Transport spending, like everything else, is all about trade-offs. There are a lot of improvements to be made and only a limited pot of funding from which do them and so those improvements need to be prioritised. One of the most urgent priorities is to improving safety.
Last year at least 380 people died on New Zealand’s roads, the highest figure since 2009 – and it peaked during the year even higher.
For every death, there are usually around 10 serious injuries, which can have major life-changing impacts for those involved as well. We also know that almost half of the deaths (48%) occur on rural state highways, many of which have barely changed since they were first built, where a combination of high speeds and relatively little protection from oncoming traffic means that small mistakes like momentary lapses in concentration can quickly become serious tragedies.
How we address safety is seeing significant debate though, especially following the government’s announcement late last year of a significant safety programme that will see improvements like median barriers, shoulder widening, rumble strips and speed limit changes rolled out across 870 kilometres of high volume, high-risk State Highways by 2021. To put that in perspective, we have just under 11,000km of state highway so this represents improvements to about 8% of the state highway network. Even more is being invested to improve road safety on local roads over that time frame too.
This is being challenged by the National Party and locals in some areas who claim the only real solution to many of these problems is to build 4-lane highways.
The problem is that while 4-lane highways are safer, they are also very expensive, take a long time to build and use up a lot of resources so we can’t build many of them at any one time. This is something highlighted by the fact that of the initial seven Roads of National Significance (RoNS) the former government announced 10 years ago, only two have been fully completed and parts of some haven’t started. Funding the RoNS sucked a lot of money out of other transport funding activities, like road policing, and saw many smaller, often more valuable projects delayed. I suspect many of the safety projects now being progressed are ones that were put off in favour of the RoNS. So the previous government traded-off being able to make a lot of cheap upgrades across a significant proportion of the network with being able to make some very high quality upgrades but only to a few roads.
In terms of safety, in some cases, like Puhoi to Warkworth, building a parallel 4-lane road also leaves the existing road unchanged meaning it will remain unsafe for those who still use them after the motorway has been completed.
Because so few major four-lane highways can be afforded at any one time, and because so little money was left in transport budgets for other investments, the previous government’s approach to road safety on rural highways ended up in an “all or nothing” situation. Nothing happened on pretty dire parts of the road network, like the Dome Valley, because the focus was on spending all the money on a few mega-projects.
Some of the challenges and choices that need to be made are spelled out quite clearly in a detailed article last week about State Highway 1 just south of Whangarei. What’s not in doubt though is the need for significant safety improvements on this stretch of road:
State Highway 1 is Northland’s most significant link to the rest of the country, but one section is also the region’s biggest killer.
Since 2008, 19 people have died on the road which runs from just south of Whangārei at Toetoe Rd, to the roundabout with Port Marsden Highway near Ruakākā.
More than 40 people were seriously injured during the same period, and then there were those who survived narrow misses and lucky escapes.
Northland roading officials and local body politicians are continuing to push for a four-lane highway, citing safety, access and resilience as extremely important reasons. But a change of government has seen a different focus on roading and meant the four lanes are now not an option.
Politicians agree the stretch of road must be improved but instead of a four-lane Highway, an alternate road, running parallel to the existing state highway, has been given the go ahead for the long term while safety improvements continue in the interim. Those improvements include florescent poles on the centre line, more passing lanes, pullover bays and upgraded intersections and median and side barriers.
The article includes a video of the death and serious injury locations on this section of road
This stretch of road is a good example of how different approaches to addressing road safety between the last government and the current government can play out. If you look individually at this road, then you can see how a four-lane highway would be attractive to local politicians. It will fully resolve the safety problems and provide enough capacity to probably eliminate any congestion for a long time to come. It also has the benefit that by being a state highway, the cost of any upgrade is fully paid for by the NZTA. In this particular example, 4-laning was expected to cost $400-500 million and after construction started, take up to seven years to fully complete. In the meantime, people will likely continue to be killed and injured.
It’s hard to imagine this approach being accepted in any other industry. It would be like a toy company putting out a new toy that due to poor design started killing children but instead of immediately pulling it from shelves, promised to redesign it but keep selling the deadly version until that happens.
The new plan is to make urgent safety improvements then look to build a new parallel road on a better alignment
“To begin with we will deliver short-term safety improvements between Whangārei and Port Marsden Highway to make it safer, such as roadside barriers, median barriers, centre-line widening and improved road marking,” Gliddon says.
“At the same time we will continue to future proof for a new route between Whangārei and SH15. Along with the existing road, this will create four lanes of capacity. Land will be designated for a future transport corridor to be built on a better alignment and to the best safety standards.”
You could say the new strategy is we need to eat our vegetables (fix safety issues) before we can have dessert (4-lane upgrades).
Of course in some places it makes sense to build a four-lane expressway, where the traffic volumes and other impacts (e.g. diverting large traffic volumes away from running right through the middle of towns like Warkworth or Kumeu) justify such a large-scale investment. The problem is that until recently there hasn’t seemed to be much logic behind choosing between:
- Where minor safety upgrades are the best fix.
- Where more significant ‘on line’ upgrades make the most sense.
- Where new alignments are required.
- Where a new alignment of expressway of motorway standard is required.
One thing I think would be useful for this whole debate is for there to be a lot more transparency behind this, as well as some forward projection. By this I mean instead of just completing a business case based on some projections, go a step further and state what are the conditions are, such as traffic volumes, growth factors etc, that would be required for a road to be upgraded up the chain. This could help give locals and politicians more certainty as to what types of projects will happen and when. For example, rather than the NZTA just stating they’ll build a parallel 2-lane road between Whangarei and Marsden Point, and locals being disappointed by it, why not state what traffic volumes would need to be for it to be built as a 4-lane expressway or later upgraded to that standard.
Such an approach would probably useful across many other parts of the transport sector.