Like the news of the government at last supporting the construction of the City Rail Link which leaked out yesterday, news is now becoming widespread that John Key will also announce some kind of fast tracking of the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing. I’m not going to speculate about the politics of these two announcements except to say that clearly various deals have been made in an attempt to get everyone both in government and in the Auckland Council to sing from the same song sheet. And that’s sweet ‘n’ all but really shouldn’t multiple billion dollar spending decisions be made a little more carefully than this?
Here at ATB we have shown before and here why any project to build additional traffic lanes across the Waitemata Harbour is not even an expensive luxury but actually an expensive disaster for both the city and the North Shore. Whatever scheme is proposed across the harbour it will cost multiple billions, and if it includes any more traffic lanes it will be even more expensive and worse than money wasted; it will be money wasted destructively.
The most recent cost benefit ratio from the NZTA is only 0.3 to 0.4 based on extremely dubious traffic volume predictions [page 49 here]. There is no money for this as all the other RoNS have left the cupboard bare for years into the future, especially in the context of a looming decline in income from fuel excise due to a drop off in driving. None of these predictions factor in other possible threat to their viability like international carbon reduction treaties or tariffs, or threats to oil supply or continued increase in liquid fuel cost beyond the government’s modest and optimistic expectations. There are any number of reasons why NZTA’s traffic predictions are likely to be too high which would quickly push the BCR quickly down from 0.3 to 0.2, 0.1 or much worse.
We have seen these predictions die in a ditch both here in NZ and recently on similar expensive road projects in Australia. Especially as any such tunnels will almost certainly have to involve tolling, and tolling on the existing route too, so they may end up with very few using it.
Then there are other issues particular to this project.
First there is the issue of the 4billion dollars we are still spending to complete the Western Ring Route. An alternative route that is yet to open.
Here from NZTA’s website:
What is the Western Ring Route?
The completed Western Ring Route will be a 48 kilometre motorway alternative to SH1 and the Auckland Harbour Bridge via SH20, SH16 and SH18. It will bypass the city to the west and link Manukau, Auckland, Waitakere, and North Shore cities.
Why is the Western Ring Route important?
Once completed and opened, the Western Ring Route will provide a bypass around the CBD for the large volume of traffic that travels across the region each day.
And this from the NZTA WRR Project Summary:
The Western Ring Route comprises the SH20, 16 and 18 motorway corridors. When complete it will consist of 48km of high quality motorway linking Manukau, Auckland, Waitakere and North Shore Cities. It will provide a high quality alternative route to SH1 and the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and take unnecessary traffic away from Auckland’s CBD.
So, the claims go, once the huge tunnels and flyovers of the Waterview project and the widening of SH16 to nine lanes are done, then we can practically include the five lanes of the Upper Harbour Bridge as part of the motorway network. Fair enough. The ongoing WRR work then is a bit like the City Rail Link: connecting parts of an existing network for improve the usefullness of the whole. And it is all supposed to add up to traffic relief for the Harbour Bridge.
There will be really 13 traffic lanes instead of eight across the Harbour when the WRR is open then. Or do NZTA and the Government no longer believe this?
Now add the fact that vehicle volumes on the Harbour Bridge have not been growing as NZTA anticipated as we outlined here for the analysis:
The red line is the Business Case by NZTA to justify the need for more roadspace, but as you can see it bears little relation to actual traffic demand. But won’t that grow soon as more people live in Auckland? Well not necessarily at all because in fact more people have been travelling across the Bridge but not driving their own cars but in buses. Here are the figures:
Furthermore there is more capacity to add buses to the Northern Busway and to considerably increase the numbers of people crossing to and from the North Shore. But what will eventually be required is a dedicated Rapid Transit Route which will both speed up Transit journeys and take some of this burden off the bridge.
But by just adding more traffic lanes we have the problem of what to do with additional lanes full of cars arriving in downtown. There is no space for any addition lanes through Spaghetti Junction to take them further through the motorway system, that is completely built out and at capacity, so they will all have to be dumped in the city. Anyone who has seen Fanshaw street or the other roads and city streets that lead to and from the Harbour Bridge at peak times know that there is absolutely no more space for more vehicles there.
There is also nowhere for thousands of more cars to be parked in the CBD, nor to circulate on city streets. In fact it is the declared policy of the Auckland Council to improve the quality of the whole of the central city with more Shared Spaces, sidewalk cafes, open spaces, more street trees and other improvements that are completely inconsistent with adding more cars to the mix; in fact they depend on lowering the numbers from where they are now.
To an important extent this is also true for the North Shore, spending billions on any means to encourage people to get into their cars and drive into the city will further clog up all the local roads and streets of the North Shore as they drive to the onramps. Yet the amount of traffic on these streets is already and expensive and ugly problem at rush hours.
Also parking costs can only rise with this increased demand even if more capital and land wasting car parking buildings are built, which, along with the tolls needed for the new crossing so it is unlikely that enough drivers will actually materialise to satisfy NZTA’s made up numbers.
Furthermore there are absolutely no capacity problems on the Bridge nor its approaches at any time other than at the work day peaks. This is a commuter issue only and while it may seem intuitive that adding more lanes across the Harbour would help commuters in fact it will not, and any more capacity will sit wastefully and expensively idle outside of these times. What would help commuters and other motorway users alike is a higher capacity, fast, and attractive commuter route across the harbour without the additional costs and dis-benefits of having to take your car with you and move it around and expensively store it in the city.
Now that the City Rail Link is a certainty, we know that once built, travel to the city by ferry, bus, bike, and train will be a whole lot more viable, because once there moving through or out of the city in another direction will be a whole lot easier. And because there is still a great deal of capacity in the Northern Busway, especially with the new Double Decker buses, the important thing to plan for is to link the North Shore and the City together for those commuters in the best way possible way.
While this could be bus tunnels we would still be faced with the problem of what to do with all the buses once they are in the city and because of the width and height of the tunnels required to handle buses and the technology to deal with the diesel fumes this is unlikely to offer a cost saving over building rail tunnels and their connections.
Rail that can link the new Aotea Station west under Wellesley St down to a new Wynyard Station for the growing demand at that end of the waterfront, then under the Harbour to a new Onewa Station then along side the motorway to a big bus interchange station at Akoranga then continuing to terminate at Takapuna Metropolitan Centre:
This project would seamlessly add huge capacity especially for the peaks without adding stress and cost to street level and parking amenity. It would allow city and North Shore roads to still function well for those who choose or need to drive. So the important conclusion is that adding the missing Rapid Transit link across the Harbour is the best outcome for commuters and road users alike. Adding more lanes to parts of cities is not the best way to improve driving.
In short it matters just as much what we don’t build as what we do. And John Key might feel more loved the more he promises everything anyone wants but really it’s the government’s job to be rational and not give in to demands for destructive projects, like anymore road lanes across the Waitemata. And similarly Len Brown may feel he needs to give in to this project in order to get his more vital and transformative rail projects approved, but that too is not supported by the facts, especially as this project actively works against his own policy to increase the quality of place and ‘livability’ of the whole City.
Incidentally this North Shore rail line is a very good fit with the Skypath walking and cycling addition to the Bridge; visitors to the city can choose to walk and ride one way across the Bridge and if they prefer, jump on the train at either Onewa or Wynyard Stations for the return journey. Then we would have a Harbour with all modes able to cross it, like the original inspiration for our Harbour Bridge: