Reading through the two Herald articles last week that related to the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” really got me wondering why the government is so utterly determined to ram through this road. It’s very unpopular, with only 24.8% of Aucklanders and 19.2% of non-Aucklanders supporting the project, plus the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road appears to have exceedingly difficult geotechnical issues to resolve. What’s particularly difficult to understand is why the government is so unwilling to look at a ‘staged’ way of improving the road – along the lines (but obviously informed by more technical analysis) of the Campaign for Better Transport’s “Operation Lifesaver” alternative. After all, solving the majority of the road’s problems for a fraction the price would seem to be very consistent with the government’s stated objectives of getting better ‘value for money’ from transport spending – or does that requirement only apply to non pet projects?
It is quite challenging to try to put myself in Steven Joyce’s shoes and comprehend why he’s so determined to push forwards with this project. One possible reason is that he thinks that in the long-run his role in creating a “real inter-city motorway network” for New Zealand will be celebrated – a king of ‘monument building’ complex that most politicians seem to suffer from. Perhaps he also truly believes that a road which slices a mere 10-15 (and I am very skeptical of the higher figure) minutes off a trip between Auckland and Whangarei will truly revolutionise the Northland economy. It’s a pity for him that earlier work on the project pretty much ruled that out.
But to look deeper at the reasons behind the obsession with this project, one must start to consider the issues of “who benefits”? And an interesting article from a newsletter Transit NZ put together back in 2000 when the Albany to Orewa motorway had just opened, sheds some interesting light on that matter: Now I’m generally not one for conspiracy theories about campaign contributions from property developers, so I’m not suggesting anything direct like that. But it is interesting to note the surprisingly great interest that Steven Joyce took in critiquing Rod Oram’s suggestions that the spatial plan needed to curb sprawl, with projects like Puhoi-Wellsford undermining those attempts.
In the end, I think that perhaps Steven Joyce sees a huge benefit of Puhoi-Wellsford being the ‘opening up’ of North Rodney to further urban development. This would have both the effect of enabling development in a potentially pretty huge area while also having that development ensure the road is well-used and isn’t considered a ‘white elephant’.
Environmental concerns (and there are pretty big ones) aside, I’m doubtful whether massive future development in North Rodney is in Auckland’s best interests. Not only does it require this enormously expensive and destructive motorway to ‘enable’ the development, but it seems to completely undermine efforts to create a quality compact city, it requires hugely expensive infrastructure (providing sewerage services in this area is eye-wateringly expensive, for example) and it further entrenches Auckland as an auto-dependent city. Not really my reason for building a hugely expensive road, but clearly Joyce seems to think differently.