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Another ‘hit’ for the road addict

A truly depressing article in yesterday’s NZ Herald indicating that NZTA are planning to spend another $160 million (which they can somehow whip out of a hat) on two previously unplanned motorway upgrades in Auckland. This comes at a time when public transport and cycling projects in particular are struggling for each and every dollar available to spend on them.

Both ends of Auckland’s western ring route will be widened at a cost of up to $160 million as early as next year, after the Transport Agency admitted underestimating traffic demand.

It said yesterday its board had given approval for sections of the Southern and Northern motorways to be widened to ease congestion and improve travel times.

Because the operations of the NZTA board are even less transparent, accountable and open than those of the Auckland Transport Board, we pretty much know nothing about the justification and details behind a decision to spend what is a pretty big chunk of money. Looks like my OIA requests to NZTA will have to continue to get some answers here.

The article continues:

That follows serious traffic delays where the ring route was joined to the Southern Motorway at Manukau in September in a $220 million project which was meant to provide a seamless link.

Congestion has eased somewhat since the agency restricted flows from the ring route to the main motorway, before installing traffic lights on the connecting ramp last week.

But after complaints from commuters about delays of up to 40 minutes reached Transport Minister Steven Joyce, the agency decided to bring forward the first stage of a previously unfunded plan to widen the Southern Motorway between Manukau and Papakura.

Its board has also decided to avoid similar congestion problems at the top end of the ring route, by widening the Northern Motorway between Constellation Drive and Greville Rd to cope with the extra traffic expected once the $1.75 billion Waterview connection completes the bypass route in 2016.

Alcoholics and drug addicts can generally be identified by their inability to stop drinking or taking drugs – they always say “oh just one more drink” or “just one more hit”. NZTA’s thinking on these roading projects indicates that they fall into the category of what one might call a “roads addict”. Despite all evidence to the contrary, that widening motorways does not solve congestion (just look at how congested our widest bits of motorway continue to be), the NZTA mindset continues to operate along the lines of “oh just one more roading project and we’ll fix things for good!” When that doesn’t work (like the SH20-SH1 connection), instead of starting to wonder whether their assumptions were right in the first place, NZTA simply look at the next widening project. Maybe it will be the next project which finally manages to fix congestion, and then the next and the next.

It really it quite galling to see how easy it is for motorway projects to get funding – even very significant funding for projects that haven’t even been on the books. Meanwhile, back in the real world of public transport projects, we need to fight for every single dollar. The double standard is rather depressing.

34 comments to Another ‘hit’ for the road addict

  • Matt L

    I continue to believe that the congestion issue was done deliberately as a way to guarantee future funding. For motorway development. Effectively if you have a $150mil project and only get given $100mil in funding you have to find places to save some money, one way to do this is by cutting out some essential works that you know you can get funding for later on rather than the nice to haves which would never be able to be justified on their own.

    Also when the Manukau extension was signed off I wonder what impact on the business case an extra $80mil would have been, would have made it uneconomic? Because this is now a separate project it gets viewed separately so the costs get hidden as people forget that without spending that initial $220mil we wouldn’t now be spending another $160mil.

    I wonder what the governments response would have been if they were told that because of the rail upgrade from DART that another $160mil was urgently needed. My guess is they would have just laughed and told the person delivering the news to piss off and not come back.

    Lastly with such bad predictions made by the engineers who designed and assessed this, will they continue to be employed or contracted by the NZTA, surely incompetence causing a 176% cost increase should not be rewarded with future work on this scale.

    • Matt

      I wouldn’t be too hard on the engineers. Someone on AKT blog said that ordinarily they wouldn’t be conducting definitive traffic surveys for several months in order to let traffic patterns settle out. This may be an ordinary result that’ll dissipate over time.

      It may also be that they simply didn’t have correct analysis of traffic movements on Redoubt Road/Wiri Station Road, because I saw a comment from NZTA that there was far more diversion of traffic off WSR to the motorway than expected. Which may come back to the above about waiting a few months before deciding that the new traffic patterns require work.

      Or it’s just, as you say, a con to get the work approved as two separate projects. However, I don’t see why they would’ve needed to go down that convoluted path. It’s a road. It’ll get funding regardless.

    • Sting

      Matt raises a point I’ve often wondered about. Does anybody take a look at the “predictions” or traffic impact assessment after completion? It would be an interesting piece of research to take 20 or so recent projects, and compare the predictions against the realities. Whilst we know its impossible to predict anything with any certainty, many of these projects are justified on the basis of predictions, and so they should be fairly close, but i suspect they are not, and what comeback is there? I suspect there will be no repurcussions on the engineers who “got this one wrong”!

      • Dan

        Interesting you mention this, Sting. In fact, monitoring is standard practice throughout the rest of the world – except here in NZ where it (very) strangely is not even thought of at all. NZTA are not alone in this, but they are the largest spenders of transport infrastructure money. It is rather shocking that they do not revisit completed projects to verify if they have in fact produced the travel savings benefits that were used to justify their funding. It is just good engineering, yet they will give you blank stares at the very mention of it.

  • John Dalley

    It’s been obvious for years, that the Southern Motorway from the Manurewa exit to the Takanini exit needed the extra lane. Now of course with the opening of the South-Western motorway it has made it 10 times worse. What puzzles me of course is why they did not predict this event sooner.

  • ingolfson

    “I suspect there will be no repurcussions on the engineers who “got this one wrong”!”

    Have you ever been a government client? If your predictions don’t conform with what the government wants, you lose your business. Traffic modelling, too often, is just an exercise in providing a pseudo-scientific justification to what teh minister/client wants. If it doesn’t come out the right way, you order “further” or “more detailed” studies.

    Makes you wish they’d go back to a “we will build it because we want it” attitude (not that our Minister of Roads is that far away from it!) so we don’t have to go through all that crap.

    • Matt

      The attitude of the Minister of Trucks wouldn’t be quite so hard to stomach if his “Get it done” focus was balanced. In fact, if he was prepared to railroad (thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week) public transport projects through in the same manner as he’s driving (no tomatoes, please) road projects.

  • Nick R

    The key problem is that the traffic models are based around a fixed amount of traffic as a factor of land use distribution. Effectively they assume that there is only a certain amount of road travel going on for a given part of the city, and that building new motorways simply divides up existing traffic levels.

    Road builders must be the only industry in the world that believes they can increase the accessibility and ease of use of their product and consumers will not use it any more than previously.

  • Luke

    I wonder if congestion was worsened by the the numerous bridges that are closed to be rebuilt for railway electrification.
    Also it seems highly unusual to bypass the RLTP process in this way.

  • Steven Joyce

    Do you recall how much did it cost to double-track (notice I didn’t use your favourite pejorative ‘widen’) the Western Line?

    Lets keep the hypocrisy to a minimum please.

    • Matt

      About $420m, which is pretty good value for work that more than doubles the capacity of the route. Also employed about 400 people, according to KiwiRail.

      Where’s the hypocrisy? Other than from the Minister of Trucking who bears your name, with his insistence that the Puhoi extension can get funding no matter how miserable the BCR whereas the CBD tunnel must stack up in spades before he’ll even consider suggesting to Cabinet that they might want to look at possibly funding part of it. Maybe.

    • Matt L

      The difference is what was budgeted, the western line was budgeted to cost a set amount and the benefits worked out based on that, while there may be a few cost overruns in a few places it didn’t cost 176% of what was originally thought. The Western line work also hasn’t all of a sudden created another project that is so ‘essential’ that it gets immediate funding no questions asked. If this extra work had of been planned as part of the initial extension project then I wouldn’t have an issue as the extra costs and benefits could have been factored into the equations to determine its value.

      The only way to compare it with the Western line would be if they had of doubled the whole thing but left out one crucial thing, like didn’t do New Lynn then said “look there is this bit that wasn’t double tracked we need to fix it urgently”.

      • Sam F

        “The only way to compare it with the Western line would be if they had of doubled the whole thing but left out one crucial thing, like didn’t do New Lynn then said “look there is this bit that wasn’t double tracked we need to fix it urgently”.”

        Welcome to Bizarro Auckland, where there are five rail lines running in either direction on the Western Line. The powers that be in Bizarro Wellington, who just happen to receive regular donations from lobbies representing private rail operators and construction firms, have just decided to add two extra lines in either direction without reference to BCRs or their planned spending for the next two years.

        Meanwhile, State Highway One has just been upgraded from a single-lane B-road to dual-lane carriageway, lifting demand but creating a bottleneck in the CBD. However the Bizarro Government is pleading poor and demanding several hundred reports with proven BCRs before proceeding with planning for the badly needed “Spaghetti Junction” initiative.

    • Jeremy Harris

      Don’t feed the trolls…

  • ingolfson

    Learn to troll better, “Steven Joyce”. This is not a forum of the uninformed.

  • Sam F

    “Do you recall how much did it cost to double-track (notice I didn’t use your favourite pejorative ‘widen’) the Western Line?

    Lets keep the hypocrisy to a minimum please.”

    There’s a significant difference between adding a second track to a woefully under-invested rail line so trains can at last go in two directions at once on the same route, and adding further lanes to an already multi-lane highway, and then more again when those get congested, and more again…

    We’ll hold the hypocrisy if you could kindly ditch the hilarious false comparisons.

    • Steven Joyce

      You know what, you’re absolutely right. Comparing a road project with a completely unrelated and arbitrarily chosen rail project really is a meaningless exercise.

  • Nicholas O'Kane

    What I want to know is where the money came from. If it came from another roading project (say postponing the Holiday Highway or NorthWest motorway) good. I suspect it came by increasing the transport budget and government defecit. What I think should have been done is look at where (including public transport options like heaps more bus lanes) the money could be best spent

  • Jeremy Harris

    You know what, I actually think that might be Steven Joyce coming to vent his rage on Jarbury after a few free Heinee’s (courtesy of the RTF)…

    Well done Josh, you must be getting under his skin… :)

  • John Dalley

    Does anyone know how much this (National)government has allocated new money to transport since they have been in power?
    By that i mean not what Labour allocated and has and is still being spent. National talks a great game but do they “put their money where mouth is” and have they contributed cash to any current projects.

  • Chris Harris

    Folks – you may want to search some stuff I’ve already posted about the Braess Paradox. The paradox is that, on average, new lanes and new links in a congested network are as likely to add to congestion as they are to relieve it, since new bottlenecks arise elsewhere that didn’t give trouble before. This is what happened when SH 20 was joined to SH 1, for example, i.e. congestion got worse, undermining the whole rationale for the Western Ring Route.
    The Braess Paradox is an important but little-known component of the induced traffic argument; it is to be suspected when a new set of roadworks makes congestion worse immediately upon opening. The NZTA Economic Evaluation Manual still does not refer to the Braess Paradox by name, even some fifty years after it was first identified and nearly thirty years after its 50/50 incidence, still not seriously challenged, was proposed in this classic paper in the journal Transportation Science: http://transci.journal.informs.org/cgi/content/abstract/17/3/301.
    Instead, it seems that if new lanes and links add to congestion, the NZTA cure is to do more of the same (and effectively take the money from cycling and PT to do it). It seems that Braess’s is the paradox that dare not speak its name at NZTA, the classic example of an inconvenient truth. The kindest construction that we can place on this is that it reflects a rural, National Roads Board legacy. Like all forms of induced traffic, the Braess Paradox is mainly and specifically an urban phenomenon and the rural roading engineer would not really need to know about it. For that reason, Auckland Council needs to become the guardian of this kind of knowledge.

  • Chris Harris

    PS I didn’t post previous comments about Braess on this blog after all–must have been somewhere else–but Admin mentions the paradox a couple of times in much the same vein as my last post. It’s especially relevant in the context of SH20, nonetheless.

  • Steven Joyce

    Silently deleting people’s posts now? Charming.

    Where’s the openness? Where’s the accountability? Where’s the transparency?

  • Let’s never forget that the money for this minor widening projects is easily generated from the users of the Auckland motorway network. When public transport users generate surpluses, they too wont fight for funding from other sources. Of course much public transport manages that rather well, like the aviation sector, maritime sector and intercity bus sector.

    The issue is bad planning, centrally planned highways driven by bureaucratically driven imperatives are going to face cutting corners in some cases (like this one) and gold plating in others (ALPURT B2 is severely gold plated). Merge based congestion is NOT induced demand. You don’t have evidence for this.

    Building motorways has sustainably managed congestion in many instances, so please don’t trot out the rather childish “building motorways doesn’t fix congestion” point. The longer term trend if any transport is underpriced in a location with growing population and economy is for it to be overwhelmed by demand.

    • KLK

      “Let’s never forget that the money for this minor widening projects is easily generated from the users of the Auckland motorway network”

      Is that before or after being subsidised 40& by rates/taxes because the taxes at the pump don’t fully cover it…..

      • Local roads hardly count. Rates fund part of the cost of local roads, not motorways. Rail users don’t even contribute 1% of the cost of rail infrastructure or rolling stock. The road network generates so much revenue that 10-15% of it is used for other modes (which is valid if it generates net road user benefits).

    • Swan

      “Let’s never forget that the money for this minor widening projects is easily generated from the users of the Auckland motorway network.”

      Yes that may well be true, but you are being subjective in where and how you delimit this group of people. Use of the road network, spatially and temporally, is NOT user pays, instead there is a general tax from all road users no matter what demands they place on the network. You could just more narrowly talk about users of this particular section of motorway at peak times, or more widely talk about transport users in Auckland. Depending on where you draw this line the argument for funding certain projects becomes more or less valid from a ‘user pays’ POV.

      The government could instead seek to maximise profit by introducing a true user-pays system, in the same way other SOE’s are expected to, subject to regulation as a monopoly provider. If this was the case your point would be more valid, but I suspect under these circumstances there would likely be less demand for road use and more demand for public transport use, especially if an adequate PT system exists.

      “ALPURT B2 is severely gold plated” Why? Because of the tunnels? Do you realise how deep a box cut would have had to be through that ridge if no tunnels were used, and the geotechnical risks associated with that?

      • Not strictly true. RUC users pay according to the distance they travel, and the weight/axle (therefore marginal maintenance costs) they impose on the network. Fuel tax has a blunt correspondence to the extent of road usage.

        However, you are right that it would be more valid if people were charged to use actual stretches of road at variable prices. Yet not one person decrying the need to build more capacity calls for charging. I would fully support the state highway network being a commercial SOE which would address congestion on Auckland’s motorways in due course in any case, and substantially improve the viability of public transport.

        I know ALPURT B2 is gold plated, I was told this by senior management at Transit NZ as the objective was to demonstrate toll roads are built to a higher standard than (then) Transfund funded roads. The cutting would have been far cheaper than tunnels, the alignment was built to ensure 100km/h operational speeds. Simply look at the estimated construction costs for the years before it was built, it more than trebled in 4 years, although that was in part due to Transit’s poor estimates at the time (and Labour’s ramping up of construction was highly inflationary).

  • The NZTA presentation at the Transport Committee meeting suggests that the money will have to come from elsewhere in the State Highways budget. http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/SiteCollectionDocuments/Transport-Committee-SH20-Manukau-Extension-20%20December-2010.pdf

    I feel a bit better now.

  • Luke

    So that probably means useful safety upgrades and passing lanes in other parts of NZ (Northland included) are scrapped to pay for this. Seems Joycey is speaking first and thinking about the consequences later.

  • From that same report, it appears that the average queue length on SH1 southbound is now shorter than both when the SH20-1 merge opened without ramp signals (TMS), and even before the SH20-1 link opened at all. See graph on page 5.

    It would appear that the problem has already been fixed. Why does it need fixing again?

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