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Does the East-West link make any sense?

There was a fairly lengthy opinion piece in yesterday’s Herald, authored by Michael Barnett from the Chamber of Commerce and Kim Campbell from the Employer’s and Manufacturer’s Association, discussing transport matters in Auckland. A lot of the start of the article makes reasonably good sense, pointing out how much Auckland is going to grow in the next 30 years and highlighting the need to focus transport investment in Auckland. Then the article goes on to discuss AMETI and the East-West link project:

In this article we discuss the importance of the Ameti/East-West link.

Developing the Ameti/East-West Link has been on Auckland’s transport plans from the 1950s, with land reserved for a portion of the route since 1965 and a connection on paper to the Western Ring Route (SH20) at Onehunga and the Southern Motorway.

At present, local roads in the vicinity carry more heavy freight vehicles than most of New Zealand’s state highways. They represent the start and end point for many upper North Island freight services, both road and rail. The link is required to improve access to the rail freight hub at Metroport, New Zealand’s third largest container port, and the many major employment and distribution businesses nearby.

Freight traffic in the locality is about to double. With many local roads already congested for much of the working day, an efficient integrated Ameti and East-West Link is urgent.

It is true that freight volumes through this part of Auckland are pretty high – I remember seeing a graphic once showing that the Pakuranga Bridge over the Tamaki River carries a similar number of trucks each day as the Harbour Bridge. And a much much higher number than most of the government’s Roads of National Significance. AMETI is fairly well advanced, splitting out through traffic, local traffic and public transport from each other to a much greater extent so they’re each able to operate much more effectively.ameti-transport-strategyWhile the cost of AMETI is pretty eye-watering, it at least includes some pretty major public transport improvements in the form of a busway from Botany to Panmure and a large upgrade to the Panmure Station. Hopefully it should also take quite a lot of through traffic out of Pakuranga town centre, enabling its revitalisation and hopefully a bit of traffic calming along sections of Pakuranga Road.

Panning westwards a bit, we hit the area where the East-West Link project is located:eastwestlink-aerialWith State Highway 1 visible in the top right corner and SH20 visible in the bottom left corner, you can see the temptation of a project to join the two motorways up. Furthermore, with so much freight travelling through the area or originating from the area there does seem to be a logic in focusing on transport improvements in this corner of Auckland – especially if improving freight traffic is a priority.

In some ways this project could be seen as the westerns portion of AMETI, especially as the two projects so clearly link with each other and improving freight movements is seen as a goal of both projects (although it seems to be an even higher priority for the East-West link project). Essentially this is the argument that Barnett and Campbell make:

Some limited work is under way, but we have major concerns at the lack of progress to plan, design and build an integrated corridor as the Auckland Plan directs.

Our immediate concerns are:

Ameti (Stage 1) and planning for the East-West Link are being run as separate projects. Instead, the legacy Ameti sections are being developed primarily as a corridor for bus transport while the East-West section is being investigated with freight in mind.

The East-West section investigation presumes government funding will apply, which we strongly endorse, while the unfunded Ameti sections are not.

The disjointed approach is unacceptable. This route development will generate high productivity benefits by easing heavy traffic congestion, including to the MetroPort rail freight terminal, and it’s obvious that a reconfigured and integrated design of the whole link project is vital.

The project has also been consulted to death. Now a comprehensive integrated design package is called for, with a supporting overall business case, and a clear timeline to complete it by 2021.

The integrated Ameti/East-West Link is expected to cost $2.5 billion but generate the level of productivity benefits that easily justify it. Among them is a faster return on the multibillion dollars we have already spent on the new Manukau Harbour Bridge, Spaghetti Junction, the Newmarket Viaduct and Victoria Park Tunnel.

Investment in it is long overdue, if on the basis of nothing else than its large potential to make money and grow the economy.

While AMETI certainly seems like it’s been “studied to death”, I’m not sure the same argument can be applied to the East-West Link – which seemed to appear pretty much out of nowhere into the final version of the Auckland Plan. Furthermore, while it’s clearly true there are a lot of trucks that travel through this part of Auckland, it’s not entirely clear whether this creates a significant “problem” which needs “solving”, or what that “solution” actually should be.

It has always seemed to me as though the transport system in this area has sections which operate reasonably well and other parts which don’t seem to work that well. Neilson Street itself, the main existing link between the two motorway corridors, seems to work reasonably well except for a few intersections at Great South Road and at Onehunga Mall. One wonders how much of the delays in this area could be solved through a couple of well focused intersection upgrades. Secondly, Neilson Street is a pretty extraordinarily wide road – as shown in the picture below – so perhaps some of that existing road space could be dedicated to truck-only lanes to ensure freight traffic is able to keep moving no matter what the traffic conditions are for general traffic.

What I’m saying, in summary I suppose, is that there are good reasons to take a bit of time to analyse a situation before rushing off into building a very expensive piece of infrastructure, which a full motorway link between SH1 and SH20 would most certainly be. We might well find that a few relatively minor tweaks can fix the problem – at least for quite some time – alleviating the need to spend large sums of money.

15 comments to Does the East-West link make any sense?

  • This is a very specific area that almost certainly needs a very specific outcome. Because so many of the heavy and other commercial vehicle movements have a local destination or source the reflex to build a connecting grade separate motorway between SHs 1 and 20 is almost certainly not the answer. An upgraded Neilson St with better connections to the two motorways, especially if it came with heavy vehicle priority lanes as you suggest is likely to be a more effective solution. Traffic growth is pretty much certain with sites like Port of Tauranga’s Metro Port; the rail feed cargo depot here.

    At least a south bound connection to Mangere bridge say through the southern stub of Galway St would do much to take this traffic out of the Onehunga end of Nielson, and could of course be co-ordinated with the construction of the rail bridge for the extension of the O-Line to the airport. Quite a bit more of work required to move the north facing off-ramp to the same route however.

    Best hopes for some creative solutions from the engineers involved.

    • Doing something about Onehunga Harbour Rd/Onehunga Mall/Neilson St should also be a high priority, again perhaps as part of the Onehunga Line works.
      One thing that this area has going for it in terms of doing this work is that there’s very little residential to create issues. There are apartments/town houses in the Onehunga Mall stub, but very few. The residential is mostly north of Neilson and buffered by the industrial/commercial premises on the north side of Neilson. Some very significant grade separation projects could be undertaken with minimal long-term impact on residents of the area. There’s also a lot of “wasted” road space (parking, a full grassed median, grassed shoulders) that could be reclaimed for useful transport purposes without having to extend the road corridor. If a bus route (or light rail!) could be laid in along Neilson to connect between the Onehunga rail station and the bus routes on Mt Smart Rd it would remove a lot of the need for workers to drive in and park along Neilson. The Council could also make use of the massive parking lot within Mt Smart Stadium for worker parking with a bus service along Neilson and Church to finish the journey.

  • I have been along Neilson St in even shoulder times and it can be horrendously busy. I do agree that the route needs work but not a full blown motorway. One of the proposals I saw a few years ago suggested possibly a motorway from Onehunga to East Tamaki which is just insane. A couple of hundred million to ensure the route is four lanes each way, upgraded interesections with perhaps a few even grade separated and then ramps that allow you to access the motorway with some south facing ramps from Church/SEART would make a huge difference.

    • One of the big differences between Neilson St and a lot of the other busy roads in Auckland is that Neilson is busy during business hours. It’s mostly dead after 18:00, but go through in the middle of the day and there are always vehicles queuing and crossing at every signalised intersection. Its disconnection from public transport doesn’t help matters, either, with workers in some areas (and in the southern-side side streets) facing a walk of around a kilometre to the nearest bus or rail stop.

      Grade separation of the Church/Neilson intersection would go a long way towards improving traffic flows, and if they did the same with the Captain Springs Rd intersection (keep Neilson at the current grade and tunnel CSR) it would get rid of many of the difficulties. The only other one that really could do with grade separation is Neilson/Onehunga Mall, and that could potentially be done as part of what I’m sure will be necessary work to extend the Onehunga Line towards the airport.

      • Max

        The rail line (well, the old track bed) already goes under Neilson (grade separated) right now, so I don’t see any connection to the airport line work, unless you are proposing double-tracking?

  • Neilson St doesn’t intersect with Great South Road. The closest it gets is Church Street.

  • Glen

    I can’t agree with the above posts more. Proposing a full motorway in this corridor (especially when the traffic is largely local in source or destination as Patrick says) is totally missing the point. Less a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and more a sledgehammer to crack your foot.

    Every time I drive along Nielson St I am amazed at the amount of on-street parking. Why do the commercial businesses in the area, with their relatively large land footprints, not provide enough off-street parking? A significant portion of Nielson St is also just one (wide) lane each way plus flush median and on-street parking. Madness. If enough parking cannot be made available by businesses, then Matt Clouds’ shuttle bus idea is a good one… a small employer levy might even make it self-funding. (The only other parking issue might be spillover parking for events at Waikaraka Park… if that is still needed then a 8AM-6PM Monday-Friday clearway could be introduced, allowing parking at night and weekends). In any case, the current on-street parking is a significant hindrance and no excuse for needing a motorway.

    That is, if Nielson St is to be called a through corridor then it should be so: Four lanes each way (in places six might be possible, the corridor is so wide!) including truck lanes in each direction right the way through would go a long way to easing congestion on this road.

    Patrick’s idea of a southbound connection to Mangere bridge through Galway St is a great one too, it would take a lot of pressure off the Nielson St/Onehunga Mall intersection… currently Nielson St from the intersection to the southbound onramp is just a rat run, and straight-through and left turning traffic get caught up with each other and cause a huge mess. Again, a low-cost solution. No full motorway required.

  • Glen

    I’ve also never understood why Church St./SEART has northbound ramps directly onto SH1, but southbound traffic has to deviate around the south side of Hamlin’s Hill. If feasible, direct southbound ramps would seem a no-brainer to me. Does anyone know why this was never done when the SEART was built, or earlier?

  • George D

    Truck lanes! What a brilliant idea.

    What’s evidence like about their implementation elsewhere? I can find precious little about them, which seems to indicate they haven’t really been considered.

    • Steve D

      There are a few right here in Auckland, mostly motorway onramps. A particularly good example is Grafton Gully southbound. It really seems to work well – trucks can fly past the big queues waiting to get on the Southern Motorway without having to stop on the steep grade.

      • George D

        I suppose so, but I’ve tended to think about that as a grade-specific exemption – having trucks struggle in general traffic would mean they were at a crawl when entering the motorway, snarling half of the inner motorway junction.

  • IanL

    Glad this has caught the blog’s attention because I have NEVER understood the rationale for this project. As someone said above… exactly WHAT is the problem to which this is the solution? So Neilson Street is busy. Well, of course it is. The idea that you can have an industrial area fully embedded in dense urban fabric and have fully free-flowing traffic all the time is pure fantasy. Does anyone really believe that the proposed motorway would “solve” traffic flow in the area? I agree with many of the low-cost tweaks being proposed here, but spend a million or a billion fundamentally it will always be busy and – dare I say it – congested. Get over it!

  • Luke C

    Yes it is very bizzare a full motorway will do nothing as it is too short to have any interchanges apart from with SH1 and SH20. Therefore no benefit to the major industrial area it sits in, including the Kiwirail and Metroport rail terminal, which is actually the 3rd busiest container terminal in the country, just ahead of Lyttleton Port.
    From what I last saw the latest NZTA proposals for the East West link would be south of Onehunga, but that equally as silly, and would cut a large swathe through Otahuhu.
    Not really fan of large overbridge interchanges, but potentially Neilson/Great South Road could be looked at, isnt really any pedestrian environment to destroy here.
    Another option is is a south bound entrance to Kiwirail/Metroport. This actually mostly exists from Railway Lane, through the Mainfreight depot, and past the Kiwirail Westfield maintenance depot.
    Also need to be careful though as Onehunga is a major future intensification node, with the residential population set to soar, so done badly road imporvement could wreck potential for this.

  • Paul

    A lot of the problem exists because of the volume of traffic that comes off sh20 past the onehunga port and then has to cut across the traffic flowing from nelson st to sh20. There needs to be an overpass to prevent these two lines of traffic from crossing

  • Angus Robertson

    The southbound on-ramp at Onehunga has now opened with the truck lane on its left hand side.

    Traffic going north from Nielsen Street turns left at Onehunga Mall and traffic going south goes straight. To avoid northbound queues most southbound traffic uses the right hand lane, but some use the left hand lane.

    The quickest way for a truck to get from Nielsen Street to southbound on SH20 is to be in the right hand lane at the Onehunga Mall intersection and the hard left shoulder at the Gloucester Park intersection. Distance between the two is about 200 m.

    My commute has become more interesting.

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