The Government has listened to feedback from New Zealanders and has decided not to proceed with the standalone bridge component of the Northern Pathway project and reallocate the funding to other transport projects that reduce emissions and congestion including the Eastern busway, Transport Minister Michael Wood announced today.
“The Government has both listened and acted, meaning that the Northern Pathway standalone bridge will not be going ahead,” Michael Wood said
“The Government is committed to providing better access to walking and cycling and reducing greenhouse emissions through our transport investments, but this particular project won’t be part of that mix. It didn’t get the public support needed for a project of its scale and we acknowledge that.
“Work will continue on a public transport-led additional harbour crossing. We allocated $60 million in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) earlier this year for planning work and property acquisition to occur.
This is incredibly disappointing and exactly what many advocates feared would happen when the latest proposal was announced in June, given the history of bigger and better crossings being announced only to be dropped later.
Perhaps more concerning than the actual decision is it highlights that the government don’t have courage of their convictions. They talk a big game about the need to give people better options and to address climate change but then get scared and backtrack at the first sign of opposition to that. Especially when most of that opposition seems to be in the form of clickbait focused unscientific polls and opinion pieces from media outlets.
It’s incredibly worrying given this month they’re due to release their Emissions Reduction Plan, which, if it’s to do anything serious about achieving the goals set out by the Climate Change Commission it will require them committing to significant change in how people travel. The Ministry of Transports paper on how we can achieve that suggests we will need a 40% reduction in light vehicle kilometres travelled by 2035 and a 55% reduction by 2050 – in other words we will need measures to get over half of our existing traffic off the road and it’s likely many of the interventions needed will be neither cheap nor popular.
Thinking a bit wider about why opposition to this project happened I think there are a couple of issues at play.
- When the announcement was made in June it was a complete surprise to everyone, including cycling advocates. Typically in big projects like this there has been discussion with advocates and/or the public about the issues that have arisen or the ideas being explored which allows concerns to thrashed out. This didn’t happen with the latest proposal. The bike the bridge protest a week earlier was motivated by the fact Waka Kotahi had suddenly gone quiet and refused to engage with our friends at Bike Auckland.
- I think there are wider issues with Waka Kotahi which I’ll discuss below.
- I also think it highlights how there has been a complete lack of strategic communication about why projects like this are needed. A single press release announcing it and maybe a couple of media interviews just aren’t enough. There needs to be a systematic programme from government and council leaders to talk about issues like that we need to get people out of their cars. One area showing a bit of leadership in this space has been the comms from the Auckland Light Rail project.
Also, while advocates can help in this, it’s completely unfair to blame (unpaid) advocates for not doing this job, as Councillor Chris Darby did
Minister @michaelwoodnz is our ally for SkyPath not our problem. Diverging views of cycle advocates kicked off opposition to his announcement. The Otaki – Levin motorway with its negative BCR snuck by without any interogation. Provincial Labour MPs in their utes don't get cities.
— Chris DARBY (@DarbyatCouncil) October 1, 2021
The Role of Waka Kotahi
In addition to the issues outlined above, I think a big part of the blame for the failure of this project sits squarely with Waka Kotahi. In fact, in many ways it feels like this was the exact outcome many in the organisation were hoping for. As we learnt from a ministerial briefing paper on the project that was released in July a better option from all of their assessments was to build a combined public transport and active mode bridge.
They said the bridge itself would cost just 10% more than the $685 million the active mode only bridge was expected to cost. It also would have required up to $1 billion more on the approaches for public transport but it’s likely much of that could have happened at a later date. Though given we also need to upgrade the busway and possibly convert it for light rail, that’s hardly a bad outcome.
Waka Kotahi’s excuse for not going for the combined bridge option was basically they were told to deliver a walking and cycling crossing and so anything that wasn’t exactly that was ignored. I suspect a more realistic reason for not including it was that it would have been too successful and put at jeopardy what they really want, a $15 billion road tunnel that they admit will make congestion worse.
Where to from here
I strongly believe the best long-term option remains a public transport and active mode bridge, preferably on more direct alignment such as to Wynyard. It would help provide viable alternatives to driving and be a much more publicly acceptable solution. Combined with other measures like road pricing it would also help in reducing vehicle travel while still giving the option for replacing the clip-ons or an additional road crossing if it can be justified.
A bridge is also preferable to a tunnel as it is cheaper to build, maintain and operate plus means both PT and active modes can be given an optimal design rather than having to be shoehorned into the existing bridge which was designed with only cars and trucks in mind. Had the government announced a bridge like this on the weekend it would also not have looked like they just folded to criticism so easily.
The downside of such a solution is the cost and that it will take longer to deliver. In June they said the active mode only bridge would be completed around 2027. We can likely expect a combined bridge to take a bit longer as it will need new design and consenting work. So what happens in the interim?
Of note the government have also ruled out permanently reallocating a lane, with Minister Wood saying:
“I know there will be calls from some to permanently allocate a lane on the existing bridge for walking and cycling but we will not be pursuing this option. Decisions about access to the state highway network formally sit with the Waka Kotahi Board and I have now formally written to them to express my support for a temporary trial that could occur over the quiet summer holiday months, subject to safety considerations being met.
Reallocating a clip-on on the weekends, with the bridge in a three-by-three lane configuration would at least be a way to start building support for more options. But I would have thought by now the government would have learnt that asking nicely means the highway engineers in charge at Waka Kotahi will just ignore them.
What about the money?
If there’s one positive from the decision is that some other good projects are now getting funded with the money.
Firstly, Seapath which runs from the bridge to Akoranga will continue, though they say with some re-design at harbour bridge end
The money will also be used to bring forward the rest of the Eastern Busway with the government increasing their share of the project – something the acknowledged in ATAP they would need to do. Though it’s not really bringing it forward as the project was only just pushed back by Auckland Transport recently due to a lack of funding. Overall, it’s critical the Eastern Busway is delivered as soon as possible so this is a positive.
Another good addition was the inclusion of a new cycleway to bridge the 1.9km gap between the new Glen Innes to Tamaki path and path being built alongside the Eastern Busway.
“Another project we want to bring forward to give East Aucklanders more choices is a 1.9km link between Glen Innes and Panmure to connect the new Eastern Busway cycleway with the Glen Innes to Tamaki cycleway. Additional work will occur in the coming months to identify other key links in the Auckland strategic cycling network that can be delivered.
It will be interesting to see what other strategic links could be delivered. The most immediate one that springs to mind could be the Northern Pathway section between Akoranga and Constellation Drive. Alternatively, how about a programme to build safe cycling facilities around schools?
Finally, the government have said they would use some of the money for a “range of high quality regional transport projects“. The only example of this they give is a project in Ashburton.
“We also plan to invest $2 million into the Ashburton Rail Hub to unlock a $14 million upgrade to freight operations in the area. This partnership with local freight company Wareing Group, KiwiRail and Ashburton District Council will triple rail freight capacity, helping to get more trucks off the road, reducing emissions, and supporting the regional economy.
It seems other projects will be announced in coming months and it would be even more disappointing if this ended up being a bunch of state highway or local road projects.
Is Light Rail about to meet the same fate?
One thing I do worry about is that Light Rail (ALR) is heading down the same path and could end up meeting the same fate as the Northern Pathway. Like the Northern Pathway, work on ALR has been extremely secretive and there hasn’t been a proper public discussion over issues like costs, routes and modes as well as other trade-offs. A recommendation on all of these has already gone to the government. I fear they’ve been presented with an option that extremely expensive and that once it’s made public, will face significant criticism and eventually be scrapped.
That they’ve so easily given up on the Northern Pathway doesn’t give any hope they’d stand up to any criticism over light rail and now opposition parties, local groups opposing change and clickbait focused media have a blueprint for how to stop it.