Transport is a high profile political issue at the moment, with a lot of news happening all at once. We have the release of ATAP, the Regional Land Transport Plan and the Regional Fuel Tax proposal, hot on the heels of the Government Policy Statement. While that means there’s a lot for us to write about, it also means that some of the political debate on transport is either poorly informed or really really misleading. Take last week’s tweet by Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown:
Lagoon Drive going towards Pakuranga this evening. A tram up dominion road paid for by these motorists petrol tax won’t fix that. pic.twitter.com/diRPsjySKC
— Simeon Brown (@SimeonBrownMP) May 3, 2018
It’s very surprising that the MP for Pakuranga has seemingly never heard of the AMETI Eastern Busway project that, unlike light-rail, is actually proposed to be part funded by the proposed Regional Fuel Tax. This busway runs right along Lagoon Drive and through his electorate. It is designed to address this very problem by giving people the option of avoiding congestion through travelling on a high-quality busway.
Something else that’s got lost in the political discussion seems to be the 2017 ATAP, which was completed under the previous government. National MPs have been pointing to it to say that this latest ATAP is just their plan repackaged. There is some truth to that because the debate about previous ATAPs was largely not about what the projects were but the relative timing of them and how everything would be funded. The last iteration of ATAP also had a funding gap of $5.9 billion, increased to $10 billion once inflation was added in.
The 2017 ATAP also formed the starting point for the most recent work. It is this 2017 ATAP, in particular what it discussed about light-rail, which I want to delve into a bit more detail as part of this post.
The general purpose of the 2017 ATAP was to update work done the previous year to reflect updated growth projections – the reality that Auckland was growing much faster than previously expected and that most of this extra growth was projected to happen within the existing urban area (the Unitary Plan had been approved after the first ATAP:
Unsurprisingly, the faster growth translated into more pressure on the transport network generally, including on key bus corridors accessing the city centre. This is picked up and explained in more detail later in the report:
City Centre Access
Since 2010, the number of jobs in the city centre has increased from 88,000 to 116,000 and the population has grown from 30,000 to nearly 53,000. Tertiary student numbers, a major contributor to travel demand, have also grown. This rapid growth is projected to continue, increasing pressure on transport networks serving New Zealand’s largest employment area. Constrained access to the city centre and high competition for street space means growing demand needs to be accommodated through an ongoing modal shift to public transport, walking and cycling.
The City Rail Link and associated further rail improvements will cater for a substantial proportion of increased trip demand into the city for the parts of Auckland served by rail. However major catchment areas, particularly parts of the isthmus and the North Shore, are not served by rail and continue to be reliant on bus services to meet growing travel demand.
Modelling outputs indicate bus ridership on corridors accessing the city centre is now projected to grow more rapidly. These increases combine on the two highest volume access routes: Symonds Street and Fanshawe Street, which are already under significant strain at peak times. Faster population and employment growth means bus ridership on Symonds Street, Auckland’s busiest bus corridor, is tracking 3-4 years ahead of previous projections.
ATAP highlighted the challenge of meet growing demand on Symonds Street beyond the mid-2020s through bus efficiency improvements including double-decker buses, route optimisation, bus priority measures and bus terminus facilities. Business case analysis of this issue undertaken by Auckland Transport and NZTA highlights that as the corridor’s capacity is reached and exceeded, major delays and poor reliability will be experienced across large parts of Auckland’s bus network, ultimately making the city centre harder to access.
A mass transit solution (advanced bus or light rail) costing up to $1.2 billion was therefore identified by ATAP as being necessary early in the second decade. $500 million was allocated in the first decade to fund route protection and early stages of construction. Faster bus ridership growth on this corridor now indicates completion of this investment should be brought forward by 3-4 years into the first decade.
So, the previous government agreed that an investment of around $1.2 billion (in 2015 dollars, which equates to around $1.5 billion in the inflated dollars the recently released ATAP uses) on “mass transit” was necessary to address these city centre bus constraints. Furthermore, the previous government agreed that this investment was needed in the next 10 years.
While the paragraphs above note that “mass transit” could be in the form of light-rail or “advanced bus”, following further investigation into the advanced bus option, there was general agreement that the long-term solution would need to be light-rail. Simon Bridges even said this himself in March 2017.
“In the medium to long term, this will make it possible for a staged, integrated transition to light rail along the preferred ‘Airport to City’ route based on future demand and capacity.”
So the last government supported spending $1.5 billion on the Dominion Road corridor over the next decade, which is only slightly less than the $1.8 billion the recently released ATAP dedicates to light-rail to the airport and Northwest (with the intention that this will be leveraged through financing and third-party funding arrangements). They supported light-rail as the medium to long term solution along the corridor – with the details of a transition from bus to light-rail to be worked out through detailed analysis. By the way, I’m sure that detailed analysis would have confirmed that it would be pointless to spend $1.5 billion to go from current bus lanes to a major new bus corridor only to then dig it up again 10-years later to convert to light rail when you could jump straight to light rail.
Therefore, it is surprising to see such strong opposition from the National Party to the City-Airport light rail, particularly in terms of identifying this project as one they would cut to save enough money so no there longer need to be a Regional Fuel Tax:
Pretty obvious isn’t it? A trolley service up Dominion Road when a bus is quicker and cheaper.. https://t.co/hT1pEPJC2X
— Judith Collins (@JudithCollinsMP) May 1, 2018
Ultimately we will never know how serious the previous government was about closing Auckland’s transport funding gap, which had ballooned to nearly $10 billion by the start of the most recent ATAP. But they certainly had no issue with spending $1.5 billion on a “Dominion Road trolley service” in August last year.