There’s a very interesting article in today’s “The Aucklander” newspaper (which gets included in the NZ Herald every Thursday) on the future harbour crossing options for Auckland.
Here’s an extract from the article:
Now The Aucklander can reveal another chapter to throw into the concrete and steel mix of our city’s beloved icon.
By Government decree, the bridge, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, will be priced for removal and the surrounding feeder motorways assessed for future development.
That’s development as in housing, shops and offices, not roads.
The reason? Transport Minister Stephen Joyce has chosen to ignore strongly-argued recommendations from five major regional organisations for a road-rail tunnel from Downtown Auckland to the Shore. Instead, he wants to open up debate about another bridge.
Reports of the current bridge falling to concrete cancer or some other catastrophe, fuelled by the problematic state of the “Nippon clip-ons”, are exaggerated, says the agency charged with maintaining it. But it’s hard to ignore the thought that something needs to be done when we’re spending $86 million to patch it up and this same agency talks of its “economic life”, its “future viability”, of it becoming “maxed out”, and the “resilience of the network” or of it having a “finite lifespan”.
In 2008, the NZ Transport Agency combined with Auckland Regional Council, Auckland and North Shore City councils and Auckland Regional Transport Authority to find an alternative. The tight five commissioned a $1.3 million report from Sinclair Knight Merz consultants and whittled 160 options down to just one preference.
Four tunnels, they chimed, will alleviate the strain on the bridge – two road tunnels with three lanes in each direction and two separate single-rail tunnels. The rail tracks would cover 4km from Esmonde Rd to Britomart; the road tunnels roughly 3km from Esmonde Rd under the soon-to-be-developed Wynyard Quarter to Fanshawe St.
Treasury estimated the cost to be as high as $6 billion. The Transport Agency puts the bill between $3-4 billion, subject to more “detailed engineering”.
The debate about a future harbour crossing in Auckland has, as the article mentions elsewhere, been happening for decades. However, the bridge idea, known in some circles as “the ANZAC bridge” has fairly recently joined the mix. Personally, I think the bridge idea can be tossed away for a fairly obvious reason: “two bridges would look horrific, and the whole point of another harbour crossing is to get another harbour crossing”. So if it’s a choice between a bridge and a tunnel, then I think the answer has to be a tunnel.
But as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, is the whole “we need another harbour crossing” argument another one of ‘yesterday’s battles’ that is looking to solve a problem that no longer exists? Traffic flows across the harbour bridge have been declining in recent years, probably for a number of reasons: higher petrol prices, an increasing amount of available employment opportunities on the North Shore, and the Northern Busway making public transport more attractive for those working in the CBD. Do we really need 14 lanes of road traffic across the Waitemata Harbour? I think not. Will we need 14 lanes of road traffic across the Waitemata Harbour in 20 years time? Well if current traffic trends continue – once again I think not.
Of course, traffic flows are only half the issue here. The other issue relates to the lifespan of the current harbour bridge – or more specifically, the lifespan of its clip-ons. As noted in the extract above, there is some debate surrounding how long the clip-ons will be able to survive: even when you consider the current strengthening work that is going on. So regardless of traffic volumes, we still have the issue about the longevity of the main bridge.
However, just because the clip-ons have a somewhat limited lifespan does not mean that the bridge as a whole is doomed. The core structure is apparently in pretty good shape and has a fairly indefinite lifespan. Furthermore, the clip-ons could be replaced – and new ones “tied in” with the main structure is a better way, and be constructed from lighter but stronger modern materials. In short, from what I have heard, if we replaced the clip-ons with something more modern, new clip-ons could have a very long lifespan. Now there’s the question of how you would do such a thing – whether it would be possible to replace one at a time, and “pre-cast” the clip-on somehow so it could be slotted into place over a reasonably short period of time. Or whether you’d need an alternative crossing option because doing such a thing (temporary floating bridge perhaps? Ha Ha!)
Now I know it’s a pretty big call to say that we shouldn’t prioritise another harbour crossing – but let’s have a think about the money. Treasury’s estimate is that the harbour crossings (the roads tunnels and the rail tunnels) could cost up to $6 billion. That is, quite frankly, a crap load of cash. It’s about $1500 for each person in New Zealand, or about $4000 per Aucklander. It would also pay for the CBD rail tunnel, rail to the airport, a Howick/Botany Line and perhaps even more. When we’ve got a route where the existing traffic is declining, how sensible is it really to pretty much spend the region’s entire transport budget for about 5 years on that project? Not sensible at all in my books.
While I do support turning the Northern Busway into a railway line in the future, we must recognise that the busway is fairly new, and also that it has a fairly large amount of capacity left in it before maxing out (although that might well be changed if HOVs are allowed onto it). The busway, plus its stations, cost around $400 million a few years back – so it seems reasonable that we’d want to make the most of that investment before spending say $2 billion in turning the busway into a railway line plus digging a tunnel under the harbour to link that line with the CBD.
So in my opinion, the best option is actually one that does very little in the next decade – as I think Auckland has far higher transport priorities. We should do everything possible to keep the current clip-ons safe and stable, while also ensuring that we’ve designed, consented and costed a new railway line north so it can be constructed when required. In terms of additional roading capacity across the Waitemata Harbour, my honest opinion is that I doubt it will ever be necessary. With higher fuel prices, improved public transport options and so forth, I doubt whether we need to spend $4 billion of whatever it would cost to provide for six additional lanes of traffic across the harbour – whether that’s in bridge or tunnel form.
Once again, it’s one of yesterday’s battles. Additional harbour crossings have been on Auckland’s transport plans for decades – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that in 2010 we really really need one. If you really look at the situation – particularly in terms of declining traffic volumes across the harbour – it seems as though another harbour crossing would be little more than a supremely giant waste of money.