The agenda for Auckland Transport’s board meeting tomorrow has been posted online (both the boring open agenda and the rather more interesting confidential agenda). In the closed agenda, along with various items that seem relatively normal, will be special consideration of the following: One imagines that the EMU Procurement item is responding to KiwiRail’s short-listing down to two of the preferred suppliers that was announced a few days back. Perhaps Auckland Transport is being asked to make some decisions on exactly what they want. It’s the Central City Rail Link (is that the new official name for the project?) item that interests me most though – as this comes not too long before the Cabinet is going to be considering the CBD Tunnel Business Case Review project that has been going on for the past few months.
It’s hard to know exactly what will come out of the business case review. Compared to the Puhoi-Wellsford business case I thought that the CBD tunnel case was extremely comprehensive. I liked the way that it went beyond the traditional analysis of wider economic benefits to look at the impact on productivity that concentrating employment in the CBD (something the project is critical for allowing to happen) would have. However, it also had some weaknesses – with obvious questions like “how many cars will it take off the roads” not being answered in an easily accessible way. I think it also focuses too much on what the benefits to the CBD are – and ignores benefits to other parts of Auckland that will arise from us being able to operate trains at frequencies of more than one every ten minutes. The table below shows what a massive difference the CBD Tunnel will make to total rail patronage in Auckland in 2041 – 22.2 million without the tunnel, 47.6 million with it: Another issue I took with the business case is probably not its own fault (in that it was written last year before the Super City came into being), but that it ignores to some extent the impact on the city centre that things like the International City Centre Master Plan might have. That Master Plan envisages creating a city centre that is far more people-oriented and far less vehicle-oriented – a potential fundamental conflict with even the current number of cars and buses that stream in and out of downtown every day. Yet the business case modelling suggests that even with the tunnel, the city centre will have to deal with bus passengers increasing from 23,000 to 42,000 in 2041, and vehicle numbers increasing from 34,500 to 39,600 by 2041. This is shown in the table below: As most people would clearly recognise, the number of vehicles entering the city at peak times probably doesn’t have much capacity to grow – plus with measures proposed in the Master Plan (like two-waying Hobson and Nelson streets, potentially pedestrianising Queen and Quay streets plus implementing many more bus lanes to stop the city being so clogged up with buses) it seems highly likely that general vehicle capacity will decrease. So that calls into question some of the modelling outcomes of the business case in my mind at least – meaning that the benefits of the project may have been under-estimated.
However, my understanding is that the central government agencies involved in the review are likely to take quite a different approach – as papers released under the OIA suggested. The Ministry of Transport had the following to say about the business case: Looking further into MoT’s criticism of the business case, and in particular their criticism of the expected rail patronage (referred to above) pretty much boils down to flooding the city centre with cars. MoT’s revised modelling suggests that up to 56,000 vehicles would enter the city during peak time in 2041, even with the project. Something tells me they need to get a new modelling system if it produces such insanely counter-intuitive results.
I suppose, to cut to the chase, unless something dramatic has happened over the last few months to result in government officials and Auckland Transport officials reconciling their massive differences on the merit of this project – it seems somewhat unlikely we’ll have a definitive answer on whether it makes sense or not. I suspect that a lot of further work needs to be done to better understand wider economic benefits – and although this work has begun in terms of the various RoNS projects – the way the CBD Tunnel business case came up with its staggering large “urban regeneration benefits” didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Perhaps it is the same measurement that was used in the UK’s assessment of CrossRail’s “move to more productive jobs” benefits, but I just don’t know. The logic behind the benefits makes sense – as is outlined above – it’s just working out exactly how to quantify those benefits which might need some further analysis. I’m sure we could always ask the UK government how they do it.
However, considering the financial impact of the Christchurch earthquake and the government’s general distaste for anything rail, one could argue that the business case review is pretty irrelevant anyway – even with the most fantastic cost-benefit ratio in the entire world I think it’s doubtful the government would simply go “yeah sure, here’s a billion dollars, go off and build it”. They only do that for uneconomic roading projects.
So I think what we can really hope for, once the business case review is completed, is what I talked about in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and its impacts on project priorities: that Auckland Council simply gets on with designating the route, undertaking the detailed design and sorting out all the necessary consents to actually build the project. As shown in the diagram below, if we want to have the project completed by 2021 (which is the date used by the Regional Land Transport Strategy and the business case) then we don’t actually need to start building until 2015 – we have a good 3-4 years of work that needs to be done before the point where we get the diggers out:
Because of this, there’s no real need to start spending “big bucks” until later this decade – once again something spelled out quite clearly in the business case:
Auckland Council could quite easily cover the costs of the project by itself up until 2016ish – I would think. So there’s no desperately pressing need to get the government ‘on-side’ to help with funding – at least not for now. One might imagine that by the middle of this decade, particularly if petrol prices continue to increase and rail patronage continues to grow (with integrated ticketing and electrification coming online that seems inevitable), a sensible government could take quite a different perspective on the need for the project. Perhaps the Ministry of Transport might have even updated their modelling software to something that’s not stuck in the 1960s too!
The one big potential ‘spanner in the works’ is that the only agency legally able to designate railway lines is KiwiRail. And KiwiRail’s Minister is Steven Joyce – who has to give the ‘go-ahead’ for them to be able to designate the route, even if Auckland Council is the one who’s actually paying for the process 100%. Now one wouldn’t think that Joyce would ban KiwiRail from doing such a thing, when it comes at absolutely no cost to the government – but you never know.