The Waterview tunnels have just passed their first birthday and the Herald covered it with an interesting piece on some of the people who live, work or play in and around the tunnels. They also took a look at the impact the tunnels have had on travel times – showing that some of the initial travel time savings are already starting to be eroded.

In October last year, four months after the tunnels opened, it was taking an average of 49 minutes to travel from Papakura to Auckland’s CBD on State Highway 1 during the morning peak, compared to 46 to 70 minutes before July 2.

However, average travel times on the same route increased to 56 minutes last month.

Morning commuters travelling from Westgate to the CBD via SH16 also face longer journey times since October, when it took an average of 20 minutes.

Last month the same route took an average of 28 minutes. Before the tunnel motorists could expect a 21 to 32 minute journey.

It was also taking longer since October to travel from Auckland Airport to the CBD via the tunnel in the afternoon peak, 33 minutes last month compared to 25 minutes.

These results and some of the others in the article are hardly surprising. That’s because it’s a story that’s been repeated here and overseas time and time again. Initial time savings are great and widely praised by agencies and/or politicians, but they can be quickly eaten away as more people change their travel patterns or travel more. In a few years it wouldn’t be surprising if we were to learn that travel times are back to exactly what they were before the tunnel was built.

That doesn’t mean the tunnel was pointless though and it does provide a number of benefits. The NZTA have been keen to state that it’s helped to re-balance the network rather than forcing most travel past the city centre. It’s certainly useful off-peak and it’s just been disappointing that the wider Western Ring Route project didn’t include a proper rapid transit corridor.

Anyway, happy birthday Waterview tunnels

Cost Recovery

So often in the debate about transport the issue of costs and subsides comes up, that public transport is bad because it’s subsidised or that cycleways are bad because they look empty. I pulled together a quick back of the envelope calculation to have a look.

  • Fuel tax (excluding the regional fuel tax) that goes to the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) is 59.52 cents per litre – the rest is for ACC and other levies. Road user charges vary by truck size but for this exercise, I used an average of $250 per 1,000km.
  • The NZTA say there have been about 22 million trips through the tunnel. Stats show about 5.3% of trips are heavy vehicles, so about 20.8 million light vehicle trips and 1.2m heavy vehicle ones.
  • For light vehicles, I used an average of 10 litres of fuel per 100km.

Putting all that together, suggests revenue of about $3m for light vehicles and $700k for heavy vehicles for a total of about $3.7 million annually from our standard road taxes. On top of that, the tunnel is probably the most monitored stretch of road in the country and that includes with multiple speed cameras. The Herald say that at the rate things were going for the first nine months, there would be about $4.5 million in tickets issued. All up between the fuel/road taxes and the tickets, that would suggest it generates about $8.2 million annually for the government.

So, how does that compare with the operational costs. Back in 2016 I asked about those costs in as part of an OIA request. This was the answer I got.

The latest cost estimate for Waterview Tunnels to maintain and operate on an annual basis is approximately $16 million.

You can understand why it costs so much from the Herald piece highlighting how much maintenance and operational support the tunnel has.

So, the tunnels generate about $8.2 million in revenue and cost $16 million to operate, that suggests a recovery rate of about 51%. Overall, not to dissimilar to the farebox recovery rates of public transport – if you exclude tickets, the percentage drops to about 23%.

It’s likely most of our new pieces of roading infrastructure fall into the same category, especially some of the more rural Roads of National Significance.

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  1. Interesting calculation, Matt, but the costs don’t end there. The traffic induced by the Waterview Connection is filling our local roads. The cost of that, not just in maintaining the local roads, but in public health, local environment, climate change, social cost, and DSI, must be added to the cost of the WC.

    There could have been a point to the Waterview Connection if it had been accompanied by road reductions elsewhere, so that it actually diverted traffic off local roads to the motorways. Or if it meant we could remove some of the motorway system through the CBD.

    1. That’s the major issue really, major new freeways are built but the neighbouring or now bypassed route remains its (temporarily) oversized self – traffic fills it back up. Zürich built a ring route and turned all the roads the traffic used to go into low-speed streets with filtered access. Failing to take advantage of the temporary traffic reductions to do this demonstrates that NZTA and AT merely see motorways as ways to increase VKT and speed everywhere, not as a way to humanise other parts of the city.

      1. Yes, and as the school kids cope with extra danger from the traffic rat-running along Motions Rd, and as the local corners have motorway-primed traffic sliding out of control into the kerb, I’m reminded of the reply AT gave to my questions about what they’re doing to improve safety in the local roads given the traffic it will induce:

        The arrogance of the reply still stuns me. It shows the writer neither understood induced traffic, nor cared to learn, despite my raising the safety implications. Truth is, AT staff and the Well-Connected Alliance:

        Extra trips are induced by extra roading capacity. The traffic models for the WC do not include these extra trips, and NZTA is not aware of any models that include them. Your reply constituted ‘blind obedience’. Dangerous.

    2. Your comment is pretty wrong, and makes me inclined to believe that you do not live locally to the tunnels.

      The tunnels have improved the surrounding areas in many ways and provided positive benefits. A good example is the almost complete disappearance of trucks on local roads between Maioro and the North Western. Previously there were hundreds of trucks per day thundering down the local roads, particularly on New Windsor Road and Tiverton and through Mount Albert. Now it’s very rare to see them. This has improved a variety of factors such as local air quality (less diesel smoke), living quality (less noise and vibration for residents) and reduce the damage done to pavements.

      The tunnels have fufilled their purpose by providing an alternative to the local roads and providing a bypass around the city. It does amuse me that all the doom and gloom predicted by certain people has not eventuated – “tunnels will jammed from day 1!”

      1. 1/ Parallel to the new roading capacity: Of course roads “between Maioro and the North Western” will have less traffic right now. Carrington Rd has lower traffic levels, too. Imagine putting in that much road capacity and not seeing this! It is this easing of congestion that is what is creating the high levels of induced traffic there, too, but because of the massive increase in road capacity, it will take a while for the congestion to return.

        2/ In certain pockets, the new flow of traffic has overloaded the local roads. As one example, the traffic coming along the SH20 and going into town on the SH16 means that the traffic that used to go into town on the SH16 (from the Avondale direction on GNR or along the SH16 from Te Atatu) now uses the local roads from Pt Chev into town instead. This has resulted in extreme congestion record traffic volumes and dangerous high volume rat running on areas where no-one has adjusted to the safety implications yet.

        3/ Everywhere else, the traffic induced by the extra roading capacity is filtering through to the local roads, because all that extra traffic on the new motorway started somewhere local, and ends somewhere local.

        You see eased congestion, I see more traffic. We’re in different places. If the net sum was zero, my comment would be wrong. In fact, the net sum is the extra traffic induced by the extra roading capacity, hence my comment is correct.

        If you’d like to try to argue against the fundamental law of highway congestion, you might first like to consider the post implementation reviews for other pieces of Auckland’s motorway network – sections where the travel times were also incorrectly modelled as going down but eventuated as staying about the same, while traffic volumes went up. And you might want to consider the vast engineering literature on the subject, which continues to confirm that:

        For every 10% of roading capacity you add, vkt increases by 10% too.

  2. Not unreasonable to talk about cost recovery, but when will we hear about cost recovery for the massive public transport projects?

    Fine to have a go at motorway projects and their inflated benefits, but it would be better to see the same ruler of mode neutrality, travel time, revenue, cost recovery, and all those other good things applied to rail double tracking, or Panmure station, or Britomart, or Onehunga rail, etc.

    1. This is talking about operating costs not capital costs so the cost of double tracking would be irrelevant. I do agree though, it would be interesting to see revenue vs operating costs for the rail network, farebox recovery is somewhere around 40 % I think, but I’m not sure if this includes capital costs as well.

      PT is also slightly different as it includes vehicle running costs.

      1. Farebox recovery is at 46% across the Auckland system, but that is opex only and excludes capital. Well actually it includes the cost of vehicles which is arguably capex, but not infrastructure.

      2. I think to compare subsidies you have to take into account the total current value of the investment and a reasonable ROI. For some reason we don’t consider it a subsidy to have hundreds of billions of dollars of public money and land tied up in roading, and because of this driving a car is cheap and public transport has to be subsidised to compete.
        I imagine the only way the debate would ever be solved is to completely privatise the road network. But for some reason even the most right wing parties don’t advocate for that.

    2. I think Matt is just pointing out that some roads are subsidised too. Of course in this case it is subsidised by other users of the same mode which is a bit different.

  3. Speed camera revenue will drop as everyone gets used to the placement of the camera’s and that one has been removed at the Maioro St end south bound.

    Otherwise the tunnels are excellent for now, (if you aren’t coming in from west of them) to get around the city because prior to their opening SH1 south of the city junctions was almost permanently gridlocked to Otahuhu for probably 18 hours of the day. But yes they are creating their very own traffic culture shift

  4. Not a word on the environmental degradation caused by this traffic sewer. Living within a 1km radius of the southern portal we are not only smothered regularly by unfiltered vehicle emissions but also subject to the constant drone of motor vehicles. Guess these are the sort of tangible outcomes NZTA prefers not to publicise.

  5. There was never a time saving from Westgate to the City. The Waterview tunnel to CBD ramps made sure that there would only ever be an increase in travel time for people using the NW motorway.

    1. Yet the modelling, miffy? Let’s have a giggle at how bad it was: “Peak direction travel times along SH16 are much improved with the project in place. Eastbound in the AM peak is 23% (3 minutes) faster, with the PM peak becoming over 8 minutes (50%) faster;”

      Specifically between Westgate and the CBD they predicted a saving of 6.5 minutes (W-bound in the evening) and 1.8 minutes (E-bound in the morning) compared to the do minimum in 2026.

      My, what a load of hogwash, and didn’t it serve the business case well?

      1. Seriously? They claimed adding traffic would reduce travel times? I read in this morning’s paper someone complaining about the delay yesterday after the fatality on the NW. They were travelling into to town from Hillsborough. I mean WTF are they doing on the NW motorway?

        1. Don’t forget they also widened the NW. So on the basis of this ruinously bad modelling, the traffic engineer argued they didn’t have to include bus lanes on the NW. Genius.

          As for what people from Hillsborough are thinking driving into town via Pt Chev, well, I don’t claim to understand people. But the effect of doing so has been to bump other people off the NW so they drive through the inner west instead.

          Which is why some attention from AT when I asked about safety here would have been considerate.

        2. Agreed. I also find it callous when someone dies on the road and people complain about their travel times being affected.

        3. Hillsborough via the NW – I blame intellectual laziness.

          It’s the route that takes the least effort to plan and execute. It’s also the route suggested by Google Maps – Three minutes faster, even though it’s 50% further to travel.

          I also blame intellectual laziness for a lot of motorway traffic. I’m sure that a lot of vehicles could save time/distance by avoiding the MW at certain times. Then again, I’m a grumpy fart 🙂

          As for the delay – Existing public transport would have been unaffected. The proposed light rail would have been unaffected. Insensitive to suggest perhaps, but true.

        4. Hillsborough to CBD is a 20 minute cycle or about 40 minutes on a bus…just putting that out there.

        5. Good points, Jon and Simon. I idon’t think it’s at all insensitive to point out transport modes that aren’t affected by traffic chaos.

          NZTA and AT should be showcasing the more than a third of Aucklanders who aren’t driving regularly. Stories of how they are not affected by incidents like this are needed to balance the stories the media loves about how PT-users are affected by union action, etc.

          Cycling is the mode with the best time travel reliability – for some demographic groups, this is the most important factor in choosing a transport mode. I’d like to see advertising on this point instead of the propaganda we were treated to about the Waterview Connection (which was all based on travel time savings that are now largely eroded).

        6. Hillsborough via the NW – intellectual laziness? No. Is faster at some times of the day. May be 50% further to travel but my mileage display on the dash show petrol usage is about 50% more efficient in litres / 100 kmh (more 60-80 kmh continuous running, less stop / start). Is a little less stressful, fewer red lights / queues. Sometimes least effort is a better option.

        7. Is that not exactly what motorways are supposed to be for? Take the through traffic of local streets and communities and put it on the motorway?

      2. In fact its already worse than it was between Waterview and Westgate. Majority of traffic (i.e. 3 lanes) come from the CBD, yet only one of those 3 lanes continues past Te Atatu interchange, forcing everyone to shift 1-2 lanes to the right and bringing the whole area to a complete stop.

    2. Probably looking to get off the SW motorway at Great North Road/Pt. Chev end, then use Great North Road to get to either Pit Street to Vincent Street/Greys Ave/Nelson Street or Queen Street/Symonds Street to access the CBD depending on where they work…

      It is a clever way to town, as you go against the flow part of the way.

  6. The tunnel didn’t help much yesterday when the police shut the motorway down for 4 hours.The delay the police caused probably cost millions.

    1. What did the police do to cause the delay, Ari? First there was a motorcyclist fatality, then there was a truck breakdown. Surely the police were just doing their best?

      As for Infrastructure NZ’s Selwood commenting on yesterday’s situation: “The millions lost every day is the legacy of motorway infrastructure built for traffic volumes of the 1960s and 70s rather than the 2020s” What a laugh – let’s make sure we build more than we need at each stage. Or, save time, let’s just pave everything over now, because that’s where that strategy will end.

      1. When I saw his comment I just shook my head and mused to myself how fast he was with his idiocy.

        I swear, he’s giving white males over a certain age a bad reputation 😉

      2. If people’s lives are at stake, people stuck etc, then sure, close the motorway for however long needed. If the guy was alive, the ambulance would have been there in 10min and taken him away and the cars would have been cleared and the motorway would have been open again after 30min.

        Police take too long to investigate fatals. I’m sure they are doing their best, but the police are the main cause of millions in delay. Not the crash. That could be cleaned up in short order in most cases. We spend so much time and energy trying to work out who is to blame. There is nothing new to learn from these crashes any more. We just choose not to learn anything.

  7. With the speed limit around the tunnels going back to 100km/hr next month, the bulk of the speed camera tickets will cease.
    Good to see the government talking about tolling transmission gully. Similarly Auckland traffic will continue to get worse until a congestion charging scheme is introduced, preferably GPS based to avoid rat running and just shifting motorway traffic to local roads. Otherwise it can only really be limited to the harbour bridges, SH16 causeway and portages which may be too coarse.

    1. As I understand it the speed limit where the cameras are, right near the tunnel, will still be 80 km/h.

    2. After yesterday’s motorcyclist fatality on the NW, do you think they can continue with raising the speed limit to 100 km/hr? Especially as Shane Ellison committed to doing the following, as part of the Road Safety Business Review:

      “Ensure the Roadsafe Executive hold discussions at a senior level with NZTA and request that there be no move to increase speed limits on national roads in Auckland unless the safety case is clear and there are many concurrent offsetting national road speed limit reductions on high-risk roads delivered so the public receive a consistent message on the change to lower, safer and more appropriate speeds.”

      I wonder how they can show the safety case is clear, given that someone died yesterday, and AT are committed to Vision Zero? I also wonder where the many concurrent offsetting national road speed limit reductions on high-risk roads are happening?

      Regardless of anyone’s position on what speed that piece of motorway should be, do we want transparency in the follow-through of commitments AT makes? Has the discussion taken place? What was NZTA’s response?

      1. The NW motorway is one of the safer roads in the country as it has grade separation and median barriers, with the large volumes of traffic the motorway network has a very low fatality rate.

        I imagine the safety case for having a speed limit of 100kmh would be pretty strong.

        1. Those many concurrent speed limit reductions would have a pretty strong safety case too, Jezza. And they’re coming, when? Concurrently, wasn’t it? :/

        2. Sorry, not sure what you mean by concurrent speed reductions. Are you meaning on roads that are less safe? If so I agree, however the speed limit is quite political unfortunately, it appears the majority of the public think accidents are caused by the other idiots on the road.

        3. Yes, on high-risk national roads in Auckland. (See quote in my original comment of this thread.) May be political, but Shane has also committed to:

          “Develop and implement a public campaign which sets out the sensitivity of DSI
          to small increases in travel (and impact) speeds and the opportunities that exist
          to manage these levels to reduce death and serious injury.”

          “Use appropriately lowered speed limits to bring safe roads to Auckland” with details of where speed limits need to be lowered to 30, 40, 50, 80 km/hr.

          The Safety Review basically said AT has failed to target “actively moving to manage free operating speeds which are in general terms too high for appropriately safe road network operation”.

          I really don’t think first cab off the rank should be raising the speed limit on a section of motorway where a motorcyclist just died. I think that will work entirely against all the recommendations and intentions of the safety review. And f**king insensitive in the circumstances.

        4. Raising the speed limit on the inner section of the NW Motorway should have happened ages ago, for some reason it takes the best part of a year to reverse a decision that was acknowledged to be wrong.

          Fully agree with the State highways that are not motorway, SH22 and SH16 should be lowered to 80kmh immediately. They must be strong contenders for the government’s announcement over the weekend of significant increases to the length of road in NZ covered by median barriers.

        5. You’re skirting the issue that AT needs to be bold in its moves to bring slower speeds to Auckland, and that raising the speed limit in this one location is the wrong message to send at this point in time.

          Travel times on this stretch will barely notice a difference if the speed limit is raised.

          But the opportunity to be consistent with a public campaign about lowering speeds in order to lower DSI will be lost if they go ahead with it.

          That’s putting marginal travel time savings ahead of the entire safety message. Jezza, you’re often quick to point out improvements that can’t happen because they’d be political suicide. Yet when the voters’ mindset hinges on the success of this public education campaign, you’re suggesting a move that will undermine it.

        6. Absolutely agree AT needs to be bold with regards to speed limits, they have the benefit of being arms length from politics, they should be making use of this. Phil Goff also has the benefit of disorganised opposition, which means he can take a few risks. Never been a better time to be bold.

          I actually think we are sending the complete wrong message at the moment. The authorities have lowered the speed limit on one of the safest roads in the city while at the same time leaving the limit on suburban streets at 50kmh and many rural roads at 100kmh.

          To add to this the inner NW is one of the busiest stretches of road in the country so this incompetence is there for the widest possible audience to see.

        7. So, paring away your personal opinion on speeds for that piece of motorway, I repeat: “Regardless of anyone’s position on what speed that piece of motorway should be, do we want transparency in the follow-through of commitments AT makes? Has the discussion taken place? What was NZTA’s response?”

          Want to join in me in this call to find out whether Shane followed through on this particular commitment?

  8. So much for all the doom and gloom that was predicted on this blog for when the tunnel opened.
    Seems it’s working just fine.

      1. West Aucklanders are convenient collateral damage. It’s their own fault for living further out than Pt Chev and they should know better.

  9. Article compares travel times on Manukau Rd which has improved a little. I suspect partly due to the newish T3 lanes though (not sure of timing).

  10. Always tricky talking subsidies, when it comes to transport.

    The first question is whether the network is fit for purpose. The second question is whether the project or route adds to the effective and efficient function of that network.

    By their nature, networks include roads and modes that don’t pay their way but are essential to helping other bits generate the surpluses needed to pay for everything else. Usually the concentrated demand on arterials and highways creates the surpluses that maintain local distributors and road tax subsidies for PT.

    The network fit question is even more important for a major tunnel since they are considerably more expensive to operate than a similar road sitting in the open air, so can almost only ever be justified on functional rather than commercial terms.

  11. I am prepared to accept the comment by Tom that the tunnels have improved amenity and reduced local traffic in the Mt Albert area. However I also agree with the basic premise of this article being that induced demand will erode those benefits very quickly. We have already seen some of the travel time saving lost. Induced demand studies conclude this typically happens over around 5 years (maximum 10) so the remaining benefit will on average be completely gone in four years time. Lets ask Tom how the traffic is in four more years, before saying this project was a success.

    To me the real tragedy of this case is another economic concept called “opportunity cost”. I accept that in a design and construction sense, Waterview appears to have been a well delivered project. But it still cost $1.4 billion. We could have built the first stage of LRT for that. Or a busway to the north west. Or… lots of things that would have had a longer effective operational life than five years. And no provision was made for any of these.

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