The draft Government Policy Statement document, that was released for consultation a couple of months back, was a highly perplexing and depressing document. Focusing an even greater amount of money on building new motorways, slashing (already slashed) spending on public transport infrastructure and capping money for new local roads and even the maintenance of existing roads is just plain stupidity – and is completely ignorant of recent transport trends both here in New Zealand and overseas. However, even within a document as nonsensical and bizarre as the draft GPS, there was mention of one thing that completely took me by surprise by its sheer strangeness: the list of future Roads of National Significance (RoNS). Here they are: These future RoNS came pretty much out of the blue – similar to how Puhoi-Wellsford bizarrely appeared on the radar as a ‘necessary’ future project a day or two after the Minister got stuck in a traffic jam opening the Orewa-Puhoi motorway. So a reader of this blog did a bit of digging – where did the four new RoNS come from? The first response, to an OIA request to the Minister himself, wasn’t particularly helpful: Well it seems pretty clear from the above that the projects didn’t have to go through any particular ‘filter’ or ‘assessment criteria’ to determine that they were worthy of becoming RoNS. It somewhat confirms my suspicion that the only criteria for a RoNS is “does the Minister like it?” Fortunately, not long after this, the Cabinet Paper referred to above became available – and you can read it here.

Initially, it would seem as though a State Highway classification system and identifying the next RoNS would be two fairly separate tasks. The classification system seemed, at least initially, to be a fairly clever idea: highlight which routes are of national strategic importance and which routes have more regionally based importance. Which routes are tourist-focused, which routes are freight focused and so forth. This could potentially helpfully provide design cues in the future – highlighting routes where extra pavement strength might be helpful, routes where environmental impact should be kept to an absolute minimum etc. However, it seems to have turned into just another path towards building even more super-expensive and super-unnecessary motorways. Here’s the connection between the classification process and the new RoNS: In fact, if you look at the map of the classification system across the whole country, the four RoNS projects combined with the existing RoNS projects pretty much cover the whole of the “National Strategic High Volume” routes: When you see it like this, one does start to think there might be some method behind this madness. However, when you start delving into the details of some of these supposedly “high volume national strategic” routes, looking at both their existing traffic levels and the growth rates of traffic, there are some rather surprising results.

Let’s look at the North Island proposed RoNS, and how they compare against the already decidedly dodgy Puhoi-Wellsford project:

State Highway 1 Wellsford south of Centennial Park Rd (South of Wellsford)
2006 traffic volumes 9,851 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 9,885 VPD
Traffic growth = 0.086% per annum

State Highway 1 Palmer Mill Rd (Nth of SH5/SH1 intersection Taupo)
2006 traffic volumes 5,331 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 5,183 VPD
Traffic growth = minus 0.92% per annum

State Highway 29 (400m East of Waimou Bridge)
2006 traffic volumes 4,133 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 4,206 VPD
Traffic growth = 0.44% per annum

State Highway 50A Hawkes Bay Expressway (Maraekakako Rd South of Longlands Rd)
2006 traffic volumes 4,743 VPD
2010 traffic volumes 4,655 VPD
Traffic growth = minus 0.46% per annum

The bizarre thing is that we have arterial roads in Auckland carrying ten times the volume of some of these supposedly “high volume national strategic” routes. In terms of freight (something that the government does seem to care about), routes that form part of AMETI have similar numbers of heavy vehicles to the Auckland Harbour Bridge – yet funding for local roads has been capped for the next 10 years.

In short, there really is no logic behind the additional RoNS. Except, perhaps a desire to find a bunch of projects that make Puhoi-Wellsford’s cost-effectiveness look good. Which is a pretty tough challenge.

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  1. the really amazing thing is the roads dont even meet the criteria for high volume strategic, notably the high volume part. They just mention that most of the road meets the criteria, when actually most of it doesnt.
    And the bit about ‘linking with ports’ is very dodgily applied.

  2. “However, it seems to have turned into just another path towards building even more super-expensive and super-unnecessary motorways”

    Why do you think RoNS automatically means motorway? The document quoted just talks about “significant development”, which could mean just about anything.

      1. The current RoNS are all within or on the edge of the main urban areas with significant traffic. The ones listed here are distinctively rural. It’s an attempt to identify strategic routes for various reasons (such as supporting development of Tauranga as the main NI port) and improve them, but that doesn’t mean a motorway is required in every case.

        1. the criteria for the top level of routes say there should be no delays at peak/holiday times!!
          Luckily treasury made them add ‘completed over time’ to the criteria. SH1 is mostly a decent road, so what major upgrades can you do that don’t involve four-laning.
          for SH1 I would say grade seperating the major intersections between highways, and big bypasses of all towns on route would be the initial plan, with all being designed for 4 lanes.

      2. A friend of mine attended a National Party conference recently, and was talking with an MP about the Hamilton-Tauranga route, who said that the current plan was for a 4 lane highway between the two. My friend wasn’t sure if this was going to be a totally new route, or just an expansion on the current one. Considering that the majority of the roading projects conducted these days are grade-seperated expressways, I’d say it’d be a safe bet that this will be one of them, too.

  3. I believe that the minister, his advisors and many of the engineers at the NZTA, along with the likes of the RTF, AA, the construction industry would all like to see at least a 4 lane dual carriageway, whether it be motorway or expressway, all the way from Whangarei to Wellington. If the current idiots stayed in power long enough and this next bunch of RoNS were being built I bet we would then hear calls of the need to ‘close the gap’ between Taupo and Levin.

    Also the SH29 route is one that the RTF was pushing last year to have built as a tunnel under the Kaimai’s even though the NZTA said it didn’t pass even basic economic tests.

  4. SH1 North and South of Christchurch? North, maybe, just maybe there might be a case for some town bypasses but certainly no motorways/expressways are needed. South of Christchurch? You must be kidding me! The existing road is plenty good enough! Plenty of passing lanes, traffic speed rarely below 80kph. Where does he pull these “RoNS” from?

  5. Four new RONS? This Government is averse, allergic even, to evidence-based transport policy.

    Cambridge – Taupo especially has really low volumes and is still mostly an empty road. I should know, I’ve hitchiked it recently. No traffic. Much has been spent straightening parts and making it safer, and this is fine, and should continue where there is justification. A few more bypasses of towns (Putaruru seems especially slow) may be justified in the short term too. But the gold-plated solution for a low volume of trucking traffic?

    Also, those population figures are way out of date. Auckland’s urban population a year ago was 1,355,000 and its metropolitan population was 1,462,000. Auckland’s population grows by over 1.5% per year, so add another 15-20,000 to either figure.

    1. Yes I was going to make the comment about population figures as well, the census in 2006 listed the Auckland Region population as 1,373,000, and this year it is almost 1.5m

    2. This government is allergic to evidence-based policy in any area. Look at their approach to criminal sentencing, for example. Or to regulation of markets. Not that the last lot were dramatically better on either count, but at least they were prepared to change tack (Cullen on New Lynn, for example), or even go against public opinion (s59 amendment), if there was compelling evidence. The current lot decide a course and then stay there. They’re “decisive leaders”, as though being so decisive that no quantity of evidence can change your mind is some sort of a virtue.

      1. I don’t mean to turn this into a political debate, but on criminal sentencing English is trying to drive down sentences to save money. He hasn’t won over his caucus fully yet however. The economic argument has started to win the day there, at least in theory (we’ll see if anything ever comes of it). Unfortunately the simple ideas that the government has about roads (roads = infrastructure, infrastructure = growth) mean we’re unlikely to see a shift in policy direction anytime soon.

  6. The focus on inter-regional highways, rather than more pressing urban transport problems, is part of the National Pary’s long-held belief in a rural, extraction-based economy (and about lining the pockets of the trucking firms that move their goods). Unfortunately clueless on the importance of well-connected, livable cities for 21st century knowledge and innovation based-economic development.

    1. Bunch of farmers stuck in the 70s. Now, I happen to like farmers, but this Government has no idea how to run a 2010 knowledge and value-added based economy. The idea seems to be to get logs to the next port as quickly as possible (hence the upgrades of the Napier, Taupo, and Tauranga roads) to ship them overseas unprocessed. Not only is this an incredible subsidy for the logging industry – literally billions of dollars to get woodchips onto a boat a few minutes faster – it’s also going to do nothing for the wider economy.

      There may be a case for moving widgets from Auckland to Wellington faster down SH1 (and ignoring rail), but the Government should evaluate all options and spend money where it is clear it will get a return. It is very clear they have no intention of doing so.

      1. When I first saw the map, I thought it was of the rail network. Which makes it pretty clear where the first priority for funding should be.

        Improving the RoNS is not about getting the goods there 10 minutes quicker, but improving safety and about reducing operating costs (fuel, and wear and tear). That requires easing curves and grades, and providing more passing lanes. It doesn’t require a motorway or expressway, but the existing RoNS have set that expectation. 🙁

        I have to admit that Taupo is a much nicer place to stay, now that the trucks use the bypass. But I can see pressure growing to extend the bypass through to Turangi, to make life safer for the locals and tourists, and to avoid winding around the lake.

        1. I don’t buy it. Roads of National Significance designates a huge spending priority. This is considerably more than simply easing bad corners, eliminating black-spots, and putting in more passing lanes (all of which are good things).

          Which just demonstrates that as soon as any RONS are completed, a bunch more will be thought up by looking at a map, with costings and justifications added post-designation.

  7. I really enjoy reading this blog, great to have explanations and analysis of all the information out there.
    Just wanted to comment regarding the growth figures on these RoNS, although the growth is low, it does not mean that improving them wont’t result in larger increases.
    From travelling between Whangarei and Auckland regularly for the last ten years, it is obvious the roads are at capacity especially on peak travel times/dates ( and holidays) and have been for many years.
    Once the all the current funnel points (and it needs to be all or you only move the congestion along the road not remove it) are removed then I could imagine a lot more Aucklanders and others finding the area a lot more attractive.
    As you have mentioned before Southern Northland is quite minimally developed, it has alot of potential for growth, and if Marsden point gets improved and has a rail link the growth could be immense.

    1. Bruce, how many billions of dollars do you spend on the possibility of growth, though? To remove the choke points all the way to Whangarei – ie: to build four lanes all the way – wouldn’t leave much change from $5b, if any. Hell, just building four lanes from Puhoi to Warkworth will be about $1.6b, never mind continuing on to Wellsford and then Whangarei. The very reason for carrying out cost-benefit analyses is to determine if the benefits of the road (in this case growth) will be greater than the cost. The most generous possible CBA of Puhoi-Wellsford has a break-even return, and conservative CBA’s are distinctly negative.

      Also, “peak times” are not a good capacity measure. Auckland doesn’t have free-flowing peak traffic, but for 16-plus hours of pretty much every weekday the traffic moves with ease. Weekends are free-flowing nearly all the time. The peak time for the Puford route is a handful of holiday weekends, with most of the rest of the time having traffic flows that are as good as, if not better than, Auckland’s non-peak flows. Do you advocate building out Auckland’s motorways so that rush-hour traffic moves at the same pace as off-peak? Because that’s the yard-stick you’re suggesting by wanting to build Puhoi-Whangarei out such that traffic at the busiest period is not impeded. That’s fiscally treasonous, if one actually thinks about how much the capacity would cost relative to its average utilisation.

      For a fraction (20% or less) of the cost of building the Puhoi-Warkworth route, the Northern Auckland Line could be upgraded to handle high-cube freight containers, repaired to give trains a quality trip time, and extended to Marsden Point. That would do more for getting traffic moving on the Puford route than any amount of road building, because it’d get trucks off the road. Trucks are what really slows down non-holiday traffic, as they crawl up the hills, and they’re the true economic generators that use the road.

  8. unfortunately i think the Minister, and some of MoT & NZTA have the impression that we must have more and more bigger better roads. They feel it is inevitable and the SH classification system is an effort to plan where these inevitable upgrades will be.

    To be fair these new RoNS havent come out of thin air. I have heard talks in roading cirlces about upgrading these routes for at least 10 years. Probably longer for the Hamilton to Taurnaga road. They have been talking about a road tunnel through the Kaimais for years. Maybe the road engineers see the political climate as right to finally get these projects on the table with future funding allocated????

  9. It would be interesting Jarb just to see the figures for heavy vehicles – as presumably this is where the drive is coming from for investment…I hope your mini Jarbette is well 🙂

  10. the world is a beautiful place, where the governments are always wrong. In Italy at the moment we (well, they) are fighting against a proposed high speed freight railway to be constructed between Italy and France at the competitive price of 22 BBBillion euro, called TAV. Too much rail there, not enough here.

    1. Good point. The Hawke’s Bay expressway is probably the most sensible of the lot – arguably more sensible than Puhoi-Wellsford.

  11. The Hawkes Bay ‘expressway’ between Napier and Hastings could be justified for upgrades based on safety concerns. It is currently two lanes with no divider and has been designed as half of a four lane dual-carriageway. The curves are very long and designed for high speed, but as it’s only one lane each way this means there is basically no safe place to pass along it’s entire length. The sight lines of what should be a dual carriageway are terrible for a normal road and the number of serious road crashes and deaths have been keeping the hospital there busy for some time.

  12. Given the low volume of traffic, relatively, on these roads and the high cost of their duplication up RoNS standard, how much of a transfer of subsidy do you suppose they represent via petrol tax and RUC from high volume urban areas?

    1. Completely irrelevant. There are no road subsidies, only public transport subsidies. Roads are a good and virtuous black hole for taxation revenue, and how dare you suggest – you socialist, degenerate hippy – that there is any form of subsidisation for our glorious Minister’s Roads of National Significance!

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