New Zealand spends a lot of money on transport. More than half our rates are spent on building and fixing roads and footpaths as well as funding buses, trains and ferries. Further to this, close to a third of what we pay at the petrol pump is tax, with the bulk of that money – around $3 billion a year – also being spent on transport, an ever increasing proportion going to State Highways.
With so much public money at stake, it’s no wonder there’s so much debate and discussion around whether this project or that project should be built, whether Auckland needs more roads or not, whether buses are better than trains, what role cycling can have, and so on.
In Auckland the transport debate has reached fever pitch in the last few years. Arguments over whether the City Rail Link should be built instead of the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway are never ending. Similar debates exist over issues such as whether the next harbour crossing should be in the form of a bridge or tunnel, whether an east-west link between Onehunga and East Tamaki is a priority and whether we need rail to the airport.
There’s one similarity between all of these discussion though – the projects’ cost rarely start at anything less than a billion dollars. With such big numbers, it’s important that we are a smart with prioritising projects, that we look to squeeze everything we can out of existing transport networks and that we build what is needed, when it’s needed.
We must also be mindful of recent trends and their future implications: traffic volumes on state highways across New Zealand haven’t grown from 2005 levels, but public transport patronage in Auckland has grown by a third in the past four years. If more people aren’t driving, then maybe we don’t need to build more roads and that money would best be spent elsewhere.
In December 2010 the former head of transport funding agency Transfund, Martin Gummer, wrote in the Herald that a critical distinction between the Puhoi-Wellsford project and the City Rail Link is that the Puhoi-Wellsford project can be done in stages, whereas the City Rail Link’s benefits only arise when the full tunnel is completed – opening up a second rail entrance to the city centre and eliminating the Britomart bottleneck.
Because Puhoi-Wellsford can be done in stages, we are able to avoid having to spend around $1.7 billion on it in the next decade. Just bypass Warkworth, add some passing lanes in and do some safety improvement in the Dome Valley – probably at a tenth the price – and we solve most of the problem, at least for a few decades. This “Operation Lifesaver” alternative was developed by the Campaign for Better Transport back in 2010 and gained pretty widespread support.
This staging process can happen to a lot of transport projects. Delaying two of the City Rail Link’s stations until they’re really needed could shave up to $600 million off the project’s initial price tag and might be the difference between it getting government support or not.
Similarly for the “East West Link” between Onehunga and East Tamaki, a project strongly promoted by Auckland Business Forum’s Michael Barnett in last week’s Herald. If freight congestion through Penrose and Onehunga is a problem, then why not paint in some truck only lanes, fix up a few intersections and maybe add an onramp here and there before we go and spend billions on yet another motorway?
Recent government transport policy does not make great reading, when we consider the principles above. Puhoi-Wellsford is just one example of the $11-14 billion that is planned to be spent on just seven new roads over the next decade. None of these projects appear to have gone through a process where someone asks “can we achieve most of this project’s benefits at a fraction of its cost?”
There is a lack of analysis for these projects that goes beyond the unexamined assertion that highway building always leads to increased economic performance. This is dubious at best, see here for an earlier discussion of the relationship between GDOP and transport spending.
Increased funding for State highway construction will bring benefits for national economic growth and productivity, particularly given that State highways carry most inter-regional freight and link major ports, airports and urban areas. [2012 GPS]
This is clearly a vast generalisation that does not stand up to much scrutiny; where a new transport project unlocks a blockage that currently prevents or restricts the growth of an industry by connecting it to a market this is likely to be true, but nowhere do the RoNS projects solve such problems. All of them duplicate roads that are not overburdened with traffic, and many follow the route of rail lines that also have plenty of space capacity. In fact it is hard to see this programme as anything other than a vast subsidy to the trucking industry; an expensive way to undermine the development of any alternative. Were these projects subject to the sort of scrutiny and scepticism that the City Rail Link has been and their economic worth was demonstrated the whole programme would be so much more credible.
Further to that, all these “Roads of National Significance” depend upon steadily increasing traffic volumes to justify their existence. This ignores the slowdown in traffic growth that is now occurring around the developed world as the population ages and younger generations are more interested in iPads and Smartphones than buying cars or even getting their licenses.
We need to be far more rational with our transport spending. Staging projects, doing small to avoid big and recognising that traffic volumes simply aren’t growing much anymore may free up billions of dollars as well as saving our towns and cities from more motorways, wider roads and more pollution. And not just selecting projects to invest in by mode but by effectiveness.