This really is turning into a transport election and the differences between the main parties couldn’t be clearer. Yesterday the National Party announced what seems to be their key transport initiative – the “next generation” Roads of National Significance (RoNS).
Motorists would get four-lane highways from Auckland to Whangarei under a $10 billion National Party policy.
National returned to a familiar theme for its latest election promise, saying it would build 10 major highways around the country if it remained in power after September.
One of the new Roads of National Signifcance will run between Wellsford and Whangarei, extending the planned Puhoi-Wellsford highway which was approved under the last series of major roading projects.
Roads of National Significance are usually four-lane highways, meaning there would be a continuous four-laned road for the entire 160km route between Auckland and Whangarei…
…Bridges said the estimated cost of the 10 projects was $10.5 billion, compared to the $12 billion for the previous seven Roads of National Significance. The projects were chosen because they were New Zealand’s highest-volume roads, he said.
They would be funded through the National Land Transport Fund and private-public partnerships. The initial funding had already been committed to in this year’s Budget.
The seven previous projects were the Puhoi-Wellsford highway, the Western Ring Route in Auckland, the Victoria Park tunnel, the Waikato Expressway, Tauranga’s Eastern Link, Wellington’s Northern Corridor, and motorways around Christchurch.
The full list of projects is below:
• Wellsford to Whangarei
• East West Link in Auckland
• Cambridge to Tirau
• Piarere to the foot of the Kaimai Range
• Tauranga to Katikati
• Napier to Hastings
• Manawatu Gorge
• Levin to Sanson
• Christchurch Northern Motorway
• Christchurch to Ashburton
The current bunch of RoNS projects are a mixed bag. Some were highly developed and their classification was essentially just a useful exercise in providing confirmed funding. Victoria Park Tunnel is a good example of this. Others were more substantial, but still based on a lot of analysis over time and – while flawed in some respects – still provide pretty good overall value. Waterview Connection is a good example of this. Inevitably though, there are only so many large-scale roading projects that provide good value and a bunch of the current RoNS seem to be scraping the barrel:
- The Tauranga Eastern Link has had very low levels of use since opening.
- The Wellington Northern Corridor seems to have made traffic worse, and had some completely stupid parts to it that have thankfully been killed off.
- The Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” is a hugely “over the top” solution where a simple Warkworth bypass and safety upgrades could have been finished years ago.
Like the original RoNS, it seems this new set are a mixed bunch. Upgrading Tauranga to Kaitikati seems like a good idea, given the safety issues along that stretch of road. Providing a resilient link bypassing the Manawatu Gorge is clearly essential to the southern North Island. Likewise some sort of upgrade between Napier and Hastings might be a good idea, as this is also a pretty dangerous road.
However, overall it seems like we are scraping the barrel in terms of the return from such large-scale investments as indicated by the identification of these routes as RoNS. The announcement says the routes have been chosen because they are the highest volume roads and are “sensible and logical extensions” of the current RoNS projects. The table below compares the volumes of these routes against a number of major Auckland arterial roads (I’ve excluded East West Link because we’ve discussed that project at length previously):
The data on Auckland traffic volumes is sourced from here and the state highway volumes from here. Roads in Auckland with volumes of around 15,000 vehicles a day – around the top end of those highlighted for major upgrade – are generally secondary arterial routes like Stancombe Road in Flat Bush, Parrs Cross Road out west and Manuka Road in Glenfield. When you come down to roads with around 7,500 vehicle trips a day you’re way below that level and getting into basic collector streets.
The sad thing is that there’s a huge opportunity cost from spending $10 billion on a handful or so of roads. This is money that can’t go to creating a world-class public transport system in major cities like Auckland and it can’t go to reversing our increasing road toll. Of course there will be some safety benefits from the RoNS projects, but targeting such a huge amount of investment to such a small number of projects means other crucial safety upgrades will miss out.
Ultimately New Zealand has a fairly well developed state highway network. It clearly needs selective improvements over time, especially in and around major growth areas and where there are safety problems. But because the network is so well developed the marginal benefits from the extra investment seem to be getting smaller and smaller. These projects will save a few minutes here and there, but nothing like the 40 minutes the whole Waikato Expressway will save along New Zealand’s busiest inter-regional corridor, nothing like the impact of Waterview Connection on completing Auckland’s motorway network. Instead more and more money is getting shovelled into projects that provide less and less return. This is why there are so many better uses of this $10 billion – a mere fraction of which could get 160 kph trains running between Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and beyond. A RoNS is never going to give you that speed.