Over the last 10-15 years transport policy has increasingly become about who can spend the most, not who can spend the best. Nowhere was that more evident than the Upper North Island transport policy the National Party announced on Friday. It is a grab bag of projects, many of which might sound great when talking to friends around the barbeque but don’t stack up under any form of rational analysis. In almost every case they’ve gone for the most expensive and populist version of projects under the guise of ‘vision’, but real vision needs to have some basis in reality and practicality.
The announcement was for what they say is $17 billion of a $31 billion transport plan. But those figures are only for the first decade and many of the headline projects not actually expected to start till the second decade. I think this makes the whole thing somewhat disingenuous. If they’re announcing them to get votes for it then surely they should also say how much they’re going to cost.
So for this post I’ve completed some rough calculations to estimate what their policy would actually cost, and these suggest it would actually be about double what they’ve claimed.
As expected, big motorway/expressway projects are at the cornerstone of National’s policy and central to that is their Upper North Island expressway network. They’ve taken their RoNS 2.0 from the last election and added even more to it.
As well as the $6.8 billion NZ Upgrade Package (NZUP) the government announced in January they want to extend the current motorway/expressway network north to Whangarei and east from Cambridge to Tauranga. With Judith Collins stating:
The first project I am announcing today is to connect Auckland, Whangarei, Hamilton and Tauranga with four-lane expressways. This will also include Marsden Point. We will also build the Hamilton Southern Links project to connect the southern part of Hamilton to the Waikato Expressway. And we will build a four-lane expressway from Tauranga to Katikati. Desktop work to get the four-lane expressways underway will begin immediately upon us forming a Government.
Our objective – mindful of the engineering challenges, but not the political or regulatory ones, that we will fix – is to have the whole project complete in the 2030s. This will include tunnelling under the Brynderwyn and Kaimai mountains – and, yes, for those tunnels, you will pay a small toll for a car, or a more sizable one for a commercial vehicle. The massive ambition of this project will give industry a pipeline of major roading projects for between 10 and 20 years.
National won’t say how much these might cost as they’re not expected till the 2030’s. As we know, the industry already has a lot on the go including the $6.8 billion NZ Upgrade Package (NZUP) the government announced in January.
I’ll cover how I reached these figures in a separate post so I can try to keep this post fairly high-level for now.
Whangarei to Auckland
The 24km Warkworth to Te Hana section is currently expected to cost about $2 billion while the 2017 Whangarei to Te Hana business case suggested that route would cost $2.2 to $3.2 billion. But even that was was considered too much based on predicted levels of usage. The 22km section from Whangarei to Marsden point was included in that but was funded part of the NZUP programme for $692 million. However, that business case also recommended going around the Brynderwyns, noting a tunnel option “was significantly more expensive“.
Tunnels are not only more expensive to build but also cost a lot to run due to the safety systems needed – for example, the opening of Waterview has seen the annual cost of operating state highways for the entire Auckland region increase from about $110 million to over $140 million, a nearly 30% increase. Tunnels also have lower speed limits than surface roads and so while the route would be about 2.4km shorter than going around the Brynderwyns, it might only be about 1½ minutes faster.
With the tunnel this remaining 43km section could cost in the region of $3.5 billion. Put together, this suggests the cost to complete the Northland part of National’s promise is about $6.2 billion. By comparison the Waikato Expressway cost about $2 billion.
Cambridge to Tauranga
National claim the 15.6km section from Cambridge to Piarere would cost $570 million. This seems reasonable compared to other nearby project costs and as I’ve pointed out previously, this project is one of the few that makes some sense.
It is then about 22km to get to the base of the Kaimai Ranges, a tunnel potentially over 7km in length and further 18km to then get to Tauranga. All up I think this Cambridge to Tauranga section could cost around $6 billion. Yet there are sections on this route carrying as few as 6,000 vehicles a day.
There were a few other projects they’ve included in their plans.
Unsurprisingly the ‘most expensive road in the world‘ per km, the East West Link, makes a come back. The project was estimated to cost $1.8 billion in 2017 but National now say they can build it for $1.55 billion.
The NZUP funds the $478m, 6.8km Tauranga Northern Link as well as $455 million to then extend it a further 7km extension to Omokoroa. Once again National have suggested extending this even further with a further 18km extension to KatiKati. Based on those other two projects this would be a further $900 million.
They’ve promised to build the $600 million Hamilton Southern Links – another bypass of Hamilton.
Third Harbour Crossing
The biggest of all the promises is to build a third harbour crossing as combined road and rail tunnels with Collins saying:
Our Plan is that it should be for both road, rail and new public transport technologies that come on line. And, yes, the new tunnel will be tolled – but the existing bridge never will be.
In terms of a timeline, I am announcing National’s Plan is to fast-track the consenting so that work can begin in 2028. It will require a tremendous amount of complex engineering. Unlike Waterview, there isn’t an old Ministry of Works plan to pick up and run with. It will be New Zealand’s biggest ever infrastructure project. An eight-year timeline to get work underway is ambitious.
The plan to spend till 2028 designing and consenting the tunnels is already in ATAP and happening now so this is not actually something new.
What is new is the suggestion only one crossing is tolled. That would undermine the NZTA’s previous plans have the new crossing as the through route with the existing Harbour Bridge as the ‘off-ramp’ to the the city. If only the new tunnels are tolled that means there will likely still need to be junctions to enable bridge traffic avoiding the toll to rejoin the rest of the motorway network. This would both add to to cost and could have a significant and destructive impact on the city.
There is also the significant issue of cost. National have budgeted $5 billion for the project in the first decade but notably left a second line item in their budget for costs in the second decade. We understand the project is expected to cost around $10 billion and that’s before any costs of actually putting rail in. Notably that figure also doesn’t include the costs that would be needed to widen the motorways either side of the tunnel or any of the local roads to be able to handle the extra traffic this enables.
As per the post we re-ran yesterday, the most recent analysis from the NZTA shows the best performing option for drivers is if we build a rail only crossing and introduce road pricing of some form.
It also seems the only reason for having combined tunnels is because it’s a way to make the road tunnels stack up better.
Speaking of adding rail, their policy states
- The Northern Busway would be converted in time into a rail corridor and would join the tunnel at Esmonde Road.
- The project would also require a rail tunnel under the Auckland CBD to connect the new Northern rail with the Britomart Precinct.
This would add billions to the cost and shows National clearly haven’t kept up to date with Auckland’s plans as there isn’t the capacity to plug this line into Britomart unless they plan reducing the capacity and reliability of the City Rail Link. The current plans are for any rail from the shore to travel under Wellesley St where the Aotea station has been “future-proofed for any future decision to create a North Shore rail line“.
It’s weird the suggestion even came up, though perhaps less so when we think about some of the other projects that made a surprise appearance further below.
So in addition to billions already planned and funded, National are proposing to add a further $25 billion in additional roads.
National’s support for rail and public transport
There were some positives from the announcement though and the most significant of these is not any specific project but the general theme that they’re now more supportive of public transport and rail projects at scale. This is quite a shift from National in the past which were far more sceptical of the role of public transport in our cities and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to projects such as rail electrification, the City Rail Link and the Northern Busway extension. Though I did note that during the subsequent media interviews it looked like Gerry Brownlee was heavily biting his tongue as Transport Spokesperson Chris Bishop talked positively about their newfound support of these projects.
In her speech Collins said “Auckland’s motorway network is now nearly complete” and claimed National would “complete Auckland’s rapid transit network“, of which she also said “we will measure our progress against those goals, of 30 minutes to get to work and one hour to get across the city”
All up the plan includes nearly $10 billion of rail, bus and ferry projects in Auckland although again some are over a decade away. The downside to all of this, like most of their policy, is many of the projects simply don’t stack up and a number of other already agreed rapid transit projects are nowhere to be seen.
A couple of projects that the other parties need to adopt too are:
- Building a fourth main at the same time as the third main – National want to build the fourth main between Westfield and Wiri at the same time as the third main is built to take advantage of “cost synergies” and “allow the separation of commuter and freight traffic, and for express commuter services and regional rail“. We’re in full agreement with them here.
- Extend electrification as far as Pokeno – This would extend electrification another 16km and allow for stations at Tuakau and Pokeno. Again we’re in agreement with this – though it isn’t a substitute for a proper intercity service like some National MPs have claimed in the past. What would be more impressive though would be if they were to commit to a guaranteed level of annual funding for electrification to allow us to get benefits of an ongoing supply chain as opposed to setting up one off projects each time.
But some of the other projects are head scratching.
Given he was in the room for the announcement and was specifically called out by Collin’s in her speech, it appears much of National’s PT/rail policy has been set by Mike Lee – this would also explain why they’re talking about sending North Shore rail to Britomart. The plan includes:
- $1.5 billion for a heavy rail spur from Puhinui – something that is not as easy or effective as it sounds. This would undermine the under construction $100 million investment in the first section of the Airport to Botany busway and perform worse. There is no mention of that Botany connection at all.
- $3.5 billion for also extending heavy rail from Onehunga to the airport sometime in the 2030s. It’s hard to fathom why both heavy rail options are included here as in both cases cheaper and more effective options have since been preferred.
- $300 million to expand ferry services which is apparently based of an unreleased ferry strategy from Auckland Transport.
- $1.2 billion to build a busway from Onehunga to the city along Dominion Rd – given National have questioned light rail, often on the basis of taking up road space, it’s hard to see how they are now supportive of a busway of the same or larger scale. This seems to be based on the Advanced Bus Study the NZTA undertook in 2016/17 to discredit the idea of light rail but had many holes in it, such as ignoring that there were other buses in the city centre.
- $2.4 billion for a Northwest Busway. Addressing rapid transit on the NW has unfortunately been languishing due to the focus on light rail. National have gone with the 2017 business case though they’ve failed to understand the key issue with it and why light rail was being considered in the first place – e.g. the study didn’t address what happens when the buses get to the city centre with all of the other buses that need to be accommodated. It also seems weird they haven’t continued this on to Huapai as is planned in the Supporting Growth plans. Of course, this should have been built by the former government at the same time as they widened SH16.
- $65 million for diesel shuttles to Huapai which is again odd when the NW Busway option would be much faster for where most people are going.
- National also claim they’ll build the Eastern Busway in their plan despite the first stage already being under construction and the second stage in design.
A few final things
National claim their plans will “Fix congestion”. This is a bold claim given how many times it’s been made all over the world with no success (other than road pricing).
National say they’ll remove the regional fuel tax within their first 100 days in office. Over 10 years the RFT is expected to raise about $1.5 billion but once development contributions and the NZTA’s share of funding is taken into account, this is enabling about $4.5 billion of projects. Removing the fuel tax would see a large number of local projects defunded and delayed.
They also say they will freeze general fuel tax increases, which will make it even more difficult to build their hugely expensive plans. To help pay for everything they talk about allowing the NZTA to borrow up to $10 billion, paid for by the money collected annually from fuel taxes. However, it needs to be remembered that over half of that money goes to various operational and maintenance costs and soon a decent chunk of the remainder will go to servicing the debt from the Transmission Gully and Puhoi to Warkworth PPPs. This would be a massive case of shifting the costs of yesterday’s solutions on to future generations.
Given the absurd amount of expensive projects on the list, and the incredible popularity of the project, it is astounding that they’re looking to cancel Skypath with Collins suggesting people can just catch the ferry instead. There is also no mention of any other cycling funding. Given National started the Urban Cycleway programme this is highly disappointing.
All up their Upper North Island package seems to be about $35 billion compared to a claimed $17 billion. If National’s plans for the rest of the country have a similar amount of unplanned and uncosted future projects included, the plan could easily cost $60 billion or more.