It’s been devastating to see the destruction all around the country caused by Cyclone Gabrielle and the floods in Auckland a few weeks ago and our thoughts go out to all those impacted by them.
One of the narratives already emerging from these events is the question of whether this is finally what it will take for us as a country to get serious about climate change. There have already been a number of articles and opinion pieces asking this question, these are excerpts from just a few examples.
If the reality of the climate crisis hadn’t sunk in for you until this summer, you’re probably not alone. Humans simply aren’t wired to assess future threats – particularly ones they can’t see, like a warming planet.
But with yet another cyclone hitting the North Island – as fears of drought escalate in parts of the South Island – the impact climate change will have on our lives is becoming harder to ignore
Hopefully these tragic weather events, one by one, year after year, will finally force New Zealand’s ratepayers, voters, community groups, and white conservative men into advocating for systemic, legislative change that will have an impact on the biggest problem of our age – one that is raining down on all of us.
I guess only time will tell just what impact these events will have on the local and national conversation about how we deal with a changing climate.
But one area we need to be particularly watch for is suggestions the answer is to double down on business as usual. It’s something we’re already starting to see and I suspect the noise around it will only get louder as we shift away from responding to the immediate emergency and into the longer term recovery.
An example of this kind of doubling down came just before the cyclone hit.
Northland leaders are calling on the Government to pull finger on a four-lane highway between Auckland and Whangārei amid fears the latest closure of the Brynderwyns will turn into another “Mangamuka situation”.
Two weeks after heavy rain caused slips that shut State Highway 1 south of the Brynderwyn Hills, there is still no timeline for when it will be fully open, which has some Northlanders drawing similarities with the Mangamuka Gorge, closed since last August with no completion date in sight.
And with climate change starting to wreak havoc around the country, Northlanders are urging the Government to tackle the region’s roading issue with urgency.
Northland Chamber of Commerce president Tim Robinson agreed.
“We’ve had successive governments over the last 30 years say roading should be prioritised in Northland, but immediately backtrack on it.
“We do worry it’ll end up a Mangamuka situation here when we’re reliant on alternative routes which are not fit for purpose.
“The Government has got to commit to a four-lane expressway between Whangārei and Auckland like they have in the Waikato.”
Transport connections are vital to our wellbeing and to our economy, and we absolutely need to work to make them more resilient. But calls for large highways such as these, and the more that will inevitably follow will simply not help the situation. There are a couple of key reasons for this and the idea of a four lane highway to Whangarei is a good example of this and a lot of it can be boiled down the issue of time and cost.
One of the key issues with climate change is we’re likely to see these kinds of events happening more frequently and more violently. As such we need to improve the resiliency of our transport networks quickly. However, four-lane highways are anything but quick to deliver.
Puhoi to Warkworth (P2W) is perhaps one of the best examples of this as it is a project that wasn’t on the plans to be a motorway until National announced it a Road of National Significance (RoNS) in March 2009 – most of the other RoNS had at least some work previously done on them.
Despite strong government support and an expeditated design and consent process, it still took eight years to start construction and the project isn’t due to open till later this year. That’s 14 years all up.
Puhoi to Warkworth is about 18.5km in length and many of the other RoNS projects, like the Waikato Expressway and the roads north of Wellington were broken down sections of about 10-25 km in length, likely in order to be manageable.
A four lane highway between Warkworth and Whangarei, including a bypass of the Brynderwyn’s, is likely to be around 95 km in length so it’s extremely unlikely we could build that all in one go. It’s more likely we’d need to break that down into four or five stages.
Even assuming we have construction crews moving immediately from stage to stage, that’s likely a 40 year programme of work to deliver such a highway. And that’s just one of the highways that some groups will demand.
Large motorway/expressway projects don’t just take a long time to build, they also cost a lot of money. It’s now not uncommon for these large motorway projects to cost in the order of $40-60 million per km to build, but with some projects being even higher – and that’s before the more recent inflationary pressures.
For a programme like Warkworth to Whangarei, we’re probably looking at a combined cost in the range of $5-7 billion. Repeat that for similar projects all around the country and we’ll be starting down the barrel of a bill tens of billions in size on top of what we’re already spending on transport – a few years ago former Transport Minister and architect of the RoNS, Stephen Joyce, called for over 800km of expressways be built.
Then there’s the question of how we pay for that. Does the government significantly raise transport taxes to cover those costs or do they take money away from other sectors, the health or education system?
A separate aspect to cost is the value. Those kinds of costs may be justified if the roads have enough demand on them but the reality is that we’ve pretty much built all of the roads that have the kinds of volume to justify a four-lane highway.
In documents from Waka Kotahi on the proposed Warkworth to Wellsford section they noted that one of the criteria for building the road would be when:
- Forecast traffic volumes are predicted to exceed 25,000 AADT
This graph is from a few years ago when many of the RoNS projects, such as those on the Waikato Expressway, were still under construction. But as you can see from it, and others in that post, there is almost nowhere with traffic volumes near that 25k per day figure. In the case of a four-lane highway to Whangarei, average daily traffic volumes drop to about 10k vehicles over the Brynderwyn’s.
What a lot of this means is the cost of building these large highways will almost certainly be greater than the economic benefits they provide – including safety and resilience benefits.
If that’s the case, what can we do.
In that same article as above though, one truck operator did highlight the solution
“With this type of weather, this is going to be the norm.”
Sparksman said the southern side of the Brynderwyns needs to be upgraded to the standard of the northern side, which saw $18 million spent on widening the road and shoulders, removing tight corners and installing safety barriers in 2015.
“Our infrastructure needs to be up to a certain standard, and it’s not.
“They spend $20m on the north side of the Brynderwyns and nothing on the other side.
Instead of big motorway projects, we need programme of smaller projects to help improve both the resilience and safety of our highway network. Projects that can be delivered in years, not decades.