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NZ Herald on CBD Rail Tunnel

Plenty of coverage in the NZ Herald today about the CBD Rail Tunnel project – including an editorial. Here are some extracts with comments:

Anybody looking for reliable data to support this contention will not find it easily. The report, prepared by consultants for the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority and KiwiRail, is everything those commissioning it could have desired.

It has not subjected their proposal to critical analysis, and does not highlight the likely operating losses that probably would be charged to ratepayers.

I think this is an unfair criticism. The business case was over a year in the making, it encompasses around eight volumes, it has been reviewed by NZTA, it was peer-reviewed by PriceWaterhouse Coopers, it uses international examples to back up its case and so forth. The “controversial” employment benefits that boost the project’s cost-benefit ratio from 1.1 up to 3.5 have been used in similar NZTA assessments of the roads of national significance. Contrary to the editorial’s assertion, it talks quite specifically about rail operating costs (page 11 of this appendix). In fact, it’s the most comprehensive business case I’ve read for a transport project. The contrast with the lightweight business case of the Puhoi-Wellsford road is quite remarkable.

The editorial continues:

It is an exciting project. The loop could be the revival of the CBD, bringing all corners of it within a 500m walk to a station. The ridges around the inner city would be more easily accessible. The line from the western suburbs could come straight into the city, rather than joining the southern line at Newmarket. Most important, many more trains could run once Britomart became a through-station.

All of this might entice many more employers to set up in the city. It might entice commuters to leave their cars at home. They might decide to live near railway stations rather than beaches. They might.

This is a somewhat valid question I suppose. A lot of the cost-effectiveness of this project depends upon it being the spark that recentralises Auckland’s development patterns, concentrates a lot more employment in the CBD and leads to resulting higher wages. There probably is no¬†exact way of knowing whether that will happen or not. But I think the business case certainly makes a pretty decent argument that recentralisation is a heck of a lot more likely with the rail tunnel than without it – and puts together a pretty decent argument that Auckland’s economy (and as a result that of the country as a whole) would benefit from employment concentration. That certainly seems to have been the case in the various case studies the business case looks at from North America.

“Build it and they will come” is a dubious theory. White elephants happen. Now that Auckland has a single council in command of all its rate revenue and unrivalled in its expression of the city’s interests, we need it to keep a cool head. A rail circuit of the inner city needs to be assessed more critically than the tone of this report suggests…

…History has shown that when Aucklanders really want a transport link, when they know they will use it, they are prepared to pay for it. Before Mr Brown, Mrs Fletcher and the rest try to convince Mr Joyce of the merits of this proposal, they should put it to Auckland – with an honest price on it.

Then, if ratepayers are as excited as they are by the case for an inner city rail circuit, they could have a proposition the Government would find hard to refuse. As it is, it sounds like business as usual – Auckland’s voice whining like a demanding child expecting a treat from the taxpayers.

While white elephants do happen, it’s actually pretty difficult to find one when it comes to investment in rail transportation. As far as I know, all rail systems in Australian cities are experiencing dramatic increases in patronage, leading to upgrades to the system either being planned or already under construction. The same seems to be true in North America – where cities like Los Angeles have massive plans to expand their rail systems, Vancouver’s Canada Line has been a wild success, Toronto has big plans to expand its rail system and so forth. Going by international experience – and Auckland’s history in the form of the supposed white elephant of Britomart – rail seems to be a pretty sound investment.

In terms of funding, the “if Auckland wants it, Auckland should pay for it” argument, I say “not a problem”. Auckland pays far more fuel tax than it gets back in transport spending, it pays far more general tax than it gets back in government spending and Auckland was prepared to pay a regional fuel tax to fund electrification before that got cancelled by the government. I have no problem with Auckland paying for this project: through its taxes, through its fuel taxes and yes, most probably through its rates to a reasonable extent. One would think that Auckland would benefit a lot more from this project than from the Puhoi-Wellsford road – which will largely be paid for by Auckland’s fuel taxes.

It will be interesting to see if Auckland Council, and in particular Mayor Len Brown, start making a bit of noise in favour of the project. We could be in for a very interesting showdown between central and local government. Someone must be regretting this whole Super City idea.

11 comments to NZ Herald on CBD Rail Tunnel

  • Peter

    The only transport white elephants in this corner of the world are roading projects. Particularly those in Australian cities built as PPPs where nobody’s using the toll roads, leading to vastly under-used infrastructure and massive bailouts etc. etc.

  • Doloras

    The simple answer is: “Everyone said Britomart would be a white elephant. Now it’s creaking at the seams.”

  • As will the CBD tunnel a few years after it is open, but trying to convince anyone we should be spending three billion on it instead of two would be a fools errand.

  • i think you’re right Nick, although i for one am persuaded by your analysis, as platforms under Quay St can be added at any later date… perhaps with tunnels to the North Shore. Think bite sized chunks.

  • frank

    If its any consolation, at least we know that when Labour gets back in power (hopefully next year), something will be done about this project…. unless they change their minds….

  • Nick R

    Yes, I’ve come to realise small iterative steps is the answer, even smaller than my favoured Quay St extension. I actually have a draft post of a few ‘bang for buck’ options that could be done as part of the tunnel, or easily added after it is built. I’ll do a few diagrams and get that up.

  • come get some

    has labour even come out and publically suported it? Or made it an election promise for 2011? To be honest they need to get in there before national do

  • rtc

    It’s funny that they keep saying that this proposal should be put to the people of Auckland – it was – the whole last election was fought along rail vs. road investment and rail won. Wht does the Herald pretend as though Brown wasn’t elected with a rail mandate and instead pretends it’s something he dreamt up whilst in office. Why doesn’t the Herald instead ask whether the Holiday Highway shouldn’t be put to the people of NZ, seeing as that’s a project that National wasn’t elected on, instead it’s one they dreamt up after taking office.

  • James B

    But will it fit in the recycling bin?
    Everyone else is getting cool stuff but us.

  • Erm, since when were rail vehicles not recyclable? I was under the impression that they were routinely stripped down for scrap metal in their entirely, perhaps excluding a handful of the interior fittings.

    • James B

      I wouldn’t know, I still think it’s a cool design though. The interiors look far better than any train carriage I’ve ever seen. I especially like the branching handholds, needs a splash of colour though.

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