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Government study brings back “Eastern Highway”

The NZ Herald reports:

In a surprise announcement, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee yesterday asked the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to commence investigations into a motorway between Panmure and Downtown: along a very similar route to the alignment of the Eastern Highway that cost John Banks the Auckland City mayoralty back in 2004.

Mr Brownlee confirmed that the need to investigate this project further was the most significant outcome of a four-month review of the ‘City Centre Future Access Study’ by Ministry of Transport officials.

“In December last year the Auckland Council released the City Centre Future Access Study. At the time I highlighted some concerns that this study had not reviewed a wide enough series of options to deal with future access problems to downtown Auckland and I also highlighted some doubts over the extremely optimistic assumptions made by that study. Today’s announcement vindicates my concerns,” said Mr Brownlee at a media conference at Orakei point, where the six lane motorway is planned to pass through.

“The Future Access Study’s findings showed that while the CBD Rail Loop performed the best of the options considered, by 2021 and especially by 2041, congestion for private vehicles travelling into downtown Auckland at peak times would be significantly worse than it is today – even with the rail loop built. This is an unacceptable outcome, which is why I requested by officials to look into other options.”

In plans released today by the Ministry, a series of roading improvements are scheduled for construction over the next six years across Auckland – with the main goal being to alleviate congestion. These plans include construction of a six lane motorway from Parnell Rise at the bottom of Grafton Gully through to Panmure where the road will connect to the AMETI project, already under construction by Auckland Transport. To save on costs, the motorway will be built at grade rather than in a tunnel, an option previously considered when the Eastern Highway was being promoted by Auckland City Council last decade.

Other projects proposed for construction include a second level on State Highway 1 between the central motorway junction and Mt Wellington, as well as the Northwest motorway between Waterview and the city.

The Ministry’s report offers only a preliminary analysis of the costs of these projects, noting a likely ‘turn out’ cost of between nine and thirteen billion dollars. “We believe this is a small price to pay to rid Auckland of the daily scourge of congestion” stated Mr Brownlee.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown did not attend the media conference, but later released a statement saying that he was “outraged” the government seemed to be “taking over” the planning of transport in Auckland. However, Mr Brown also noted that he strongly supported all the findings in the report.

“Auckland’s population is due to grow by a million people in the next five years, so we need to invest in Auckland’s future. Today’s announcement is a huge step forward for the City Rail Link project.”

Government sources confirmed that today’s announcements are seen as an alternative to the rail loop project, not in addition to it. When this was put to the mayor, he was heard muttering “incompetent fools” before shrugging his shoulders, sighing loudly and stating that he would “continue to work constructively with the government on transport issues in Auckland”.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Michael Barnett stated that he “strongly supported” today’s announcement. “Congestion costs Auckland businesses $5 billion a year and finally there is an agreed plan to tackle this problem. Our only criticism is that the current plan is to have the Eastern Motorway completed by 2017 and a second level on the southern and northwest motorways by 2019. We think that both projects simply must be completed by 2015 at the absolute latest!”

NZ Council for Infrastructure Development Chief Executive Stephen Selwood also noted his strong support for the transport package announced today. “We’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Transport over the past four months to come up with a solution to Auckland’s traffic problems that can be implemented in a way that most benefits our members, I mean most benefits the Auckland public,” said Mr Selwood, from his desk at the Ministry of Transport’s offices in Auckland.

The announcement was not met with total support however, local resident Anthony Pearce said that he had thought the Eastern Highway was “dead and buried” after it cost Mr Banks the 2004 Auckland mayoralty. “Little did I know that much of the designation was never removed!” wailed Mr Pearce. “At least they’ll never be able to get consent for a six lane motorway through the Purewa Valley and across Hobson Bay!”

Environment Minister Amy Adam confirmed that, with the current changes proposed to the Resource Management Act, consenting for the project would be “not a problem”.

Construction of the motorway causeway is set to begin in June.

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