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
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.