2016 – A Year in Review Part 4 – Everything else

This is Part 4 and the final part of our series wrapping up the year and in this post I’m looking at everything else. You can also see:

Unitary Plan

The completion of the Unitary Plan has been one of the biggest and most important discussions Auckland has had for the last few years. The plan sets the rules by which Auckland can develop and previous planning rules were far too restrictive, especially in relation to allowing for urban development. Since it was first discussed in 2012, council in responding to groups like Auckland 2040 had wound back many aspects of the plan. It was better than what we have but not as good as it should have been.

At the beginning of the year the plan took a blow as Councillors buckled to a small group of vocal residents who had been whipped into a frenzy by incorrect information from the likes of the Herald and voted to withdraw it’s evidence on residential zoning under the false pretense of preserving a process. That crazy act meant the council wasn’t able to be a part of the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) when discussing this massive and important topic. But the act ultimately proved fruitless as the IHP were the ones controlling the process

In July, the IHP released their recommendations which significantly increased what they called Feasible Enabled Capacity.

In August the council accepted almost all of the recommendations from the IHP. Interestingly the opposition groups seemed to just melt away and not much was heard of them during this time. This was a huge achievement and something that looked unlikely even six months earlier.

The process isn’t fully over yet though, there are still some appeals to be worked through and one of those from the Character Coalition caused a major snag. It was so broad in scope the council couldn’t make the plan operative. The appeal was later reworded to focus on character housing not all residential zoning.

TFUG

A important discussion this year was a project called Transport for Future Urban Growth (TFUG). This was Auckland Transport and the NZTA looking at what big pieces of infrastructure were needed to support all the greenfield growth areas identified in the Unitary Plan. This is mostly a lot of big arterials and expanded state highways but there is some PT in the mix too. All up it is likely to cost at least $10 billion for the infrastructure planned, about $200,000 per new dwelling it enables. The final plan was released just before Christmas and I’ll cover that in the new year.

ATAP

I’ve already covered ATAP a bit in previous posts but in this one I wanted to point out a couple of important parts. One is that the project identified full road pricing, not just tolling a few roads, would likely be needed in coming years to help manage demand. This is important as up to that point the government had been very opposed to the mere suggestion of this. They still aren’t fully supporting it and there is a lot of work that needs to happen before we’ll see anything like road pricing introduced but if feels like the idea is now firmly in the discussion and likely to be a key discussion in coming years.

The second is that ATAP came up with some indicative timings for when projects might happen, this is shown below

ATAP Indicative Interventions

New Council

In October we had local body elections and Len Brown wasn’t standing again meaning we would definitely be getting a new mayor. Phil Goff, who officially announced he was running in late 2015m, had been the front runner for a long time and in the end won by a considerable margin.

In November he released his first rates proposal, something that will be a key discussion in the first half of next year. While capping rates increases at 2.5%, he also sought to look at other ways of funding Auckland’s growth such as introducing visitor levy, a targeted rate on areas to be developed to help pay for the new infrastructure those areas and raising the topic of regional fuel taxes.

Goff campaigned on making the Council Controlled Organisations more accountable and just a few weeks ago we saw the draft letters of expectation to the CCOs. We covered the letter to AT which was fantastic, effectively calling out AT on issues like ignoring the councils City Centre Master Plan with their stupid plans for key streets after the CRL is completed. It also asked AT to focus on some other key areas too, such as “aggressively pursuing strong growth in public transport use and active modes” and improving speeds on the rail network from shorter dwell times. It will be interesting to see how AT respond.

Blog

We’ve had another fantastic year on the blog and it’s great to see many new people starting to read and join in the conversation. Here are couple of stats for you.

Thank you to all who have read the blog and helped support us.

We do have one post left to go for the year, tomorrow I’ll take look at what we might see in 2017

2016 – A Year in Review Part 3 – Roads

This is Part 3 of our series wrapping up the year and in this post I’m looking at Roads. You can also see:

Here’s my summary

ATAP

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) has been a huge feature of the year and while not strictly road related, I’ll include it in this summary. Importantly, despite I think asking many of the wrong questions and focusing too much on the modelling, it largely came out with the right answers. For example, it highlights

  • We can’t build out of way of congestion
  • A major expansion of the “strategic public transport network” is required
  • Auckland’s motorway network is basically now finished (and also that scope for further widening seems quite limited)
  • The Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing really isn’t needed for a long time
  • We need to move to a comprehensive, better pricing system – which ATAP calls “smarter transport pricing”. It suggests it could take a decade to work though the details before it became a reality.

Below is the proposed strategic road network for the next 30 years. As you can see most of this is already in place now.

Waterview/Western Ring Route

Near the end of 2015 the tunnelling was completed at Waterview over the course of 2016 the work has focused on fitting those tunnels out and completing all of the other aspects of the project, including the ventilation buildings and mitigation projects.

In September we revealed the NZTA had some new traffic modelling predicting the opening of the new connection to create havoc and that they were planning to emergency widen a number of surrounding motorways and local roads in a desperate bid to stop the shiny new centrepiece of their system from getting congested.

The tunnels are due to open in April, which is later than I thought it would be but I also wonder if that’s related to getting the emergency widening completed first.

In May the NZTA officially opened rebuilt Lincoln Rd and Te Atatu Rd interchanges as part of the wider Western Ring Route (WRR) project. Both were over budget and Lincoln Rd was three years later than originally stated (and that was even after moving one leg of the interchange to another project). In October the NZTA also celebrated the completion of the St Lukes interchange, with the Pohutukawa still intact.

In July work started on the next stage of the WRR, to widen the motorway between Lincoln Rd and Westgate. A section of motorway that might need to be rebuilt again in just a few years to add a north-western busway – something the government agreed (through ATAP) that was needed within a decade. We have heard rumours though that the NZTA engineers are changing their designs for the Royal Rd and Huhuhuru Rd bridges to accommodate a busway after they were told they might be responsible for delivering it.

Northern Corridor

Related to the WRR, just a few weeks ago the NZTA applied for consent for the Northern Corridor which will turn the section of SH18 east of Albany Hwy into a full motorway and provide a direct connection to SH1 (northbound). Importantly it also includes the extension of the Northern Busway. That process will be concluded in 2017 and previous indications from the NZTA suggested construction would start in 2018.

East-West Link

The East-West Link loomed larger in 2016 as the project marched on, culminating in the NZTA applying for consent a few weeks ago, at the same time as the Northern Corridor. The NZTA is almost certainly going to face a much bigger fight to get this project over the line though as it also faces significant community opposition, especially to plans to effectively cut off the port area with a motorway and swallow large packets of land for various roads

In June we revealed documents from the NZTA showing the cost had ballooned from $600 million to potentially over $1.8 billion, more expensive than the Waterview Tunnels ($1.4b). Yet from what we can tell the economic assessment is still based on earlier cost estimates. The documents also revealed some of main risks identified for the consenting of the project, with designs at the time putting the roads completely on newly reclaimed land.

Some of those risks have been mitigated a bit over the year as the latest plans place the road mostly back on current land with most of the reclamation planned to be for more extensive mitigation.

Puhoi to Warkworth

While on the topic of big State Highway Projects, the NZTA announced in November they had awarded the contract for the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway. Presumably construction will start in 2017 and is expected to be completed in 2022.

Auckland Transport consents for Mega Projects

Auckland Transport got consent for two of it’s mega road projects, both expected to cost north of $300 million.

Mill Rd

Penlink

They’ve also applied for consent for the Lincoln Rd upgrade which could cost more than $100 million.

Surprisingly little has been heard about AMETI this year. AT were meant to be applying for consent for the Busway between Panmure and Pakuranga but nothing has been made public yet.

 

Speed limits

In November the government announced a new speed limit guide which when in place would allow for some specific roads to have a 110km/h speed limit but also make it easier for local authorities to have lower speed limits in urban areas which would be welcome.

Road Toll

And despite the talk of safety, the road toll continues to defy the trends of the last few decades, increasing again over the last few years, as the graph below shows (to the end of October)

Are there any key changes I’ve missed?

Tomorrow’s wrap up will focus mainly on non transport stuff.

2016 – A Year in Review Part 1 – PT

As the year rapidly draws to a close it’s a good time to look back at all the important events that have occurred. Because there’s so much to cover, I’ll be splitting this up over multiple posts, starting with public transport.

It’s been a huge year for public transport. Sometimes it can be easy to get caught in the day to day details which makes it easy to forget that a lot of really positive things happened in 2016. So, here’s my summary.

City Rail Link

We started the year with the great news that the government had come to their senses, agreeing the main part of the project should start as soon as possible, not be delayed till sometime after 2020 like they had previously said. This was primarily due to two things, we were continuing to see stellar ridership growth following electrification, well ahead of what was projected and with Auckland in a building boom with $billions planned to be spent, developers wanted certainty around the project.

While some of the earliest signs the project was underway began at the end of 2015, in June the project officially exploded into action in a ceremony outside Britomart.

In September the government and council signed an agreement that would see them share the costs of the project equally.

The project is now hard to miss in the city centre with works in full swing from Britomart through to Wellesley St. One of the first big pieces of work is to move a water main out of the way along Albert St and that has involved digging some deep shafts to enable a small tunnel boring machine to dig and install a new pipe. Auckland Transport kindly gave us a tour of the sites in October. On Albert St the project is now hard to miss with large parts of it closed to traffic and a huge piling machine busy at work.

In just a few weeks another milestone will be reached as passengers will start using the new, temporary entrance that has been built at the back of the CPO building to enable the CRL tunnels to be dug under the CPO.

 

Not everything has been great though. From what we’ve seen so far, Auckland Transport’s plans for the streets being re-instated after the CRL is completed have been a disappointment, especially so on Victoria St. In fact more than that they appear to be trying to actively undermine the Council’s publicly consulted City Centre Master Plan by removing key pedestrian space so a few more car lanes can be squeezed in. This is obviously something we’ll be following very closely in 2017.

Simplified Fares

August finally saw the introduction of Simplified Fares, another of the key steps in bringing public transport in Auckland up to a more modern standard. It introduced fare zones instead of stages and meaning people can transfer between multiple buses and trains and only pay one fare for their journey rather than how many buses or trains they used. This also had the advantage of reducing fares for many trips.

AT have also started work to integrate ferries into the system.

New Network and Otahuhu Station

The new bus network in South Auckland was another of the big puzzle pieces to slot into place, finally rolling out at the end of October

At the same time as the new bus network, the impressive new Otahuhu Station opened which is a key interchange on the network.

Also tied to the new network, the bus station at Manukau got underway in 2016

Progress on rolling out the new network to other parts of Auckland has progressed too. West Auckland is confirmed to roll out in the middle of next year while AT are currently assessing tenders for Central, East and North.

Double Decker rollout

A big feature of this year has been the roll out of double deckers on many routes. They are now almost exclusively used on Northern Express services and have rolled out to other routes too, such as Mt Eden Rd and the 881 from Albany to Newmarket. In 2017 we should see at least Onewa Rd added to this list.

Government agreement on Strategic PT network

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) was a big feature of the year, especially after the final report was released in September. I’ll talk about that more in a separate post but one particularly good point in relation to PT was that we now have agreement between the government and council on a future rapid transit network. While there are still finer details to be resolved such as exact modes and routes, it’s good to finally have the need for this agreed at a high level.

Ridership

Use of the PT network has seen solid growth over the year and the big star of that has been the Rapid Transit Network (busway and Rail) which has primarily driven that growth. Usage on the RTN in the 12 months to the end of November grew by a staggering 22.2% over the 12 months to November 2015.

As mentioned at the start of the post, the stellar growth on the rail network was one of the reasons the government had to change their position to support the CRL. That growth has continued this year and as of now there will have been over 18 million trips during the last 12 months. This is well ahead of where it needed to be for the silly target the government set in 2013 and that the Ministry of Transport once said it was unlikely we would achieve.

Conclusion

These are of course only some of the big changes and discussions we’ve had over the year and many of them are likely to continue to be discussed over 2017 but on the whole, I think it’s been a pretty good year for PT in Auckland. We’ve definitely made many more steps forward than we have back.

Are there any key changes I’ve missed?

Tomorrow’s wrap up will focus on walking and cycling

ATAP Indicative Projects Costings

In September the Final Report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) was released and we’ve talked about it a lot since then. It focused on strategic recommendations following multiple rounds of modelling of packages of projects and with & without Smarter Pricing. The Final Indicative Package can be seen on the map below, however please note these are indicative and may change as each project goes through the necessary business cases.

ATAP Indicative Interventions

The ATAP report found that in the first decade alone, there’s a $400 million funding gap and while the aggregate costings where available, the estimated cost for each project where not. So, I decided to OIA that very information & thankfully the NZTA were happy to oblige, giving us this information in a very nice format which you can see below.

Please note the projects are indicative and subject to the regular business cases, the costings are preliminary estimates for example the ATAP team did not receive the information regarding updated CRL costings until after the Report had been finalised, the costings are also not inflation adjusted which is why some in the third decade in particular look cheaper than previous estimates you may have seen.

ATAP Projects Estimates

ATAP Project Costs Page 1

ATAP Project Costs Page 2

Rail Development Programme

Rail Development Programme

I wont go into to much regarding the information, as this is best done in a series of follow up posts on ATAP, but some things to note are

  1. A (Road Only) Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing is $3.7b but will be much more with inflation.
  2. They budget $585.3m of level crossing removals.
  3. There is over $4b in state highway widening projects (Does not include East West Link & AWHC), those projects bring it up to over $9B.
  4. $784m to four track Westfield-Papakura.
  5. $503.7m for Isthmus Mass Transit is budgeted in the first decade meaning only $622.5m needs to be accelerated to make it a first decade project.
  6. Mass Transit between Wynyard Quarter – Takapuna is budgeted at $1.8b.

What do you think of the costs and what stands out to you?

AA’s ATAP Funding Survey

The AA have released the results of a survey of their members about how to pay Auckland’s future transport needs, and we agree with their position.

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) looked at Auckland’s future transport needs and found that for the first decade alone, around $23.7 billion is needed but that based on current trends and assumptions, only $19.8 billion would be spent. That’s a shortfall of about $400 million per year. Even more would need to be spent in each of the following two decades the project assessed.

In the long term, road pricing will likely be a useful tool to both manage demand and to raise revenue to help pay for transport but it is expected that could take a decade or more to develop. As such we’ll need to do something in the interim. The ATAP report suggests that additional funding could be provided either by increasing the amount available from current sources, such as the government investing more, or from new funding tools. The report also has this recommendation on funding.

We recommend the Government and Auckland Council work together to consider options and agree on an approach to address the funding gap by mid-2017, to inform statutory funding documents.

But in all the discussions about funding, there’s been a small bit of fine print that is often missed, it has been assumed the current Interim Transport Levy would stop like intended in mid-2018.

That brings us back to the AA and their survey which has looked at their members thoughts on the outcome of ATAP and on funding options. They sent the survey to 20,000 Auckland members and had 1091 responses, the demographic breakdown of which is below. As you can see responses mainly came from older members but this may reflect the AA’s membership being older. Also, it doesn’t appear that the age breakdowns add up to 100%.

aa-atap-funding-survey-demographics

When asked how they feel about Auckland’s current transport system in its ability to meet Auckland’s needs, 61% said it was terrible (20%) or poor (41%). Just 7% said it was good or fantastic. That result isn’t all too surprising though as most people tend to think things could always be better.

They then asked for respondents thoughts based on this map. What’s notable about it is that it only shows the first decade projects, which is fair enough as the full map is quite confusing but also because many of the big road projects in ATAP are front loaded into the first decade while many of the key PT projects are in the second and third decade. See if you can spot the error with the map.

aa-atap-funding-survey-project-map-2

Asked for their thoughts on this plan and 37% said it looked good or fantastic while 42% said it looked ok. That’s a lot better but not great and it would be interesting to see how people would react and what they would want prioritised if they saw proposed strategic PT network.

The survey then asked about how to close the funding gap with the following options

  1. Delay or cancel some of the projects
  2. ‘Find’ the money by reprioritising expenditure
  3. Raise more money from Aucklanders/all New Zealanders

A slight majority (53%) thought Option 1 should be, or would be open to it being part of the overall solution.

Those two measures soared to 69% when asked about option 2. The AA say they asked respondents what portion of funding should Auckland get from the Government with the median response being 40%. This was also after explaining the size of Auckland’s population, GDP, vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) and the expected size of the coming population growth

aa-atap-funding-survey-funding-options

The third option of just raising more money was also positively supported with 58% saying yes or maybe to it. But the AA drilled deeper on this question, asking for options on another three options:

  1. Auckland property rates increase (if you rent, assume an equivalent increase in your rent)
  2. a regional fuel tax
  3. a motorway user toll

For option 1, 69% said they were opposed and of those that were prepared to pay more via rates, the median amount they’d be willing to contribute was $100.

Option 2 was better supported with 51% saying yes or maybe to the idea of a fuel tax with just 5c per litre being the amount respondents were prepared to look at paying.

The trend continued with Option 3 and 61% said yes or maybe to the idea of motorway tolling. This is interesting as ATAP talks about road pricing across the entire road network, not just a motorway toll. Even so, AA say the median amount people were prepared was $2 per trip. That motorway tolling came out on top suggests attitudes towards the idea are rapidly changing over this issue rapidly, all the more reason to get on with it.

Next the AA asked for thoughts on the Council’s Interim Transport Levy which was brought in as a way to bolster transport funding. As mentioned, the levy was only ever meant to be a temporary 3-year fund but as I suggested the other day, it seems a bit silly to replace it given we still need to find an extra $400 million a year and the levy would help in making a nice dent in that figure. It seems the survey members mostly agree and 67% said they’d be comfortable without grudgingly accept keeping it.

Lastly, they asked about selling assets and as you can see below, this was much more of a mixed bag.

aa-atap-funding-survey-assett-sales

All up some fairly interesting and useful results, particularly as it feels like the support for road pricing has been increasing over the last few years.

The AA, like us feel that the interim transport levy should be retained. It’s in place now and has a comparatively high level of support compared to some of the other options.

Mr Irvine says the beauty of continuing the transport levy is that, without changing anything, we would generate about $175 million of investment each year.

“That’s a big chunk of Auckland’s share of the funding gap, and we want Council to have a good look at what other options exist to make up the rest.”

What do you think of the AA’s survey and the results from it?

Funding Strategic Transport

With the release of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) it once again got me thinking about a funding anomaly in our transport system, the Rapid Transit Network (RTN), or the Proposed Future Strategic Public Transport Network as ATAP calls it.

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

The general way in which we fund transport in New Zealand hasn’t changed for decades, if not close to a century. State Highways are fully funded by central government while local roads and public transport (except rail infrastructure) are funded roughly 50% by central government with the other half coming from local governments (by way of rates) – there are a few exceptions that sit outside of this but by in large it hasn’t changed.

One of the reasons for State highways being fully funded is that they are considered a strategic network. They’re the key roads linking regions, cities and towns together throughout the country. Within cities like Auckland they, primarily in the form of the motorways, do the same thing but also link disparate parts of the city. Here’s what the NZTA say about them:

The state highway network provides a strategic roading link between districts and regions. State highways help to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people and goods throughout the entire length and breadth of the country. They link main centres of population to industrial hubs and tourism destinations. State highways also play an important role in delivering public transport solutions. In our planning, we work to build connections with local networks and maintain the functioning of the state highway.

As mentioned above, ATAP has described future strategic PT network to go along with a strategic road network. This is important as it’s a recognition that high quality PT has a key role to play in Auckland’s future. Here’s what ATAP says about them both:

Auckland’s strategic road, rail and public transport networks are the most critical elements of the city’s transport system. It is essential to maintain and develop strong, safe and resilient strategic networks that can cope with increased demand.

Further information in ATAP describes these strategic networks as the “Backbone”, linking major locations and providing for highest volumes of movement. Here is the proposed future strategic road network. Most of the Tier 1 routes are already state highways or proposed to be them (East West Link) with the biggest exception being Te Irirangi Dr and Ti Rakau Dr.

atap-future-strategic-road-network

According to the NZTA as of 2015, across the country state highways make up just 11.5% of all roads (12.7% by the number of lane km) but in Auckland this is just 3.9% of roads (6.6% by lane km). Yet these roads are responsible for a large portion of traffic with as much as 48.5% of all vehicle km travelled estimated to be on state highways. These figures are shown below.

2014-road-lengths

Because of their strategic status, state highways also get a lot of funding. In the current 3-year National Land Transport Programme (NLTP), across New Zealand state highways are allocated $4.2 billion for improvements and another $1.7 billion for maintenance. By comparison just $465 million is allocated for improving local roads, $1.7b for maintenance of local roads while public transport gets $1 billion, mainly for services – and around half of these figures are paid for by local rates.

A big question going forward is how we’re going to pay to develop that strategic PT network. One fear I have is that the deal for City Rail Link, where the council and government share the costs 50:50, has set a precedent in how we fund the rest of the PT network. Auckland needing to fund 50% of all PT, regardless of how important or valuable it is, while even every minor state highway project gets 100% funding will continue to lead to even more perverse outcomes than we already have.

So, given both the strategic road and PT networks are serving essentially the same purpose, why shouldn’t they be funding the same? Why should it matter what mode is being built if it’s considered a strategic network?

I feel this is going to become a greater and greater issue, especially with the upcoming completion of the Western Ring Route. Once Waterview early next year is completed we will have all the key inter-regional links in place. From that point out any motorway projects within the urban area are just about increasing capacity for local movements.

Ultimately, I think a wider funding discussion is needed. ATAP doesn’t break down the costs of developing transport too much but does suggest that over all modes there is a funding gap of up to $400 million annually. There will obviously be a lot of future discussion about how to close that gap and those discussions could go on for many, many years. In the interim perhaps it’s time for the government and council to rethink how funding is structured. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • The strategic PT network is treated the same as the strategic road network and funded 100% from the NZTA out of the NLTP, this includes rail infrastructure which is funded directly by the government.
  • Perhaps combined with 100% funding, the development of the strategic PT network is handed over to the NZTA
  • Another option could be that Auckland is given bulk funding for transport and Auckland Transport’s role expanded to including the development and maintenance of the local state highway network and local rail network. This would allow all transport projects in the region to be assessed, prioritised and funded under the same conditions.

What do you think, should strategic PT corridors be funded the same as their corresponding road networks and how would you do it?

Voting for Transit

While much of the world is in a state of disbelief over the result of the US election, there was some positive news to come out of it too. In many areas a range of transit projects/initiatives were also ballot. In total, there were 48 local or statewide measures and 33 (69%) passed, even though many required increases in taxes to pay for them and some required 2/3rds of voter support. The Transport Politic has a list of many of them and their outcomes while CityLab highlights three of the biggest.

Los Angeles 

With nearly 70 percent voting yes on Measure M, Los Angeles County is set to see a dramatic transit transformation over the coming decades with a permanent half-cent sales tax hike. The plan will rake in some $121 billion for proposed and ongoing projects such as a rail connection to LAX and a subway tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass. Long-disconnected neighborhoods in the region’s southeastern reaches are also slated for rail and bus-rapid transit connections. The tax increase will also pay for badly needed sidewalk upkeep, pothole repairs, new bike lanes, and bike-share stations, as well as a clutch of greenways.

los-angeles-metrorail-comparison

Image from LA Curbed

Seattle

Also clearing the ballot box was Sound Transit 3, an ambitious light-rail jump-start that promises to become one of the largest transit projects in American history. The plan is to more than double the Seattle region’s light rail system, with 62 miles of new track and 37 stations built over 25 years. It will also install three BRT lines and a chain of park-and-ride stations across urban Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties by 2041. The plan, which would be paid for by sustained increases in sales, motor vehicle, and property taxes (to the estimated tune of $169 per adult per year), is slated put the area’s rail system in the same weight class as San Francisco’s and Washington, D.C.’s, as the Ringer recently reported.

seattle-st3-map

Seattle ST3 plan

Atlanta

Atlanta voters overwhelmingly passed a .4 percent sales tax increase that would raise $300 million over five years for transportation improvements, with projects including the completion of the city’s BeltLine loop of green trails, 15 “complete streets” projects, a bike-share scale-up, and significant sidewalk improvements. Meanwhile, a separate half-penny sales tax increase will generate $2.5 billion over the next 40 years, allowing the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to make “major investments in transit infrastructure, including introducing high-capacity rail improvements, building new infill rail stations within the city, purchasing new buses, adding more frequent service, and introducing new bus routes,” according to the city.

The high capacity rail improvements includes extensions their existing heavy rail network and 7 light rail routes.

 

The downside for many of the measures is they are also dependent on federal funding and with the Republicans hostile towards transit investment, they ultimately may not ever happen.

All of this got me thinking about what the outcome would be if Aucklanders got to vote directly on transport plans. It could be argued that we already vote on transport but we only do so indirectly. In central government elections transport is normally considered just a minor issue behind the likes of health, education, the economy and welfare, even though transport can influence outcomes from each of those areas. Transport is much more of a local issue and while it usually garners a much larger mindshare than at a national level, it is also competing against other topics too, such as rates and housing.

In the end, voting at both central and local level is very indirect. For example, Phil Goff stood on a platform of light rail down Dominion Rd but just because he’s been elected it doesn’t mean it will ever actually happen as the project is captive to a plethora of political and technical hurdles. How would voters in Auckland respond if they had a more direct say on transport plans in Auckland.

The recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) is a big step in getting the government and council in alignment on transport in Auckland but it takes very much a “the experts know best” approach that relies heavily on transport modelling. It was the antithesis of the public having a say. The ATAP modelling relies heavily on assumptions, value judgements and historical trends, and it has been frequently made clear that the outputs are incredibly flawed. That ATAP ended up proposing some substantial transit investment, albeit it not soon enough in my view, is more a reflection of how out of balance our transport system already is than the process working.

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

Perhaps one of the issues with ATAP, and many other transport plans, is that they start from the wrong place. They are treated as a technical solution to a technical problem rather than first working out and agreeing what the vision is for how we want our city to look and feel and then working back from there. This can include deliberately ignoring plans that have already done the work of deciding the vision element. In ATAP the word vision isn’t mentioned once and the only mention of the council’s 30-year vision, the ‘Auckland Plan’, is that the council will need to update it with the outcome of ATAP. I think this happens as vision is a harder thing to define and measure than technical aspects. Added to that I suspect many of the bureaucrats either don’t have a vision or are too scared to be seen as imposing one

This is something that happens at many levels and is the same kind of thinking that leads to stupid ideas such as trying to squeeze up footpaths and the CRL entrance on Victoria St that will be used by 10’s of thousands of people every day, just so that an extra traffic lane can be added. This of course completely ignores the agreed vision for the city centre.

I’m not quite sure how you’d do it but what outcome would ATAP have delivered if the wider public had a greater say in the vision they want for Auckland or even just on some of the value judgement made by officials.

As we know from ATAP, Auckland has a transport funding shortfall of around $400 million annually. While some of that might disappear if the value judgements were different, a lot of it would still be needed, even if for a different set of projects. The public having a say on whether they agree with the proposed plan and how to pay for it might be a good idea if nothing else than to build confidence that the plan is right. The only thing though is it would need to be about the entire transport plan, not just raising money just to pay for transit while road spending goes unquestioned – like in many of those ballots in the US.

Should we spend more on infrastructure… or less?

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) report, which was released last week, identified the need to spend more money on transport infrastructure in Auckland. ATAP estimates that we need to spend $24 billion on new transport infrastructure over the next decade, around $4 billion of which would not be funded by current transport budgets.

While $4 billion is a sizeable gap, it’s smaller than previously assumed, due in part to ATAP’s recommendation to defer costly projects like the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing. But meeting it will mean raising fuel taxes, fares, rates, general taxes, or implementing congestion pricing to manage demands until funding is available.

ATAP’s obviously identified a need to spend more money on transport infrastructure in the Auckland context. But is spending more money on infrastructure in general a good idea? In other words, should any additional spending in Auckland be balanced by proportionately higher spending everywhere else in the country?

Two prominent American economists, Larry Summers and Ed Glaeser, recently took contrasting views on this question. Summers is most well-known as a policy advisor to Democratic administrations and (in recent years) an advocate of fiscal policy as a cure for long post-GFC recession. Glaeser, on the other hand, is best known for his work on urban economics, including his great book Triumph of the City.

Summers lays out the case for spending more (in the Financial Times). His key argument is that low interest rates signal an underemployed economy where the “opportunity cost” of paying people to build more stuff is relatively low, and that infrastructure spending is a good way to do this as it can enhance a country’s long-run productive potential:

There is a consensus that the US should substantially raise its level of infrastructure investment. Economists and politicians of all persuasions recognise that this can create quality jobs and provide economic stimulus without posing the risks of easy-money policies in the short run. They also see that such investment can expand the economy’s capacity in the medium term and mitigate the huge maintenance burden we would otherwise pass on to the next generation.

The case for infrastructure investment has been strong for a long time, but it gets stronger with each passing year, as government borrowing costs decline and ongoing neglect raises the return on incremental spending increases. As it becomes clearer that growth will not return to pre-financial-crisis levels on its own, the urgency of policy action rises. Just as the infrastructure failure at Chernobyl was a sign of malaise in the Soviet Union’s last years, profound questions about America’s future are raised by collapsing bridges, children losing IQ points because of lead in water and an air traffic control system that does not use GPS technology.

In particular, Summers argues that priority should be placed on funding deferred maintenance, which is a major problem in the US:

What is the highest priority? The fastest, highest and safest returns are likely to be found where maintenance has been deferred. Maintenance outlays do not require extensive planning or regulatory approvals, so they can take place quickly. And they tend naturally to take place in areas where infrastructure is most heavily used.

Glaeser sets out a considerably more skeptical perspective in the City Journal. Contra Summers, he argues that infrastructure spending isn’t a particularly efficient way of getting unemployed people back to work, and that the political incentives facing decision-makers tend to mean that additional funding is misspent in declining areas like Detroit or on projects that don’t do much good:

While infrastructure investment is often needed when cities or regions are already expanding, too often it goes to declining areas that don’t require it and winds up having little long-term economic benefit. As for fighting recessions, which require rapid response, it’s dauntingly hard in today’s regulatory environment to get infrastructure projects under way quickly and wisely. Centralized federal tax funding of these projects makes inefficiencies and waste even likelier, as Washington, driven by political calculations, gives the green light to bridges to nowhere, ill-considered high-speed rail projects, and other boondoggles. America needs an infrastructure renaissance, but we won’t get it by the federal government simply writing big checks. A far better model would be for infrastructure to be managed by independent but focused local public and private entities and funded primarily by user fees, not federal tax dollars.

Glaeser takes more specific aim at the notion that infrastructure investment inevitably generates broader economic returns:

Infrastructure spending is a form of investment: just as building a new factory can boost productivity, laying down a new highway or opening a new airport runway can, at least in principle, generate future economic returns. But the relevant question is: How do those future returns compare with the costs? Just because infrastructure is a form of capital doesn’t mean that spending a lot on it is always smart. When a firm estimates the rate of return for a new factory, it can calculate the expected net profits and compare those with the expense. The analog for, say, new or improved roads is to estimate the benefits to users from reduced travel times, add the likely modest spillover benefits to nonusers, and then subtract the spending needed to construct and maintain the infrastructure. The results can differ significantly across projects. A well-known 1988 Congressional Budget Office survey found that spending to maintain current highways in good shape produces returns of 30 percent to 40 percent—but that new highway construction in rural areas showed a much lower return. A clever study that used firm inventories estimated that the rate of return to new highways was sizable during the 1970s but sank below 5 percent during the 1980s and 1990s.

[…]

The existence of plausible transportation alternatives and the law of diminishing returns have also tended to reduce the benefits of infrastructure investment over the past two centuries. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1821 brought enormous value because the inland transportation options at the time were dismal. In the early nineteenth century, it cost as much to ship goods 30 miles over land as to send them across the entire Atlantic Ocean. Yet the very existence of canals, as much of a breakthrough as they represented, reduced the benefits of the later rail system, as Nobel economist Robert Fogel has shown. The returns for new transportation infrastructure in places with terrible roads, such as much of Africa and India, will be much higher than in the United States, which already enjoys an impressive, if under-maintained, array of mobility options.

While Summers and Glaeser take different views on the value of spending more money on infrastructure, there are some important points of agreement, such as:

  • Prioritising maintenance spending to replace or upgrade run-down infrastructure
  • Better cost benefit analysis to ensure that money is being spent in more beneficial ways
  • Where appropriate, funding new infrastructure more from user charges and fees, rather than general taxes.

Lastly, it’s worth asking whether these issues look different in New Zealand than in the United States. I don’t have a complete answer to this, but in previous posts I have looked at the issue of infrastructure spending from a variety of perspectives. For instance, I’ve asked:

On balance, I’d say that those posts present a moderately skeptical view of the case for significantly ramping up transport investment – ie more in line with Glaeser’s view than Summers’. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend a bit more, but any additional spending should be backed by robust analysis.

What do you think about infrastructure spending? More or less?

ATAP: The right answers to the wrong questions

So the long-awaited final report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) was released yesterday. This is the third “deliverable” from the project, building on the “Foundation Report” in February and the “Interim Report” in June. The Final Report isn’t dramatically different from what was reported in June, although there’s a lot more detail – particularly around the timing of major projects. I’ll get onto that soon. First if you want to watch the announcement from Transport Minister Simon Bridges and Mayor Len Brown you can do so below thanks to Auckland Transport filming it.

Overall, ATAP appears to have landed at a pretty sensible overall strategy for Auckland’s transport system over the next 30 years and see’s the government agree to something fairly close to the council’s Auckland Plan. For example, the report highlights:

  • We can’t build out of way of congestion
  • A major expansion of the “strategic public transport network” is required
  • Auckland’s motorway network is basically now finished (and also that scope for further widening seems quite limited)
  • The Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing really isn’t needed for a long time
  • We need to move to a comprehensive, better pricing system – which ATAP calls “smarter transport pricing”. It suggests it could take a decade to work though the details before it became a reality.

Here’s the strategic approach in a nutshell, it seems very similar to what we’ve seen in existing Auckland plans:

atap-strategic-approach

Of particular interest is, of course, the timing of projects – especially what’s “brought forward” into being a first decade priority. The first decade is the key as it’s difficult to project what will happen much more than that – something the report acknowledges. The major projects are summarised in the table and map below:

project-timingatap-major-transport-projects-by-decade-map

There are a few interesting things in here:

  • Northwestern Busway – a project we’ve long been calling for and should have been included as part of the current SH16 works – has been brought forward into the first decade. Remember this was a third decade project in the Auckland Plan.
  • With the exception of some improvements to the existing rail network, there seems to have been an allergic reaction to the term rail for any new lines. Instead the report uses the phrase Mass Transit instead.
  • There seems to have been a compromise on isthmus light-rail, with it now being a second decade priority. On the positive side, this project wasn’t officially in any of the plans before ATAP.
  • The Early Rail Development Plan priorities include Pukekohe electrification and a third-main between Westfield and Wiri. I wonder if this means government is agreeing to fully fund these?
  • A “mass transit” upgrade of the Northern Busway is now officially in the plans as a longer-term priority. Presumably this means to some sort of rail in the future.
  • The Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing project is not seen as required before the third decade (around 2040). Given that NZTA had previously been talking about it needing to be in place by 2030, this is quite a major shift.

The major projects shown above are only those on the ‘strategic networks’ and there are a lot of smaller projects that sit below that. The strategic networks have also been shown in a schematic form too.

The road version shows that while map above looks busy, there’s not a heap of new major roads on the horizon. The black arterial roads should also be AT’s basis for a bus lane network map.

atap-future-strategic-road-network

By comparison the strategic PT network shows that a lot of development is needed – and the government has agreed with this, also does it look familiar?

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

 

I’m sure we’ll have plenty more posts to come on the details of ATAP as we sift through them over the coming days. But what’s perhaps most interesting is how ATAP has landed at a reasonably good overall approach, even though it seems to have come at the issue from a pretty “old school” predict and provide approach. Firstly, the project objectives are very focused around congestion – even though we know that higher or lower levels of congestion are a pretty poor indicator of whether a city is succeeding or failing. Secondly, the analysis (which is described in much more detail in the “Supporting Information” report) is very demand-led, predict and provide. It is the result of a massive reliance on transport modelling that we know has traditionally not done well, especially in the face of transformative change that projects like Britomart, rail electrification and the Northern Busway.

We would have preferred to see a strategic, top-down, outcomes focused approach that focused on the jobs we might want different parts of the transport system to do. I guess the challenge with this approach is that it would have required all of those involved to actually agree to a vision for the city.

Despite this, ATAP has still landed in broadly the right place – which in a way makes it even stronger. Even if your focus is very old-school, predict and provide etc. the evidence shows that the best solution for Auckland is a major expansion of the public transport network and a shift to managing demand. Of course ATAP isn’t perfect:

  • There are a lot of major roading projects in there which seem unnecessary if you were to bring in smarter pricing, something the report even acknowledges in this section about the potential impact of autonomous vehicles

This could present opportunities to defer or avoid future investment in additional road capacity

  • Some of what’s said about arterial roads is quite worrying as there’s a really strong push for those to have more of a movement focus when many of these are also places where we want a lot of development to occur – a balance between place and movement is required
  • I think some major public transport projects will probably need to be brought forward – if for nothing else, to respond to massive demand

One thing you may have noticed is missing from the report is active modes. This is in part because our transport models are hopeless on active modes and because “the views of central and local government are already well aligned on the priorities and likely level of future funding”. Hopefully that means more initiatives like the Urban Cycleway Fund are expected.

Overall it’s a pretty big step in the right direction, especially in terms of having something the government has signed up to. At the briefing yesterday the representatives from the business and infrastructure lobbies were fairly dismayed at the outcome of the report, perhaps a sign it’s on the right track. They want to more built sooner but have also separately said they don’t want to pay more rates to enable that.

The next challenge is of course how we fund it. ATAP estimates that over the next decade we’ll need to spend $24 billion but based on current budget trends, that will leave a $4 billion funding gap (mostly in the later part of the decade). With leading mayoral candidates promising to cap rate increases, it will make for an interesting few years while this issue is addressed.

ATAP

Full post is to come tomorrow morning – just a few links and key diagrams for now.

The Final Report – Recommended Strategic Approach

Supporting Information

Questions and Answers

The “indicative package”:

project-map