The Government’s recent ‘re-baselining’ of the NZ Upgrade Programme has got a mixed reception over the past week or so. Most of the discussion has been about the Northern Pathway while largely ignoring greater cost increases on other projects.
Because the Northern Pathway can no longer be attached to the Harbour Bridge (for engineering reasons) and because Waka Kotahi refuses to reallocate a lane on the existing bridge, a whole new standalone crossing is now necessary if we are to correct a historical mistake and finally provide for walking and cycling across the harbour. A whole new bridge is obviously a very significant project, leading to a cost of around $685 million for the harbour crossing and another $100 million for the cycleway between Northcote Point and Akoranga.
One thing that surprised me a bit with this announcement was the decision to just focus on delivering a walking and cycling bridge, once it was clear a standalone structure was required. Minister of Transport Michael Wood hinted that other options had been looked at, but discounted:
Work is also being done on the next Waitematā harbour crossing and how public transport options can be improved.
Initial work will include improvements to the North Shore busway and services across the harbour in the next few years.
The preferred option for public transport in the long-term is a tunnel, Wood said, so that obviously would not be a suitable option for cyclists and walkers.
“The most important thing that we can do [for public transport options] is to make improvements to the North Shore busway at the approaches to the bridge. The chokepoint for public transport isn’t actually getting across the bridge – it’s making sure that we have adequate access to the North Shore busway either side of the bridge…”
If a public transport option had been added to the bridge announced today it would have added $1 billion to the costs.
With a new bridge required for walking and cycling anyway, and long-term plans for the North Shore highlighting the need for an ‘Additional Rapid Transit Connection’ to meet long-term public transport demand, it seems like an enormous missed opportunity to not build a multi-modal bridge.
This is especially true when you start looking at some of the costs for future harbour crossing options – which makes the “extra $1 billion” sound like an extremely good deal.
A new multi-modal bridge, carrying walking, cycling and rapid transit, could initially be used by buses but potentially built with future light-rail or light-metro tracks within the road-bed. Initially this would finally provide a ‘complete’ rapid transit corridor to the North Shore: linking back into the Northern Busway at Akoranga and with some lane juggling through to Fanshawe Street in the city centre. This would be entirely consistent with the long-term AWHC strategy, which looks first to squeeze as much as possible out of the existing busway.
But then in the medium term, as the busway becomes overloaded by sheer demand as population growth occurs and (hopefully) as significant mode shift to reduce climate emissions also happens, the new rapid transit crossing and the rest of the Northern Busway could be ‘upgraded’ to light-rail or light-metro at a fraction of the cost of building a new $5 billion tunnel from Wynyard to Smales Farm, as suggested by the AWHC business case.
There are currently over 30,000 daily public transport trips across the harbour and most projections suggest this will at least double over the next 30 years. At first glance it seems like spending around $2 billion on a multi-modal bridge used by at least 70,000 public transport trips a day and around 5,000 walking and cycling trips a day is probably a better deal than spending $785 million on something used just by the 5,000 people walking and cycling.
Stretching things even further, the AWHC business case made the argument that there’s a long-term need to address interpeak congestion and ease pressure on the harbour bridge’s structure so that longer-term maintenance work can be more easily undertaken. Adding a couple of general traffic lanes to the multi-modal bridge would help resolve these issues by allowing five lanes of traffic to operate in both directions all day long, and would avoid the huge problems a road tunnel creates by funnelling more vehicles into the city centre. It would also save another $8 billion, when compared to building a road tunnel.
Interestingly, the main argument in the AWHC business case for a tunnel under the harbour was the supposedly impossible hurdle to consent a bridge across the harbour:
Yet a bridge across the harbour is now what’s being proposed. At the very least we should be adding rapid transit to that bridge to achieve far more value from this significant investment.