On Thursday Waka Kotahi fronted up to parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee as part of their annual review. Over the course of about an hour they were asked a huge number and range of questions from the various Members of Parliament present. But one relatively innocuous question about the harbour bridge blew up into a bit of a media frenzy for another (road) harbour crossing, helped along by many of the organisations that for decades have encouraged our auto-dependency.
Auckland’s ageing Harbour Bridge can’t take any more strengthening and traffic will need to be restricted in order to maintain its “structural integrity”.
Waka Kotahi says the bridge has previously been strengthened several times but it is not possible to do it again due to the weight of the steel that would need to be added.
Instead, “active traffic management” will need to be introduced.
A November briefing paper to Transport Minister Michael Wood warned the “loading restrictions” would be needed within the next 20 years — but Waka Kotahi general transport service manager Brett Gliddon hints it may actually be much sooner.
Gliddon said active management of traffic on the bridge would not be needed within the next 12 to 18 months but did not elaborate further on a timeframe.
Regardless of the timeframe, talk of restrictions has renewed calls for an alternative harbour crossing to be prioritised to prevent the city from coming to a standstill in the future.
The revelations came at the annual review of Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency at a parliamentary select committee yesterday.
After a question from National MP Christopher Luxon, Gliddon said it was no longer possible to strengthen the bridge, which is crossed by 170,000 vehicles on weekdays.
“We believe we’ve strengthened it as much as we possibly can and we can’t add more steel into it … it’s counter-productive.”
He said maintaining the “structural integrity of the bridge” could involve restricting heavy vehicles, limiting the lanes they could use, the number of heavy vehicles on the bridge at one time, or the time of day they cross.
The tone of the article suggests the bridge is at imminent threat of collapse and the need for urgent action on another harbour crossing was supported by comments from the business lobby, trucking lobby and AA and other National Party MPs. It also then spurred on other media to write similar articles and question the need for another harbour crossing.
But saying the bridge can’t be strengthened anymore is not the same as saying it needs to be strengthened or that it isn’t strong enough now. Waka Kotahi have been saying for many years now there is no long term issue and seemingly as a result of the media attention, confirmed that again on Friday in a press release saying:
“Our programme of ongoing monitoring, maintenance, upgrades and load management means the bridge is able to operate indefinitely as a key strategic asset in the Auckland network.”
Both in the Select Committee hearing and in the press release they talked how the mostly completed Western Ring was built to provide resiliency – though in the committee they then admitted it failed at that task. In both they also talked about the work being done on investigating what happens in the future
Longer-term planning for Additional Waitematā Harbour Connections is also underway, but key decisions about funding, timing and scope still need to be made and construction is therefore not anticipated to start until at least the 2030s.
But what they didn’t say in either situation was that the business case completed last year confirmed that the priority was to focus on public transport with a road crossing at the bottom of the list and not needed for decades, if at all.
The main problem with any more road crossings of the harbour is that the analysis so far shows it will only make congestion worse and undermine the goals to make the city centre a more people focused and successful place.
The Northern Busway has also been enormously successful in changing travel patterns. Prior to COVID, there were around 35,000 trips on busway services and most of those will have crossed the bridge, and most of those trips will be at peak times too. At the very least, its success has pushed back the need for a crossing by decades, which is hugely beneficial from an opportunity cost perspective.
If the media really wanted something scandalous to write about, perhaps they could have started with one of the responses to a question by Julie Anne Genter. In it, the agency admitted their capital budgets for the coming 3-year funding period are already mostly committed and on projects that won’t reduce carbon emissions.
“Whilst I think there is very strong intent in the GPS [around carbon reduction and sustainability], the reality is that the programme in the next 3 years is unlikely to significantly shift the bar on carbon in New Zealand”
That’s outrageous in the middle of a climate crisis and will only make it harder to meet our obligations.