a couple of classic examples of exactly how difficult it is in the Auckland Region. The first example is the CBD Rail Tunnel, where planning progress on this important project is slowly starting to grind into action – although funding for it is still about as far from confirmed as possible. So exactly how difficult has it been to find funding for the CBD Rail Tunnel? Well let’s just say here’s a 1929 plan for where one of the stations was to be located, a 1956 map of the route and a 1976 design of a rail system for Auckland that was never built. So basically, this is the 80th anniversary of the project being proposed, and we’re still no closer to finding funding for it.

The second example is the Avondale-Southdown railway line, which has actually been designated since the late 1940s – but without any progress on the line having occurred. While in my opinion this line isn’t anywhere near as important as the CBD Rail Tunnel, it is another example of the decades and decades many of our rail projects have been on the books.

Which, I admit, does make it rather frustrating when a previously relatively unheard of roading project, the extension of the Northern Motorway from Puhoi to Wellsford, finds itself potentially being allocated $2 billion of funding for future construction, and definitely getting $100 million of funding for design, investigation and property purchase over the next couple of years. $2 billion is a lot of money for any transport project, and you could probably almost double Auckland’s rail system for that kind of amount. So surely there’s some good thinking behind the necessity of this project? Well, from what I can understand – that’s hardly the case here.

While some investigation into bypassing the rather nasty hills between Orewa and Warkworth was supposedly undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s, there was certainly no mention of extending the Northern Motorway beyond where the Orewa-Puhoi motorway ends. That is, until that motorway was opened at the start of this year. Now when the motorway was first opened, NZTA made the decision to not apply the toll for the first few days of its operation – so people could go check it out and so that the tolling system didn’t get a baptism of fire on a very very busy long weekend. The result of that decision was an enormous traffic jam, as every second person in Auckland thought they’d take advantage of the toll-free period and go check it out. There are a couple of very interesting paragraphs in the newspaper article about that opening day, that seem to have had a lot of influence over the decision to focus on extending the Northern Motorway.

A common verdict among sight-seers teeming around Puhoi’s hotel and general store after their ordeal was of a well-designed road let down at the northern end by the staged merger of two motorway lanes and the coastal highway into the single-lane “goat-track” to Warkworth and beyond. That is something Transport Minister Steve Joyce says his Government wants to remedy as soon as possible, although it is not yet in a position to say when.

“I understand their annoyance because I think that was a flaw many of us were aware of in the way the road was set up,” he said last night.

“Although it is an improvement, the reality is that until the road is four lanes through to Warkworth, there are still going to be problems northbound.”

Mr Joyce was applauded during an opening ceremony on the new road on Saturday – for which he was 10 minutes late after becoming stuck in traffic south of its Orewa starting point – for saying the Government was committed to extending a four-lane highway “progressively” as far as Wellsford.

That is 36km north of where the new road finishes just short of Puhoi.

Although the Transport Agency began planning for such an extension during Labour’s term in office, he told the Herald that preparations had until now been “in the never-never and we are determined to bring that forward”.

I suspect there was a reason the preparations were in the never-never, and that relates to the fact that the proposal would be absurdly expensive (I think $2 billion is incredibly optimistic for 36km of motorway through rugged terrain – it could be triple that) and the benefits would be fairly minor – in that the road only becomes clogged at holiday times.

Subsequent to that event, the Puhoi to Wellsford Road was included as a road of National significance, even though its costs and benefits are yet to be analysed. Once the route finally is subject to a proper analysis (I wonder if that will be before or after we spend $100 million on its design and property purchase) it will be interesting to see whether it can beat Wellington’s Transmission Gully Motorway as the transport project with the lowest cost-benefit ratio yet.

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  1. IMHO, this project makes no sense, economic or otherwise. Or maybe to put it more kindly, I’m yet to hear an argument from anyone that persuades me that this is a priority. The Minister is talking massive amounts of money for benefits that just can’t stack up. Sure, it’s not a perfect road. There are crashes relating to the alignment, but it’s hardly one of the worst in NZ. It does get congested, but only for a few days a year (10 max??). Do travel time savings for people on holiday really count? Hands up which National Party members have baches out on the east coast up there.

    When SJ addressed the RLTC a few weeks back someone quizzed him on this particular RoNs and he said something about unlocking the economic potential of Northland… Maybe there are some minerals ( in some conservation land up there?

  2. I agree that this project has to go ahead at some stage and is important for the economy, I just can’t agree with the priority given to the project. There are much more needed transport projects (CBD Tunnel etc.) that need to be commenced before this one starts, and have a larger economic value attached.

    To me it’s not a question of if we should spend the money on this project, but a question of should we be funding this project before other transport projects?

    – CBD Rail
    – Electrification (Full)
    – Airport Rail
    – North-Western Busway etc.

    Although I do have bais as im constantly stuck in traffic on weekends and holidays heading up north.

  3. Ha Ha my favourite part of the article is:

    “Mr Joyce was applauded during an opening ceremony on the new road on Saturday – for which he was 10 minutes late after becoming stuck in traffic south of its Orewa starting point ”

    You’d think these things would be clues… And the answer not being, “More ROADS” *robotic voice*

  4. “John Key has a bach at Omaha. I think Joyce has one up that way too.” Steven Joyce lives in the Rodney district (not sure where, but I’ve heared near Albany) if you want to know. Perhaps more significent, the current National MP Lockwood Smith could retire next election, so Joyce might be eyeing the electorate seat (on the other hand the failure to fund Pennlink, the other big casulty of the descison to axe the petrol tax, and $2bn is a high price to pay for a safe national seat). The project, while it COULD be needed in 50 years time or so if Northland has spectacular population growth (I won’t rule out Northland becoming the next Bay of Plenty), is an extravagent luxury at present. There seems no rational basis for it (although a Warkworth bypass, and perhaps some more passing lanes and straightening of corners could be justified) at present.

    “I’m looking forward to seeing how pathetic the cost-benefit ratio of this road is.”
    Yes. It could even get in the Guiness world records as the worst cost-benefit ratio in history. Its not exagerating by much to call it the Gravina Island Bridge (the famous “bridge to nowhere” pork barrel project in Alaska, providing a NZ$600m bridge linking an island with 50 people and an airport to a town with a population of 7 000).

    What is more interesting (and deserves a seperate post) is what the $2bn could be spent on instead (maybe the CBD rail loop, Northwest busway, airport rail link, Avondale-Southdown railway, integrated ticketing, and maybe a few more bus lanes added on) and compare the benefits of this versus our Gravina Island Bridge, and see what the best use of the money is. The result will be soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo so so incredibly obvious that we don’t need to waste any money studying it.

    It would be an excellent focus of ANY PT campaign in Auckland to focus just on axing this project (or delaying it) and sending the money into public transport, and a great topic for a possible citizens initiated referendum. I’m going to write Steven Joyce a letter asking him to do that, and I sugest that you (as a Labour-Green voter) write letters to Darren Hughes and the Green transport spokesperson asking them to comit to axing or cutting down this prohect (at least in the near future) and giving priority to Auckland public transport) in their 2011 election platforms.

  5. That Alaskan Bridge is quite a laugh:

    I don’t think there’s much point drumming up opposition to the proposal at the moment. I think that investigations into its costs and benefits will be likely to kill it off. Along with Transmission Gully (BCR of 0.3-0.5) that would be two of Steven Joyce’s roads of National significance down the toilet. Maybe next time he might actually do a bit of research before coming up with such silly ideas.

  6. “I think that investigations into its costs and benefits will be likely to kill it off.” Hope so. If it doesn’t the next project Steven Joyce might think would be a Cook Strait Bridge.

    “Along with Transmission Gully (BCR of 0.3-0.5) that would be two of Steven Joyce’s roads of National significance down the toilet.” I live in Wellington, and Transmission Gully is FAR from dead. There is HUGE public support for the gully amongst Wellingtonians (apart from the PT minded), especially in the Kapiti Cosat. In 2007 when a draft corridor plan recomended upgrading the coastal highway instead, there were public protests, and a massive number of submissions, 92% from memory supporting the Gully route. Not surprisingly, the final plan reversed the descison. If Joyce were to fail to build the gully, it would subject him and National to a big backlash. I think Transmission Gully will be built, no matter what its BCR as is, due to the strength of public support.

    Now only if we could get the same public support for a few PT projects.

  7. Please don’t even mention a Cook Strait bridge. For a similar gormless scheme you need only look at the recently reactivated proposed Straits of Messina Bridge between the Italian peninsula and Sicily (3.3 km). The cost is currently estimated at €6.1 billion and it’s the pet project of none other than the world’s highest ranked favourite satyrist, Silvio Berlusconi, il Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri d’Italia. I suspect it’s just the thing that would arouse Joyce’s cupidity and at a minimum of 23 km it would be the biggest bridge in the world. And don’t get me wrong: I’ve lived in Denmark (the home of big bridges) for a number of years and even worked on the Øresund bridge competition. It’s just that, as we note with the NLTP, these political ego busting things have absolutely nothing to do with current day realities.

  8. I’m not 100% opposed to Cook Strait Bridge. It would be a waste of money at present. But if we strike oil somewhere, or get a lot richer, or our population doubles, or new technology was to massively reduce the cost of building the thing, it might be something worth starting to think about, and even then in many years time. Lets just hope Steven Joyce doesn’t read the coments here. It might give him ideas.

    I actually like big bridges, and like the proposed Sicily one, as well as the Oresund bridge. But remember here that we are dealing with much wealthier countries, shorter distances and higher populations than Cook Strait.

    On the plus side, it would get more traffic on Transmission Gully improving its BCR. And the Cook Strait bridge would still beat the BCR of Gravina island Bridge, and maybe this Wellford motorway if lucky

  9. The Puhoi-Wellsford project is curious, but I believe it is more about safety than congestion. The delays are not significant or regular enough. However, I’m sceptical that it is worthwhile. Avondale to Southdown is equally a waste of money. It was only ever justified as a way of reducing the gradient for freight going north, and given the line north is pretty much a write off for profitable freight service, Avondale to Southdown is difficult to justify except for some Henderson to Papakura service idea. Frankly the frequency of such a service would be so low, that it would be an enormous waste of a corridor. Until a high frequency bus service using SH20 proves itself, such a line is a wealth destroying idea.

    Oh to go back to rationing spending from the NLTP via BCRs, Treasury once said in the 1990s that BCRs of over 2.5 were the only ones worth committing to, by and large. Seems like a reasonable starting point to me.

  10. Any BCR over 1 seems like something that would be “worth it”. However, I guess that we don’t really want to be spending big bucks on something that’s “only just worth it”, so promoting projects with BCRs of 2.5 or more makes quite a bit of sense.

    Generally my criticism is of how those BCRs are calculated. I’ve talked about the stupidity of time-savings benefits on many occasions before, and also how other things might be ignored – like the effects of building something on land values around it – that shouldn’t be. The devil is ALWAYS in the detail!

  11. Did you even click the link Christopher..? The whole idea of the new technology is to massively reduce costs by using the natural bounancy of water…

  12. Treasury’s view if I recall correctly is that BCRs are a range of confidence based on estimates of cost, usage and trends, so to be “safe side” you really needed to be at least 0.5 either way. On top of that, you are taking surplus funds from people through motoring taxes (more than enough to pay for maintenance) to spend on something, you should be convinced it is better than them spending the money themselves (on consumption or investment). A BCR of 2 really had to be a minimum to have some certainty around that, the 0.5 then is the risk factor if you get it wrong.

    Bearing in mind that one can debate how the BCR is calculated, and who benefits from the investment compared to who pays for it. I like debates about how we appraise these sorts of things, because I think that is where half the argument really lies – the other half is philosophical.

  13. To me 2.0 is a good BCR. I agree you need 0.5 to ensure some flexibility, and an extra 0.5 as you are taking other peoples money through taxes.

    I would agree to projects with lower BCRs, even ones below 1 if there are special reasons for it, like to provide an alternative route in the event of natural disaster (transmission gully fits into this category, even though I am lukewarm about this proect), improved economic growth to a stagnant region, significently improved safety, or an essential part of a wider project with a better BCR (i.e. if this road was part of a project to increase the population of Wellsford to 20 000 and Warkworth to 30 000 (quite sensible ideas, as it would reduce urban sprawl of Auckland, and allow people to still have own home and section)).

    I did some more research on this route. It carries around 10 000 vechiles a day (not a massive number) and worse for the advocates of this route, traffic volumes on Welsford-Warkworth stretch are falling, not increasing. That should be good enough reasons to kill it.

  14. That is interesting about the average daily traffic flows. 2004-2008 volumes are here:

    If we take a look at a couple of points along Joyce’s route:

    On the Pohuehue Viaduct (between Puhoi and Warkworth AADT:
    2004 – 15222
    2005 – 15594
    2006 – 15529
    2007 – 15911
    2008 – 15600

    SH1 north of Kraack Road (between Warkworth and Wellsford) AADT:
    2004 – 10130
    2005 – 10481
    2006 – 10864
    2007 – 10621
    2008 – 10851

    Pretty steady figures really. By way of comparison, the Waterview Connection is expected to handle about 90,000 cars per day.

  15. BCRs are based on an appraisal period of a set number of years. 25 in NZ. Each year of benefits is discounted.

    Low BCRs can only be justified if there is a significant strategic issue that can’t be monetised. Safety can be. Existing route security is such an issue, which is how earthquake strengthening of existing bridges can be justified (but not for 1 in a 1000 year earthquakes but rather 1 in 60 year ones). I don’t agree for it to “improve economic growth”, as that should be monetised. Transport is rarely a catalyst for regeneration, a clear exception is in major cities with extensive growth and pent up demand (e.g DLR in London worked for that reason).

    My view of SH1 north of Puhoi is that it needs an investigation to determine the key issues of safety and capacity, and determine the most efficient ways of addressing those issues over a 20 year period. For example, there may be best gains from realignment of corners, major intersection upgrades (including some grade separation), bypassing Warkworth and the like. There may be a medium term strategy and a longer term one, the latter might involve designating a motorway route, so that if/when traffic reaches appropriate levels it can be built, the former would be doing all of the high BCR improvements to the current route that are worth doing to delay expenditure on a new motorway. My personal preference would be to let the private sector determine if/when such a motorway is worth building with tolls and shadow tolls.

  16. “I think that investigations into its costs and benefits will be likely to kill it off.”

    I think you may find that as it’s been deemed a RoNS it doesn’t actually need a BC…

    The Government isn’t allowed to directly influence the NLTP, NZTA is supposed to work independant from the polictics. Sooooooo… the National Government sets up the RoNS to allow NZTA to investigate the routes outside of the NLTP process. No NLTP process, no need for a BC. There’s a clue in the Ministers March press release on the RoNS ( “Other State Highway projects will continue to be considered in the normal way as part of the National Land Transport Programme.”

  17. So $2 billion gets spent just because Steven Joyce has a whim that’s an important road. Geez, that’s a robust system for analysing expenditure isn’t it?

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