There were some interesting announcements yesterday on the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway”. While the first stage to Warkworth is being brought forward for completion within 9 years (that may sound like a long time, but at least half of that would be construction time, so the first step of construction might happen within the next four years), the second stage between Warkworth and Wellsford seems to have sensibly been pushed off into the never-never.

It is also interesting to see that the cost for the project is now given as $1.4 billion, whereas before I had seen figures of above $2 billion. I wonder whether this $1.4 billion simply covers the first stage, or whether we’re looking at more of a basic upgrade and widening, as opposed to the ‘completely new motorway alignment’ that was expected.

Anyway, here’s the full press release:

Pushing forward with Puhoi to Wellsford

Transport Minister Steven Joyce has welcomed confirmation of the NZ Transport Agency’s plans for a $1.4 billion strategic upgrade of State Highway 1 from Puhoi to Wellsford and expressed frustration over the lack of planning for the route prior to last year.

He says early signs are that the first stage from Puhoi to Warkworth will be complete within 9 years but that the second stage (Warkworth to Wellsford) will be more challenging to finish in that time. However, that remains the Transport Agency’s goal.

“The government’s $10.7 billion commitment to state highway funding over the ten year period means that funding is not the big issue for this project but the reality is design, consultation and consenting processes all take time.

“On our current timetable this will be the fastest ever major highway project completed in this country from go to whoa.”

The government announced the Puhoi to Wellsford section of State Highway 1 as a road of national significance in March last year and work began after that to scope the project and commence investigation of route options.

“Given the previous government seemed to believe the job finished at Puhoi and had no intention of four-laning beyond that, we were beginning from a standing start and have been playing catch-up over the last twelve months,” says Mr Joyce.

“One option being investigated is to build the Warkworth Bypass first to relieve congestion at that point. However, we would still need to know where the road north and south of that links into the bypass route so it will still take some time to get the consents for that section.

“The focus over the next couple of years will be undertaking detailed investigation and design work to determine route options and obtain statutory consents. This will include public consultation on possible routes.

“The new road will bring significant benefits to the Northland and Rodney districts, as well as to Auckland.

“The Puhoi to Wellsford corridor has been identified as one of our most essential state highway routes to reduce congestion, improve safety and support economic growth in the Auckland and Northland regions.”

Completing the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance will deliver significant benefits, including:
• enhance inter regional and national economic growth and productivity
• improve movement of freight and people between Auckland and Northland
• improve the connectivity between key growth areas in the north Rodney area
• improve reliability of the transport network through a more robust and safer route between Auckland and Northland
• provide further route security for Northland residents

First things first, to look at the positives I’m glad that one of the options being investigated is to build the Warkworth bypass first. From my experiences over the summer holidays, it really seemed as though 99% of the congestion problems experienced along this route were due to it having to go right through the middle of Warkworth. So if we were to bypass Warkworth, most of the problems might actually be solved. Of course that wouldn’t look quite as good for the politicians as building a shiny new 20 km motorway, but it would probably be a far more sensible use of funds.

However, I still struggle to believe how this road is seen as such a high priority. It really is only congested for a few days of the year – during holiday times – and the average number of vehicles travelling along it is barely equivalent to a busy arterial route in the Auckland urban area. Sure, it’s an important strategic route to the northern part of the country, but once again it only experiences congestion very infrequently, and I am sure trucking companies are smart enough to avoid using it at midday on December 27th each year anyway.

Labour MP David Shearer’s press release in response to this announcement mirrors a lot of my thinking about this project, in that why is this road considered such a high priority? He also raises the excellent point that most of the congestion along this route is simply caused by Warkworth, where a simple bypass could achieve much of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost:

Why is a Holiday Highway a priority?

Mt Albert MP David Shearer is calling for the government to get its priorities right on Auckland Transport.

“National’s decision to fast-track the Puhoi to Wellsford stretch of State Highway One shows the Government is not tuned in to the needs of Auckland commuters,” David Shearer said.

“The Puhoi/ Wellsford road is a holiday highway which is only congested during the summer breaks. I share the frustrations that motorists have when heading north, but $1.4 billion could be better spent addressing Auckland’s major transport problems. And, building a by-pass at Warkworth, could ease much of the problem on that route for a tenth of the cost.

“Today’s announcement means important items that all the mayoral candidates have agreed on, such as the inner city rail loop in Auckland, will be put on hold. Auckland sees that as its number 1 priority for Auckland and economic development.

“Steven Joyce’s fixation on building motorways means the real issues around Auckland’s transport network are being ignored. “NZ is building more motorways while most major cities in the world are moving towards other forms of transport. National is taking us in the opposite direction.

“Yes thousands of Aucklanders use the Puhoi/Wellsford road for a handful of weeks to holiday. But they’re also the same Aucklanders who are screaming out for a decent public transport system.”

David Shearer said National needs to take the blinkers off and listen to what people are saying are the real priorities for transport are.

“Aucklanders want their everyday transport woes to be eased. Pouring billions into a holiday highway is not a priority for them,”

NZTA have released a useful information booklet on the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway, which gives us an insight into the likely routes it will take and – as Jeremy mentioned last night – shows quite clearly that the project isn’t worth the money likely to be spent on it, unless we start messing with the conventional cost-benefit analysis process. For a start, let’s have a look at the route:

The solid black line is the existing state highway 1 route, the orange line is the first stage of the proposed road (Puhoi-Warkworth) and the blue line is the second stage – from Warkworth to Wellsford. I am guessing that the purple shaded areas represent areas that will be urbanised in the future or are current urbanised, as I am sure there is not that much development up that way yet.

There are a few things that deserve comment I think. The first is that the proposed route will follow the existing route to what I think it quite a surprising degree. I reckon that if the road is going to be that close to what’s there at the moment, it would be pretty stupid to do anything more than widening the existing road and easing a few corners. Perhaps that’s what is actually going to be proposed?  The second thing is that the simple bypass of Warkworth comes across as such a no-brainer, and would actually be a pretty damn short stretch of road to build (probably fairly cheap too as it’s flat land). In contrast, both stages of the whole route pass through very mountainous land – which I suspect will be incredibly expensive to build a motorway-standard road across. And the third thing is that we’re going to see some environmental carnage out there if this is built. There are some quite nice tracts of forest along this road, particularly around the Pohuehue Viaduct between Puhoi and Warkworth, and then through the Dome Valley between Warkworth and Wellsford. The routes shown above seem to blatantly disregard any environmental impacts.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, Jeremy touched on this last night.  As shown in the box below it seems as though the cost-benefit ratio (BCR) is a bit of a moveable feast in terms of this project, with much reliant upon “wider economic benefits”, which NZTA apparently have a very poor understanding of at the moment and are only just starting to properly research, and reducing discount rates – whatever that means. Under the existing standard scheme its BCR is only 0.8 though, which means that by building it we’re effectively flushing money down the toilet.

Though I must say I’m surprised it’s even that high.

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  1. 1.4 billion would make it slightly cheaper per kilometre than ALPURT B2, not allowing for inflation.

    So I suspect it wont be motorway standard, or if it is it will be lots of earthworks as opposed to tunnels/viaducts which means lots of environmental damage.

  2. I love that it’s free to post letters to parliment:

    Steven Joyce, Minister of Transport
    The planned upgrade of State Highway 1 from Puhoi to Wellsford is a complete waste of money. The area does not have the traffic throughput to warrant such significant investment. The Bypass has merit on its own, but the rest of the project is a money sink, and a criminal waste of funding when there are so many other projects that desperately need funding.
    The focus should be on building and upgrading public transport networks primarily, rather than wasting billions on a highway capacity that is needed only infrequently throughout the year.
    We need smarter implementation of public transport in ways that will truly serve the community as a method for quickly and efficiently transporting people. The more money spent on improving public transport and marketing it, the less people will need to use cars as their sole means of reliably getting around. The way to increase road capacity is to decrease congestion by investing in a system which doesn’t require everyone to own their own car and drive it everywhere they need to go.

    William Stewart

    “A BCR of 0.8 meaning at a cost of $2 billion dollars it will return $1.6 billion to the NZ economy.”

  3. Good letter, what I’m hoping happens now is the bypass gets built just in time for a new government which will promptly dump the rest of this ridiculous project…

  4. Is it going to be full motorway? The earlier route posted on this site had it many kms to the west. Surely its going to be an inferior road if they use the steeper and more difficult current route? The other question is how the traffic is going to cope with ten years of ripping up and replacing the existing road. I assume if it is tollroad that they will neede to maintain the current road as well.

  5. Good questions TopCat. I had assumed the route would go much further west to avoid the hills. I think it is likely we will see largely an upgrade of the existing route only, with some realignment on tricky bits.

    I think Joyce wants to change the Land Transport Management Act so that toll roads don’t need easy alternatives. That way he can toll this road and everyone will have to pay.

  6. @Topcat

    “The other question is how the traffic is going to cope with ten years of ripping up and replacing the existing road.”

    There are large enough gaps in between long weekends that the contractors should be able to manage this issue. 😉

  7. TopCat, this should answer your question regarding whether it’s a motorway:

    David Shearer to the Minister of Transport (11 Nov 2009): Does the Minister anticipate the Puhoi-Wellsford road being of motorway standard?

    Hon Steven Joyce (Minister of Transport) replied: The New Zealand Transport Agency informs me they are still investigating the classification options for the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance. It is likely that the State Highway between Puhoi and Warkworth will be limited access, which would require a motorway classification to restrict and control access. The design speed and standard of the construction will be dependent on the terrain and environment being traversed by the final preferred route, which will be determined as part of the next stage of investigations. The Warkworth to Wellsford section of highway is likely to be classified as expressway which reduces the access requirements for the road. However the design speed and standard of construction will still be dependant on the terrain and environment of the preferred route.

  8. Another issue that I’m sure NZTA don’t want anyone focusing on is the current intersection works on SH1 at Warkworth. I think the project cost for the current work at Warkworth are in the order of $30m. A big part of the justification for those works was based on the Warkworth bypass not being completed for 25-30 years. 25 years worth of benefits (due to no bypass) provided a positive BCR. Not sure that BCR would look so positive with only 9 years of benefits! Wonder if that complete waste of money is also being added into the costs for the holiday highway?

  9. If they want to keep the existing SH1 operational to non tollway traffic (ie those who don’t want to pay) local traffic, farmers tractors, cyclists- remember there is no alternate route, they will need to construct a lot of bridges or tunnels. I can count at least 5 crossovers of the old and new roads.

    Also, it might be worth asking NZTA if they still intend proceding with the the roadworks through the middle of Warkworth, if SH1 is no longer even going through town. I’m sure the traffic heading north to Matakana would prefer to dodge the FIVE sets of traffic lights they are planning to insert along the existing SH1, so could easily be accomodated by connecting with the Matakana Rd north of Warkworth (Rodney council were considering building such a road, but can’t afford it). Seems a bit pointless building such extravagant works through a town about to be by-passed. You can’t make seven lanes through Hill St narrower once it already there!

  10. Excellent point R. Lin. That SH1 widening project is one of the stupidest projects I’ve ever seen, as it’s a complete no-brainer that a basic bypass would have been a far superior option. The intersection with Sandspit Road, while a nightmare now, is just going to be a much larger-scale mess once the project is finished.

  11. this road will never work as a toll road, because it does not offer a far superior and faster route compared to the existing road. The orewa bypass worked because the new road is 11km long at 100kph, and the old road was 15km, with long 50 and 70kph lengths. If you discount the Warkworth bypass the proposed road is not materially shorter, and will not have a higher official speed limit, although it will have a higher design speed. Therefore a decent proportion of traffic would not use the road if it was a toll road, which would completely destroy the BCR.

  12. Apparently the new road will typically save eight minutes between Puhoi and Warkworth, and a further seven minutes between Warkworth and Wellsford (obviously more during holiday times). I find that a tad hard to believe as the alignment isn’t particularly different to the existing road, and (particularly between Puhoi and Warkworth) most of the route you can travel at 100 kph, except for a few sharp bends.

  13. I bet most of that time saving comes from the Warkworth bypass, which is a will be a relatively small amount of the total cost. Also that info booklet has the look of being very rushed, not up to the usual flash NZTA graphical standards. Looks like its been knocked up on Word in the last couple of weeks.

  14. Has anyone else noticed that there is already a rail line between Auckland and Wellsford? I’m going out on a bit of a limb here but maybe, just maybe, the capacity of that existing link could be used to ease holiday congestion… but then its unlikely that the BCR would stack up because its a rail project, even if there is an existing line and trains available. [/sarcasm].

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