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.