The announcement a few weeks ago that the government would support the CRL has had a major political impact but one that perhaps hasn’t been noticed by many in the general public. With high public support along with both central and the current council supporting the project, it has meant that it is now politically difficult for any major candidate to outright oppose the project. Sure there will be some candidates or organisations out on the extremes who will oppose the project outright but I don’t think we will see that stance from anyone going for the majority of the vote.
As a result the angle of attack for those opposing the project is changing. Instead of fighting the project head on they will seek to undermine it in other ways by trying to raise questions about specific aspects, about the timing or funding. Mayoral candidate John Palino did just that earlier this month in a press release about the project. However this post isn’t so much about John but about addressing the issues he raises as I’m expecting them to come up from a number of candidates, for not just the mayoralty but also for councillors and even local boards. We will probably see some similar arguments come up next year for national elections too. Here is the first part of the release
What’s the real cost of the CRL?
The Government’s announcement last week that it would contribute to the extension of the rail line through Britomart, caught some off guard – not least of all me!
The Government resisted the City Rail Link for so long because the transport benefits used to understand whether an investment is good value for money consistently showed very low returns. Forty cents return for each dollar invested, to be exact.
The Council has always argued, correctly, that this project is much more than just a transport solution and is an urban redevelopment and form solution. But that left the government in a tricky position: if the transport benefits are low, how can you justify spending transport funds on it?
The Government got around this by not committing money from the National Transport Fund, which is absolutely appropriate. Instead it will use money from asset sales and general taxes.
Now this is all very good for Aucklanders who will now benefit from a huge investment by central and local government. But it does raise a few interesting questions: why doesn’t the CRL deliver good transport benefits and if the beneficiaries of the CRL aren’t commuters, who are they and why aren’t they paying?
Firstly, the CRL doesn’t deliver strong relative transport benefits in essence because the project is so big and expensive and large projects like this, such as the harbour bridge, tend to create a lot of opportunities that aren’t possible to measure in advance.
As explained earlier a few weeks ago in the excellent guest post by Peter Nunns, part of the reason transport benefits are low are due to the different values of time that are used for different modes. We also know that even the MoT think the modelling done for the CCFAS is underestimating rail trips, all of which means that the transport benefits are likely to be much higher than what has been quoted. In saying this it is good that Palino is recognising that there are more to projects like the CRL than just the transport benefits. But it is the next section that I really want to address.
So to a degree, the CRL suffers because of what we know and can measure and because of what we can’t possibly know. The CRL also misses key growth areas in the CBD such as Wynyard quarter and the universities which would help increase demand and improve transport benefits.
To resolve this problem, the Mayor is relying on rail to the North Shore. The problem with this solution is that funding for rail to the Shore is not even in the Council’s long term planning horizons. There is no money to fund the $6 billion needed for rail to the Shore in the 30 year Auckland Plan. In other words, rail is coming to Wynyard, but not forty or more years, while the Council’s emphasis on Wynyard growth is focused on the next 20 years.
To fill the Wynyard gap, Auckland Transport now has to investigate a new rail or bus solution to Wynyard quarter. That’s more cost. And for the universities, the idea is to rely on the existing busway. But the most recent report on its capacity showed that Symonds St would resemble a bus car park within a decade, so there will have to be a new solution there too. Who’ll pay for that?
The talk of changing the CRL route to include both the Wynyard and University areas is something that has being pushed by a few of the prominent business groups including the NZ Council for Infrastructure Development and the Chamber of Commerce. I suggest that it is from those organisations that John has got the idea from. The issue with it is that on the surface the idea sounds like an ok idea but it isn’t until you look at it a bit further that you see it doesn’t stack up. Firstly to get the CRL close to those two locations means making it do an extremely circuitous route that ends up looking a bit like a funny shaped S. This is shown below (the shaded areas represent roughly a 500m walking catchment).
Note that the route is similar to one that was looked at as part of the initial business case a few years ago and it didn’t make the short list.
While such a route would connect both Wynyard and the University, once you compare it to the existing CRL route you can see one of the major issues. It loses some substantial coverage around Karangahape Rd as well the western side of the CBD.
Even more of an issue is that the route becomes super long as it is roughly an extra 2km in length. That of course would have some fairly serious implications including that it would result in slower journey times and therefore wipe out a lot of the transport benefits that do exist making the project less viable. I suspect that the changes in catchment and slowing down in travel times would also mean less people overall would want to use the system harming the amount of transport benefits even further. The big impact though would of course be on the cost as adding an additional 2km to the project won’t come cheap, especially seeing as much of it would likely need to be cut and cover. I don’t even want to guess just how much it would add but it certainly wouldn’t be pretty.
So of course the question still remains about how to improve access for both the universities and the Wynyard Quarter. As John himself mentions the long term solution we talk about is a rail connection through both of these areas then across to the shore and we have that as a fairly core part of our Congestion Free Network.
But even we list this as being perhaps 12-17 years away so the question is if we can do something sooner than that. Firstly both Wynyard and the Universities will be served by very high frequency bus services as well as likely much stronger bus priority. Combine that with integrated fares and someone getting off a train at either Britomart or Aotea would have a very quick trip to either destination. We can also further improve the walking connections to reduce the amount of time it would take to walk for those that want to and lastly for Wynyard at least we could extend the existing tram system across the Viaduct – as is currently meant to happen at some point – and passengers could transfer to that. The Tram has been suggested to cost $8m to extend but even if it was 3 times that amount, it is still a hell of a lot cheaper than extending the CRL route.
I would say that this alternate route suggestion is secretly about adding huge costs while simultaneously removing a large proportion of the benefits the project delivers is part of an overarching attempt to kill the project off entirely. It is definitely an issue that we are going to have to keep a close eye on for the next few years until construction gets underway.
John then moves on to talking about how to pay for the project which is something I don’t feel needs to be addressed in this post but he did have this gem.
The current answer to not only the Wynyard and Universities access questions, but also the $1-2 billion council share of the CRL is ratepayers. People in Wellsford, Howick, Mangere, Titirangi, Mt Albert and other locations not benefitting heavily from rail will see rates increase by around 10 per cent before a single train leaves the station.
That’s not fair, but it does highlight the question of who in fact should pay. If the CRL is a good project, and I certainly believe it can be, then some people must be benefitting. Who are they and why aren’t they paying?
I must say, I was unaware that Mt Albert was not benefiting heavily from rail, perhaps the station below has stolen Mt Albert’s name.