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The curious case of the Victoria Park Tunnel

The Victoria Park Tunnel (VPT) project makes a lot of sense in theory. It does address a tight point in Auckland’s motorway network – significantly boosting capacity for southbound traffic heading towards Auckland’s city centre and connections with SH16 heading west and heading towards the port. It also (from later this month) adds another northbound lane, which should reduce (but probably not eliminate) capacity constraints for traffic heading from SH16 (both the port and from the west) that’s heading north over the Harbour Bridge. Although by adding another lane heading to the bridge without resolving merge issues at Curran St and introducing a merge on the Fanshawe Street onramp, it can be argued that all it really does is move the bottleneck half a kilometre on.

Comparing the VPT with other Roads of National Significance highlights the obvious fact that, out of all the projects, this one makes much more sense than any of the others:Also because NZTA agreed to put the new lanes under the park instead of add another viaduct as they first proposed the negative outcomes on the city are at least not as bad as they might have been.

Despite the fact that the project makes logical sense, especially southbound, and that it stacks up extremely well when compared to other proposed motorway projects, it seems as though pretty much everything about it in recent times has been an unmitigated disaster. Let’s start with the traffic problems that occurred when the tunnel first opened:

Nightly traffic jams on Auckland’s Southern Motorway are still being blamed on drivers’ unfamiliarity with the new Victoria Park tunnel, four days after two of its three lanes were opened.

Traffic was by about 4.30pm today backed up to Otahuhu, at least 13 kilometres south of the 450-metre one-way northbound tunnel. By 6pm the queue had shrunk slightly, with the tail at Mt Wellington.

Queuing to reach the tunnel has frustrated commuters every evening since two of the tunnel’s three lanes were opened for the first time, replacing the northbound carriageway of the Victoria Park motorway viaduct.

Yet it really is hard to see why this is the case, as even before the opening of the third lane there has been no reduction in lane capacity through here, and in fact because of the continued closure of the Wellington St on-ramp there really should be a decrease not only vehicle volumes but also in merging complication at this point in the system. Are Auckland drivers really so unable to adapt to a new road layout? Or is it really that the continued attempt to funnel so much traffic through the CMJ is just a lost cause?

And then there is the curious issue of the Wellington St on-ramp. If it is isn’t to open why was it rebuilt at all, and at what expense? Is NZTA’s traffic modeling so poor that they were surprised by the outcome here? Frankly I think it is no bad thing for Freemans Bay that it isn’t now open as motorway bound traffic no longer clogs up this neighbourhood’s streets – although it seems much has just shifting to clogging up streets in Herne Bay and St Mary’s Bay as people access the Curran St onramp. But it’s not like that is why they’ve closed it; very hard to get NZTA to consider that sort of outcome of their works, no. Their concern is only with the flow of traffic on their asset, that’s why it remains closed.

It seems that this outcome from a project that rates so highly in NZTA’s own predictions highlights the diminishing returns we are getting from the endless and expensive rebuilds of our urban motorways. Forcing the main road connection through the heart of the city was always a controversial idea, and in fact not what was even advised when Auckland’s motorway system was first designed [SH1 was to be routed on the western ring route]. And to have pursued it so doggedly so that it is still the only interconnected transport system for both the city and the regions is bound to create problems. We are forever offered another motorway widening project to ‘fix’ congestion, yet no city has ever road built its way out of congestion.

Clearly our investment would achieve a far higher return by complimenting this mature network with some alternatives instead of trying to add small increases in capacity at great cost. Capacity that is almost immediately absorbed by the existing traffic volume. And perhaps the best arguments for this are near this project but remain overlooked. No fewer than 78% of the people that travel on Fanshawe St in the peak are doing so on buses. Yet despite the total rebuild of the St Marys Bay motorway the Fanshawe St buslane ends where this new work begins (as shown in the diagram below – from here). And this route is a designated RTN, and with the bridge carries a disproportionate and increasing number of people by bus but without the priority that clearly the RTN designation requires. 

Could it be that NZTA or their masters have lost sight of their real purpose and are not focusing on moving people and goods as efficiently as possible, but rather just on expanding the general road network whether this works well or not?

13 comments to The curious case of the Victoria Park Tunnel

  • bbc

    I’m still shocked at the lack of any bus priority measures, it really shows how car-focused NZTA is when they actually ignore the means that the majority of people now use to cross the bridge. The only positive is that there’s plenty of capacity now to reallocate some more to buses (unlikely to happen). When queried on the lack of bus lanes NZTA stated there was no more room to expand the footprint, however there was more room to expand the motorway to 12 lanes, just no desire to provide any bus priority. Something’s seriously wrong with transport planning in NZ.

  • Phil

    Network is only as strong as the weakest link. Yeah, something is badly wrong with transport planning.

    Also, brings in to question how we actually measure the benefits (BCR’s) of these projects. I mean, how does this get a higher rating than CRL?

  • Geoff Houtman

    Thoroughly agree Patrick, that was a waste of what- a third of a Billion dollars just to move a traffic jam slightly further up the road.

    This project alone could’ve provided a decent chunk of the CRL cost.

    And this has the best BCR?

    I’m too scared to look at how bad the rest are.

    The Transport Minister must be so embarrassed about all this stuff happening on his watch. I hope he starts taking more responsible control of things or it may reflect upon him badly…

  • Andrew

    It will be interesting to conduct an actual post-construction BCR of projects like these to compare with ore-construction predictions. Does anyone actually do that?

  • gary Young

    A person of cynical mind might begin to wonder if the NZTA does in fact have any well researched, long term, integrated roading plans in their portfolio at all. In the last several years we have seen a number of incremental additions and reconstructions to the motorways few of which have solved congestion: they have merely moved it elsewhere.

    I think the road builders have run out of ideas but won’t admit it, even to themselves.

    They are just adding bits here and bits there in the forlorn hope that somehow they can hit upon the one fix that will deal with traffic congestion once and for all.

  • tc

    Yet NZTA market these as congestion busting, Key even announced the VPT was good for the environment as it would supposedly reduce emissions. Do they do a before and after to refute that claim. I’m guessing not.

    • Duncan

      Not sure if it’s still there, but there was an air quality monitoring station on the northern side of the viaduct next to the VPT offices. Went in before the project started.

      • Ian L

        The ‘after’ air quality monitoring is going ahead shortly. It’ll probbaly last a year (this is the norm) generating a huge amount of data. However, the final report will be released very, very quietly, and an analysis of the impact of the motorway on emissions is not required from the report. This is also the norm. I challenge anyone to find the report from the ‘before’ monitoring.

  • via Kent Lundsberg at Isthmus is this great interview with Joh Norquist: http://grist.org/infrastructure/off-ramp-how-demolishing-freeways-is-reviving-american-cities/

    good support for argument against the insanity of adding more motorway lanes

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