Exactly a month ago, the National Party announced the biggest element of their transport policy for this election, $10.5 billion on 10 new Roads of National Significance. These are:
- 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
As we pointed out at the time, these appear to be a great lesson in diminishing returns, with some of the state highways due to be supersized having fewer than 10,000 vehicles per day use them. That’s far less than even many local roads in Auckland. As such, this represents a massive opportunity cost. It is money that could otherwise go towards creating a world-class public transport system in our major cities or making significant improvements to road safety across a much greater part of the country.
At the same time, over the years and during this election cycle the government have been talked extensively about the need for robust business cases and their economic prowess. However, the low volumes of many of these roads suggests that quite a few are likely to have poor business cases. It turns out that at least one of them does.
Just a few weeks before the announcement, the NZTA stated talking about the road between Te Hana and Whangarei. This included releasing a business case for improvements to the road. Mysteriously though, when we looked for the document again after the government announcement it had disappeared. Luckily Google cache had saved it, including comments such as that a 4-lane expressway (a RoNS) can’t be justified within the next 30 years.
We thought the removal of the business case was odd and so Harriet fired off some official information requests to ask why it had been removed.
Simon Bridges replied first saying the NZTA took it down to update some details.
A few days later the Ministry of Transport replied saying it wasn’t them either.
Finally, the NZTA replied yesterday. They found three documents related to the issue which they provided and suggest a very different story. Two are replies to this email from an NZTA staff member saying the minister’s office requested the details be taken down, less than two weeks before the policy announcement was made.
And one of the replies less than 10 minutes later saying it had been done. The other one appears to be from someone else also saying they’d do it straight away.
A third email comes in response to our post questioning why it had disappeared.
In their response to the OIA and the alarming comments from those emails, the NZTA claim it was all a “complete misrepresentation of what occurred”. This seems barely believable given the very specific language that is used in the initial emails. It’s also not like this would be the first time the minister’s office has got involved in the release of business cases.
Regardless of what’s happened with the business case, I think what’s ultimately important to remember is actually what’s in the business case. Even with the best analysis the NZTA can come up with, a four lane expressway just doesn’t stack up. This project is a poor use of our precious and limited transport budgets.