There’s a quite remarkable opinion piece in the NZ Herald today by Maungaturoto resident Danielle Williamson. I say remarkable because she actually gets close to making the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” sound like a sensible option for funding priority. Here’s the article in full:

Danielle Williamson: Highway more than holidaymakers’ getaway

The Auckland Regional Council chairman calls it a holiday highway.

Which is all good if like Mike Lee, you live in Auckland and only use State Highway 1 on your way to the beach.

You needn’t use it often and when you do, you’re not in any hurry. You know the Government has identified it as a “road of national significance” but you can’t quite figure out why.

Surely a road which carries fewer than 20,000 vehicles a day can’t be all that nationally significant, can it? All you know is the Puhoi to Wellsford stretch has been earmarked for priority motorway extension and it’s going to cost you, the taxpayer, a horrendous $2.3 billion. Minimum.

And you know that in doing so, in four-laning a whole 34km chunk of SH1 of such little consequence, Auckland misses out on urgently needed public transport funding.

It hardly seems right, does it? After all, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, gateway to the country and in need of a proper commuter rail system.

But on behalf of the 250,000 New Zealanders who live north of Albany and use SH1 not as a holiday highway but as the only viable route into Auckland and beyond, let us be fair. SH1 north of Puhoi is a disgrace and in dire need of an upgrade.

People die on this road in appalling numbers. It is substandard, narrow and too winding. Anyone who travels this road on a regular basis can see it is unable to handle current traffic volumes.

And finally, when it does in fact go into holiday highway mode – because hoards of Aucklanders must all escape the city at the very same time – Warkworth and Wellsford become holiday hell and are gridlocked from one end of town to the other. Or further – sometimes traffic is blocked for up to 25km.

No it doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen enough to warrant both communities a bypass. And yet for some Aucklanders, this seems to be a problem. So much so that when it comes to regional transport priorities, the Auckland Regional Transport Committee thinks it barely rates a mention and puts it bottom of the list.

But wait! With 32 per cent of the national transport budget (and one third of the national population) allocated towards Auckland roading projects – completion of the Western Ring Route and the Victoria Park Tunnel – Auckland is hardly missing out.

To the Northland region as a whole – and particularly its economy – SH1 is the only viable access to the rest of the country. It is our transport lifeline and critical to the prosperity of the region.

Better – and safer – roads allow for easier movement of freight and people between Northland and Auckland and beyond. It allows for community growth, economic development and helps bring much needed tourists our way. It may even benefit the Auckland economy.

To the individuals who live here, SH1 is of critical importance. Whether it be for business, medical care, education, pleasure or practicality, SH1 is the only link south. We need this road. And we need it to be reliable and safe.

Unfortunately for Northlanders, frequent SH1 traffic delays and road fatalities are not simple inconveniences on the way to bach. They are a fact of life.

Gone are the days where one could hop in the car and be in the city without incident.

Greater traffic volumes now mean when travelling from the North, precautions must be taken in case of delays. If you require medical treatment in Auckland, you allow yourself plenty of time for the journey and hope that for whatever reason, the road is not closed.

If you have an early morning flight at the airport, it’s best to go the night before. And if the weather is bad and conditions less than ideal, you may cancel altogether because you know that on this particular patch of road, the Grim Reaper may be around the next corner.

But this is not about Northland prosperity or total project expense. The main issue here is road safety. SH1 from Puhoi to Wellsford in its present capacity as a two lane single carriage way is unsafe.

In the first three quarters of 2009 alone, 100 accidents occurred here.

Eight people were killed. Since the new Northern Gateway dual carriage toll road from Orewa to Johnstone’s Hill in January 2009 (to the end of August 2009), there were just five accidents and no injuries. The numbers speak for themselves.

The Government is right in declaring this particular stretch of SH1 one of national significance as it is high time the road from Puhoi to Wellsford be divided into a proper motorway.

For the 30 people who lost their lives on this small stretch of New Zealand road in the past five years, it is long overdue.

* Danielle Williamson lives at Maungaturoto, Northland.

There’s a lot to agree with here. Certainly, the stretch of road is very dangerous – particularly between Warkworth and Wellsford (which is unlikely to be upgraded within the next 10 years in any case). Also, certainly the traffic congestion – while generally limited to holiday periods and Sunday evenings – is very severe. So there are some good arguments that we need to do something about this stretch of state highway one between Puhoi and Wellsford.

However, I do think we need to question whether that something really needs to be a $1.4 billion (or $2.3 billion according to Ms Williamson) four-lane motorway. Most of the congestion seems to be caused by the Warkworth bottleneck, and as I have previously explained, surely the best solution there would be to simply bypass Warkworth. You’d only need to build a fairly short stretch of new road, generally across fairly flat land – surely that wouldn’t cost much more than $50-100 million, and you would have solved most of the congestion problems.

The second issue is safety, and as I said earlier the crash record of this road clearly indicates we need to do something to improve safety along here. But the question really is whether that thing should a supremely expensive motorway? What about alternatives such as easing particularly nasty corners, extending passing lanes, constructing wire barriers down the middle of roads, installing permanent speed cameras at regular frequencies and other such measures? Should we not at least try out those other things first before embarking on a hugely expensive motorway?

And here’s where we come back to the title of this blog post. We certainly have a problem here with the Puhoi-Wellsford stretch of State Highway 1. However, the proposed solution is massive overkill – it is using a sledgehammer to crack open a nut. It’s always tempting to come up with grandiose solutions to problems, without considering their cost. In public transport circles there’s a regular debate about whether we should construct the CBD Rail Tunnel as a two-track tunnel or a four-track tunnel. In an ideal world, of course we’d build it as a four-track tunnel – as chances are 30-40 years down the track we will need four-tracks of rail capacity through Auckland’s CBD. However, in the shorter term it’s actually ludicrous to suggest such a solution, because it’s going to be hard enough finding the money for a two-track tunnel, and really demand can only justify a two-track tunnel for quite a few decades to come.

In the end, we don’t live in Norway, Switzerland or Saudi Arabia. We don’t have money coming out of our ears and we need to be careful about where we spend money – to ensure that it’s worth it. That means, in the case of the CBD Rail Tunnel, that we end up with a two-track tunnel – and in the future if we need further capacity we perhaps find another alignment. For Puhoi-Wellsford, sensible thinking would mean that we bypass Warkworth, we spend a significant amount of money on safety upgrades to the existing road, but we don’t waste $1.4 billion on a motorway that will used by fewer vehicles than drive up and down Sandringham Road each day.

The other important issue to consider is that, by focusing so much on this “big bang” approach to fixing the problems faced along the Puhoi-Wellsford corridor, we’re actually delaying safety improvements that are really needed right now, or congestion easing improvements that are also probably needed already. It’ll take around 9 years (according to NZTA) to plan, design, consent and build just the first section of this road (from Puhoi-Warkworth). The second section won’t be upgraded for more than a decade, which means at least 10 more years of too many people dying along this stretch of road. Once again, the sensible approach would be to get on with bypassing Warkworth and get on with improving safety along the road as a whole.

Unfortunately, minor bypasses and safety upgrades don’t get as many news headlines as 35km long new motorways. Which explains a lot.

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  1. I believe that when Nationals time is up in office, the expressway idea will be scrapped for a watered down version (like the one you talk about).

    To stop road deaths along the route, basic and cost effective measures can be done to make the road safer. Its a pity Mrs Williamson believes that constructing a 4 lane highway will result in a safer road. In reality, it will only create more traffic on the roads, which will move the problems elsewhere

  2. I don’t understand why the Puhoi to Warkworth section needs to be to full motorway standard. Surely it is cheaper and easier to build it as an expressway. That way it doesn’t need as many overbridges etc.

    Also I think what Danielle forgets is that this isn’t a Northland road but an Auckland one as Wellsford is still part of the Auckland region (despite the fact they don’t want to be)

  3. Matt, I think the plan is for it to be expressway north of Warkworth. Either way it’s still going to be supremely expensive.

    Remember, $1.4 billion could pay for the CBD Rail Tunnel. We probably won’t get both.

  4. What emotional tosh… Her argument is one for safety improvements and a couple of by-passes… Not wasting 1,400 million dollars…

    As for her comments about Auckland getting its fair share already; is Northland going to grow over 500,000 people in the next two decades..? No, it’ll be lucky to grow that much in the next two centuries…

    Infrastructure spending us needed here, not there and certainly not on projects with negative BCRs…

  5. This could all be part of the “Big ask small ask” school of public relations. You create a lot of noise about a two billion dollar project for people to hate, so that when you pull out the one billion dollar project you had in mind all along it seems reasonable and worthwhile.

  6. Anyone ever heard of her before? Article sounds suspiciously well written and researched. The points are very, very similar to those made by Joyce and the govt.

  7. i can make a case for transmission gully like this too, including about 3 times as many deaths per year, earthquake access to wellington and economic benefits. CBDrail tunnel needs building more than any roads in my opinion.

  8. “so that when you pull out the one billion dollar project you had in mind all along it seems reasonable and worthwhile.”

    Fair comment, though I think they will happily go for the 2 billion options wherever we let them, so that is no reason not to fight such white elephants!!!

  9. Nick, that seems to be – in a way – what is happening with the Waterview Connection. A couple of years ago the big battle was over whether it should happen at all. However, the govt neutralised that by coming up with the horrible May 2009 alignment. Now that we are back to a longer tunnel it seems everyone is so relieved the original battle has been almost forgotten.

  10. I disagree, Jarbury. A couple of years ago, Labour was in power, and people had a chance of stalling or preventing the project. But National seems willing to risk its popularity and financial leeway on these things come hell or high water, and so it is much more likely it WILL occur. In my opinion, that has little to do with the new alignment.

  11. Would it be that many of you Aucklander’s making comments are quite happy to bitch & moan a couple of times a year about traffic hold ups and a few deaths as collateral damage just so you can get your super little underground railways & inner-city motorways for your not so yet super city.

  12. Gazza I think I made the point quite clear: improvements do need to be made on this road, but building a 35km motorway is complete overkill.

    The problem with Joyce’s approach is that we’re unlikely to see any upgrades for at least 5 years. That’s another 20 odd people dying and another few years of hugely long delays during holiday and weekend periods. There’s a good saying that goes along the lines of “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. By going for the big bang approach any upgrade is likely to be delayed as there would be no point investing money in a road that you’re eventually going to bypass.

  13. Gazza, driving is risky, getting out of bed is risky… Have a read through this blog, not many of us on here are advocating for more inner-city motorways…

  14. Yes a good piece by David Shearer. He seems pretty onto it about transport, hopefully he can over time influence some of his colleagues and get them to come around on transport thinking.

    It is good to see a Labour MP realise that there are limited transport funds available too, as opposed to their usual “let’s build railways AND heaps of motorway projects” mentality.

  15. How interesting he mentioned that obscure OECD report citing the value of investment in arterials and railways that you blogged about here…

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