We’ve discussed Warkworth’s notorious Hill St intersection previously, but it seems timely to revisit again with the Board of Inquiry underway on the Puhoi – Warkworth toll road and NZTA’s recent press release on the subject:
The NZ Transport Agency says its priority to improve traffic flows in the Warkworth area is to first construct a new highway between Puhoi and Warkworth before it upgrades the community’s Hill Street intersection.
“I acknowledge that many in the community want Hill Street upgraded as soon as possible, but it is important that we have a reliable alternative route in place first for people before we tackle Hill Street,” says the Transport Agency’s State Highway Manager, Tommy Parker.
Mr Parker says upgrading the intersection and the state highway and five local roads that feed into it will be a complex task that will take some time to complete.
“There’s not a lot of room at the intersection and we will need to keep all those roads open during the upgrade. We estimate construction could take two summers to complete and that will mean considerable disruption for everyone – children from the nearby school, residents, local businesses and road users.
“Upgrading Hill Street, either in isolation or ahead of the new highway, will not provide substantial relief from congestion. It makes sense to construct the highway first to help us manage the disruption from that work and divert traffic away from the intersection.”
Before analysing NZTA’s announcement in more detail, here is a map of the current intersection:
And the GIS view:
As you can imagine, the intersection turns into a real bottleneck at peak times, particularly in the summer months.
Traffic from Warkworth village heading to Matakana must turn right at a give way sign, across a lane of queued traffic, giving way to traffic from a number of directions concurrently. Traffic queues across the intersection can often block other traffic movements in other directions. In summary, it is a real mess.
Further down in their press release, NZTA mention a couple of other projects:
Mr Parker says the Transport Agency is working with Auckland Transport – Auckland Council’s transport body – to progress other options including the Matakana Link, which will connect with the new highway and bypass Hill Street to the region’s eastern beaches, the Western Collector in the town and the SH1/McKinney Road intersection south of the township.
Firstly, looking at the Western Collector:
This is an AT sponsored project which is a complete bypass around Hill Street and central Warkworth. It starts at opposite McKinney Road in the south and ends at Hudson Road north of Hill Street. Anyone heading to or from the north on the existing SH1 will certainly use this, reducing pressure on Hill St. A number of intersections that make up the bypass have already been completed, but I can’t find any information via Google on when the missing links will be completed. It is supposed to happen before the Puhoi – Warkworth toll road, however.
Secondly, the Matakana Link is mentioned, crudely highlighted in blue on the map below. At this stage this is unfunded and does not form part of the Puhoi – Warkworth toll road project. However, without it the toll road will be useless for people wanting to travel to or from the Matakana area.
As currently scoped, the toll road will join 1.8 km north of the Hill Street intersection. Anyone travelling to Matakana on the new toll road will have to cover an extra 3 km at least to get to Hill Street, compared to using the existing SH1.
So are NZTA right in delaying Hill Street by at least another 10 years? On the one hand, the scale of any new intersection could be reduced because of the Western Collector and the possibility of the Matakana link.
On the other hand, for Warkworth residents this is a long time to wait, so why not start now? Remember also that Warkworth residents won’t directly benefit from the new toll road either, as the fastest route south will still be the existing SH1, so they seem to be getting a rough deal from the announcement.
A few questions:
Does this motorway really need to be extended all the way to Warkworth?
Does anyone ever drive at the speed limit on this stretch of motorway?
Photo is credited to oh.yes.melbourne
Right on queue we get a full page spread from the Herald about traffic queues.
Wet weather, a serious crash and the post-Christmas rush combined to bring bumper-to-bumper congestion on long sections of highways and travel misery to holidaymakers.
Police described some traffic as a “rolling carpark” and urged calm as queues of up to 20km yesterday greeted motorists escaping Auckland, in the holiday hot-spot of the Coromandel Peninsula and north of Wellington.
Highways north and south of Auckland were crowded as thousands left the city for their New Year holiday.
Auckland Arts Festival Trust chairwoman Victoria Carter was among those caught driving north. A frequent user of the road, she said she had never known the queue to Warkworth to be as long.
“We got to the (Johnstones Hill) tunnel at 11am and there was a queue coming out of the tunnel as we arrived at it and we were hoping it was not the queue for Warkworth … and it was.
“We crawled to Warkworth at an average speed of 15-20km/h … It looks like the congestion stemmed from the traffic lights in Warkworth.”
Transport Agency spokesman Anthony Frith said a 20km northbound queue formed on State Highway 1 to Warkworth from 10am.
Last month, the Government approved a fast-track consent process for a $760 million extension of the Northern Motorway to Warkworth.
The Transport Agency has not set a start date for the 18.5km four-lane extension from the Johnstones Hill tunnels, but construction is expected to start between 2015 and 2019 and end between 2020 and 2025.
The traffic lights at at Warkworth are definitely a problem need to be addressed but that doesn’t mean it needs a full offline motorway to do it. The most prudent thing to do would be to build the bypass part of the project first by way of a small section of road from the existing SH1 to the P2W route as shown below. An additional small section of road to link where the bypass joins back to SH1 across to Matakana Rd would eliminate almost all through traffic out of Warkworth.
After those two pieces of work have been completed, we could then see just what impact they would have on traffic patterns and congestion and allow us to see if a full motorway connection between Puhoi and Warkworth is really needed. If that motorway still stacks up (which I doubt it would) then very little has been lost as only the blue section in the map above (about 1.3km) would have been surplus to requirements. However depending on how it was designed, that blue link could eventually be used as a link to another interchange which would mean the project would actually be of some benefit to locals as what is currently proposed would actually be longer for locals to use than the existing road.
I’m almost certain the only reason this isn’t being pursued is that those in support of the project know it would kill what little justification there is for the rest of the project.
BTW – to someone who has a physical copy of the paper, what’s that rubbish in the top right corner with flying cars. If there were about to come on stream then wouldn’t that kill the need for many of the upgrades even more?
We know that Auckland’s transport plans are completely unaffordable, a more interesting question is “why?” Much of the answer to that questions comes from what I refer to as “overkill”. Essentially, a solution that’s vastly oversized compared to the problem it’s trying to solve. There are a large number of examples of “overkill” when it comes to transport projects currently being planned:
- The East West Link is perhaps the most obvious example, where somehow a bit of congestion around a couple of intersections at each end of Neilson Street somehow led to NZTA and AT proposing a gigantic and enormously destructive motorway through one of the most densely populated and deprived parts of Auckland. Yeah there are certainly some transport problems in the area but the jump to a huge motorway solution is a classic example of overkill.
- The proposed motorway to motorway connection between SH1 and SH18 at Constellation Drive. The problem here appears to be a pinch point northbound on SH1 between SH18 and Greville Road and constraints around the interchanges themselves. Yet again the solution is to jump to a gigantic motorway-to-motorway mini-spaghetti junction that likely to cost upwards of half a billion dollars. What about just adding another lane northbound, extending the Northern Busway to Albany and then seeing whether anything else is actually necessary?
- Puhoi-Wellsford is another classic example of overkill. Yes there are congestion problems around Warkworth, yes there are major safety issues in the Dome Valley and at specific points south of Warkworth, but it’s quite a jump to suggest the only solution to those problems is a massive new motorway that’ll cost close to $2 billion. Operation Lifesaver highlights how most of the benefits from the motorway can be achieved at a fraction of the cost by truly focusing on the problem at hand.
- The recently proposed Lincoln Road widening project once again responds to legitimate problems like a lack of priority for buses, localised congestion and safety issues. Yet the respond is again overblown – massively wide intersections, slip lanes everywhere, extra lanes all over the place etc. The outcome is not just an overly expensive project, but a corridor that gets wider and wider – further degrading the urban form around it.
- Penlink is a massive project to satisfy locals when the real problem is further north at Silverdale and can be solved with other smaller alternatives.
It seems like good transport planning should flush out what projects are overkill and what projects aren’t. An interesting comparison against the above projects is the process that the City Rail Link has gone through over the past few years – especially in the form of the City Centre Future Access Study, which looked in detail at a range of “smaller options” for resolving issues with access to the city centre – outlining which of these would be necessary anyway, which could occur prior to CRL being built but also the point at which the ‘small scale’ interventions need to become so significant you might as well do the job properly – in this case by building CRL.
Throughout the ITP there are a vast number of projects which are obviously “overkill”. Examples include $665m on Albany Highway (surely a typo?), around $800m on a section of Great South Road, a $150m motorway bypass of Kumeu, the $240m Mill Road corridor project and many others. Strip back these overkill projects so they really focus on the problems they’re designed to resolve and we’ve probably gone a long way towards solving our future funding shortfalls.
I realise it might seem like fairly late notice however if you intend to make a submission about Puhoi to Warkworth then you only have a few days left as submissions close at 5pm on Friday. The details for how to make a submission are on the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) website while the detailed documents from the NZTA to support the proposal can be found here.
This video shows the route being proposed.
I haven’t yet put together my submission (that will be a task for the next few days) however with this post I’m going to highlight some of the areas I will be focussing on.
Like so many other projects that are going on at the moment, I do agree that some improvements need to be made to the route between Puhoi and Warkworth however I disagree with the scale of the solution. There seems to be a prevailing attitude from the government and transport agencies that if we’re going to build something, then instead of small and targeted upgrades we should just bite the bullet and build the long term solution that we might not 30 years. It may sound like a good idea to effectively “build once” but the downside is it sucks up transport funding for other projects that might provide a better return on investment, even if just in the short term.
There is some evidence of this when we compare some of the information in the executive summary with some older reports/studies of the project. This part is from the executive summary although I have cut out a section between the two paragraphs:
Over the decade to 2012, the NZTA carried out a series of studies on the State highway network connecting the Auckland and Northland regions. These studies considered the role of the State highway network in relation to the wider transport system between Auckland and Northland.
The studies concluded that an off-line four-lane motorway alternative to the existing SH1 will achieve the strategic objectives of supporting economic development in northland, will address transport constraints imposed by the existing alignment of SH1, and will address traffic congestion and safety issues on SH1 .
While it is true that the previous studies had recommended an offline motorway as the best long term option, they also said that the only part worth doing was a bypass around Warkworth. Other sections of the road from Puhoi to Warkworth were expensive and provided little economic benefit as it was considered that there was little opportunity for substantial economic growth in Northland. In other words while a motorway might be the ideal situation, it doesn’t make sense. Of course that all changed after the current government were elected in 2008 and quickly declared the route a road of national significance.
Some people may think that this part is not that important – at least for the consenting process which is mainly about how to mitigate the negative impacts caused by the construction and operation of this road. However I think it is critically important. If we don’t need to build the road at all then we can not only save ourselves a huge amount of money that can go towards upgrades to the existing route and other projects, but we can avoid completely damaging the environment where the new road will go through.
And those environmental impacts are going to be huge with massive amounts of earthworks needed to get the route to motorway standard. To give you an idea of the amount of change to the landscape that is proposed, there will be some embankments up to 46.5m high and some cuts into hills up to 45.8m deep. In total over 8 million m³ of fill will be needed, that’s 6-7 times what is being taken out of Waterview. In addition there are 7 major viaducts, 5 bridges with the highest being 46m high – that’s similar in height to driving over the Harbour Bridge.
Now it might be possible to mitigate the impacts of building and operating the road however the big issue is the cost of doing so. As a result of what is already proposed the project is expected to cost $760 million which means the road needs to deliver a lot of benefits to be viable and that is where things start to get shaky. As mentioned previous economic assessment ranked everything but a bypass of Warkworth uneconomic. There isn’t a whole lot of information about the current business case with the only economic information talking about the high level economic effects of the project. The NZTA should be releasing the full business case for this project, not just an 8 page letter.
Of course many of the economic benefits are meant to accrue to the users of the road through travels savings along with safety improvements. The traffic assessment report provides information about this but the thing that catches me is that all through the report it comments that the project is primarily an issue during holiday times while that at other times of the year the road is relatively free.
And shortly after
To sum all of that up, the problems on the road that cause congestion happen during the summer months when heaps of people are going away on holiday to the beaches primarily to the east of Warkworth. The rest of the time it handles less traffic than many single lane arterials in Auckland. Spending hundreds of millions (latest estimate I saw was $760m) just so that some people going on holiday can get to their baches a few minutes quicker hardly seems like a good use our money.
I think a really useful outcome from this process would be to get a fully independent assessment of the transport and economic reports, much like we saw come out recently about the Basin Bridge. If you are going to submit then perhaps consider adding that to your submission.
Lastly if you are an expert in any of the fields that want to help with a submission then please let me know.
In the comments, “Handlebars Matt” provided a link to this video about how nobody is using Portugal’s motorway system – which was built at vast cost over the past decade:
I often fear that this is the future for many of the Roads of National Significance that are either under construction or due to begin construction in the next few years. Particular candidates for incredibly low levels of use seem to be:
- Puhoi-Warkworth. Due to the new road not being much faster than what’s currently there, the Puhoi ramps providing a link between the existing Northern Gateway Road (which does provide a significant time saving) and the existing SH1 likely to be faster and cheaper for most people compared to a toll road that doesn’t even connect well to Warkworth and requires people to double back through the messy Hill Street intersection to get to the eastern beaches.
- Tauranga Eastern Link. We all know the history of toll roads in Tauranga and I struggle to see how this won’t be another empty toll road offering drivers little incentive to use it rather than the existing route.
- Hamilton bypass. Current projections only see 7,000 vehicles using a section of this $890 million section of the Waikato Expressway by 2021. This route seems unlikely to be tolled but will still be something of a “ghost road” even if the notoriously optimistic projections are correct.
The same might be true of many parts of the Wellington RoNS, although if they are “successful” and attract traffic the main impact will be worse congestion in downtown Wellington and reduced use of the railway line.
A shame we won’t be able to learn from Portugal until many billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.
“At the margin” is one of my favourite economic expressions.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how the City Rail Link (CRL) affects the financial performance of Auckland’s rail network “at the margin”.
- What is the impact of the CRL on patronage?
- What is the impact of the CRL on fare revenue?
- What is the impact of the CRL on rail operating costs?
- What is the impact of the CRL on cost recovery?
Now I don’t want to send the wrong message: Financial performance is not as important as economic performance.
But financial performance is important to some degree; as it defines how a given project impacts on the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF). And where a project’s operating costs exceed its revenues, then it will require on-going operating subsidies.
By extension investing in projects now that require on-going subsidies will reduce our ability to fund future projects. So if we invest in transport projects that require large on-going operating subsidies, then we are effectively making a decision to reduce the funding that is available to fund other projects in the future.
That’s why I think financial impacts are important.
It’s interesting how quickly political biases enter the discussion as soon as one mentions the words “financial performance”.
Many people on the right presume that roads are associated with good financial performance, whereas public transport – especially rail – is not. On the other hand, many people on the left presume that anyone who is concerned with financial performance is guilty of short-term “roads first” thinking. Both are presumptuous.
And I think the CRL provides a good example to challenge some of these biases. First let’s quickly make some guess-estimates in response to the questions posed earlier:
- Patronage impacts = The CRL is ultimately expected to generate ~20 million additional rail boardings p.a. (possibly more)
- Revenue impacts = 20 million x $4 per boarding = $80 million p.a. in additional rail fare revenue,
- Rail operating costs = let’s say we double service levels for circa $70 million p.a. in additional rail operating costs
- Cost recovery = Revenues / Operating costs = 114% (in a marginal sense).
Now I’m the first to admit that the numbers are a bit rubbery. While we won’t gain 20m boardings overnight, the same holds for the operating costs: We’re not going to need to double rail frequencies straight away either. We’re also ignoring capital costs of course, but that’s a different question.
Hidden in the numbers above is an interesting assumption that I’d like to discuss in more detail: That is the average fare of $4 per boarding. Why is that interesting? Well according to NZTA documents Matt has received in the past, the average fare on the rail network is currently around $2.70 per trip. So why have I assumed $4 per boarding?
This is a situation where I think it’s important to think “at the margin”. Or to put it another way, the CRL is not your “average” rail project.
Simply put, the CRL opens up vast swathes of the city centre. It seems fairly clear that the marginal passenger attracted to the rail network by the CRL is more likely to be paying a higher fare than the current network average, which is essentially dragged down by a relatively high proportion of concessionary travellers, which in turn is a function of the rail network’s extremely limited coverage of the city centre.
In contrast, trips to the city centre are far more likely to pay an adult fare. One way to get an idea of how much higher the marginal fare might be would be analyse average fares for people boarding/alighting rail services at Britomart. But I’ll leave that to AT …
Figures obtained in the past from Auckland Transport says that the average journey length on the rail network in excess of 15km. That means on average most people are travelling from outside of isthmus and based on the current fare structure would equate to a 3 or 4 stage fare depending on the line. Current adult HOP fares $4.05 for a three stages or $5.04 for a four stages. As such an average fare of $4 for passengers attracted to the network by the CRL seems about right.
On the operating cost side, it currently costs something like $90 million a year to run the rail network. A decent proportion of those cost are somewhat fixed or at least exhibit some economies of scale. One of the big advantages of electrification is that it should reduce the cost of running individual services and that means Auckland Transport will be able to run more of them than they do now for little incremental cost.
As such a doubling of future services due to the CRL should not result in a doubling of the total operating costs (please correct me if I am wrong on this).
For the purposes of this exercise I’m going to assume that the future electrified rail network costs $100 million a year to run and that adding services as part of the CRL will increase costs by $70 million per year.
Assumptions about average fare and operating costs aside, it seems the CRL actually performs relatively well from a financial perspective. In the long run it may even pay its way operationally, especially if AT can generate additional revenue from leasing space within/around the stations.
If this is the case then not only would we have significantly boosted rail patronage and accessibility across the city, but we would have done so while also improving the relative operational performance of the overall rail network.
The table below summarises these assumption in the context of the overall rail network, where farebox recovery improves by ~25% to what is a relatively high 79%.
To provide a point of comparison I have also crunched some numbers on cost recovery for Puhoi-Wellsford. These suggest that “cost recovery” for Puhoi to Wellsford is circa 50% (NB: This number is even more rubbery – I might do a separate post on this if people are interested in how the concept of cost recovery might be applied to roads).
Not that this is a post about the issues with that project, but it’s worth keeping in mind whenever anyone tries to convince you that new highways “pay for themselves” more so than new railways. While that may be true “on average” the story could be quite different “at the margin”. And it’s the performance at the margin that matters most.
The general message, however, is that the financial performance of the CRL is not too bad. To cut a long story long ;).
Yesterday the NZTA released the documents they are using to apply for consent for the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway. Here is the press release:
The NZ Transport Agency says details of its application and supporting documents to construct the Pūhoi to Warkworth section of the Ara Tūhono – Pūhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance are now available on-line at www.nzta.govt.nz/puhoi-to-warkworth-application
Their publication follows formal acceptance of the application and documents by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
The Transport Agency’s Highways Manager, Tommy Parker, encourages people to review the documents online.
“Although the public submission process has not yet begun – we anticipate that will happen around November – in the interests of transparency and our commitment to keeping the community fully informed, we’ve made this information available as soon as possible for people to review,” Mr Parker says.
The EPA will now make recommendations to the Ministers of Conservation and the Environment relating to the national significance of the project and the appropriate consenting process to consider the Transport Agency’s application. It could be considered by a Board of Inquiry, the Environment Court or be referred to Auckland Council.
The Pūhoi to Warkworth section of the RoNS starts at the Johnstones Hill tunnels at the north end of the Northern Gateway Toll Road on State Highway 1. The new highway will be four-laned and will be 18.5 kilometres long.
There are a huge amount of documents to go through and I have only just scratched the surface but already there are a few things that have caught my attention.
The executive summary suggests the key benefits of the project include:
- improving route security and resilience of the State highway network north of Auckland through reducing the reliance on a single route (current SH1)
- improving safety compared to the existing SH1 between Puhoi and Warkworth
- reduced travel times and improved travel time reliability along the State highway network north of Auckland
- improving the movement of people and freight between Auckland and Northland, by avoiding existing congestion points and slow sections constraining the operation of SH1 (eg Schedewys Hill, Pohuehue Viaduct, Hill St intersection)
- increasing the potential for economic and social development as a result of travel time savings, improved trip time reliability and improved interregional accessibility between Auckland, north Auckland and Northland;
- improving accessibility across many parts of the region’s road network; and
- supporting the intentions of the Auckland Plan that Warkworth grow and develop as a satellite town within the Auckland region
I have no problem with the benefits being listed but most of those could be obtained in numerous different ways. What is important to know is if the benefits outweigh the costs – something that the not one of the numerous documents seem to talk about. Further it is almost comical that the NZTA use the Auckland Plan as justification for the project. The council proposed to open up so much land around Warkworth in part due to the government saying they were going to build the motorway. Yet now as a result of that the NZTA are turning around and using the potential development as justification for the project in the first place. This is expanded upon within the justification section.
Also in the justification section is this chart of how the project has developed and once again highlights how backwards the whole process has been with key investigations only taking place after the government says they are going to build the road.
The text goes on to say about how they are proposing a four lane road because that is what the network plan suggests they should do. The network plan however says that there needs to be a four lane road partly because that is what would meet the strategic objectives in the Government Policy Statement (GPD) and of course the GPS states that the NZTA have to build a road from Puhoi to Warkworth to RoNS standard (which is at least a four lane motorway/expressway). In short they are building a completely offline motorway because the government told them they had to and they have written subsequent reports to try and justify that position.
Back to the executive summary, some of the most interesting parts of the document come from the projects description and it highlights how truly massive the impacts on the local environment are going to be.
Consistent with the RoNS standards, the indicative alignment has been designed to motorway standard comprising four lanes with a continuous median separation and a design speed of 100 – 110 km/h. The indicative alignment and design incorporates grade-separated crossings of local roads to maintain connectivity in the local road network.
The indicative alignment will require numerous cut slopes and fill embankments as it passes through the hilly country between Puhoi and Warkworth. The highest embankments are situated in the Moirs Hill sector of the Project and attain a height of approximately 46.5m above ground level. The deepest cuttings are also situated in the Moirs Hill sector at a depth of approximately 45.8m below ground level.
A range of common construction measures is available to stabilise and manage these slopes. The final form and treatment of finished cut slopes and embankments will be developed during detailed design.
The Project will involve the construction of 7 major viaducts and 5 bridges. These will extend across significant watercourses, including the Okahu Creek, Puhoi river, Hikauae Creek and the major branches of the Mahurangi river and major gullies. They will also serve to maintain local road access, provide farm access and flood relief. The highest viaduct is situated in the Perry road sector and will attain a height of approximately 46.0m above ground level. Other viaducts of significant height are situated adjacent to Puhoi road (approx 27.4m) and in the Schedewys Hill sector (approx. 42.6m).
The Project proposes culverts for the crossing of a number of streams, many of which are intermittent. The combined length of culverts for permanent streams is 1,120 m and for intermittent streams is 3,045 m.
Embankments up to 46.5m high and cuts up to 45.8m deep are going to involve massive earth works and from looking at the drawings, there are quite a few of a similar size to the biggest ones. To put them in perspective, the height of the Newmarket Viaduct is about 20m while the amount of clearance under the harbour bridge at high tide is 43m. The document says that in total there will be ~8 million m³ of material cut from hills as part of the earthworks and of that ~6.2 million m³ will be reused as fill. If those massive cuts and embankments aren’t enough there are 7 major viaducts and 5 bridges on the route. With all of this the project is sounding like a construction company’s wet dream.
Moving on and Appendix C contains a letter from consultant the NZTA about the economic effects of the project. It appears that it is only focusing on the direct impacts of the project rather than being an economic justification, yet even so there isn’t a chart, table or even a number that gives any kind of information about what the impacts will be. Most of the points seem to be similar to “this is likely to have a positive impact” type statements.
The last section I looked at was the traffic assessment – although I haven’t finished going through it yet so expect more posts on it in the future. The few things that have caught my attention early on though are the following bits:
And this section shortly after
To sum all of that up, the problems on the road that cause congestion happen during the summer months when heaps of people are going away on holiday to the beaches primarily to the east of Warkworth. The rest of the time it handles less traffic than many single lane arterials in Auckland. Spending hundreds of millions (latest estimate I saw was $760m) just so that some people going on holiday can get to their batches a few minutes quicker hardly seems like a good use our money. But at least the NZTA is finally starting to admit that it is this group that the project is being built for rather than the stupid line about it being a lifeline for Northland (perhaps that is more of a politician line though)
I will continue to go through the transport assessment and do a more detailed post in the future as there looks to be some interesting data in there.
Proponents of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” have regularly tried to portray the project as being of critical importance to the future prosperity of Northland. I have even heard that before the last election at a “Backbenchers” special TV show in Auckland, Nikki Kaye even went so far as suggesting that the road would be a critical way of solving child poverty in Auckland. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a motorway project.
We’ve always been sceptical about these claims for quite a few reasons:
- The project is not even in Northland, it’s in Auckland
- The project only saves a few minutes of time – despite what Gerry has claimed
- Spending the same amount of money on good transport or economic development initiatives within Northland would almost certainly have a bigger impact
- NZTA’s own analysis of the project from before it was plucked out of the air by the government suggests that the benefits will be minor:
In recent times the argument that the project will benefit Northland has become even more stretched – because it seems as though the Warkworth-Wellsford section is encountering huge problems with geotechnical stability. This is what was stated in a local paper recently in relation to this section:
Meanwhile, investigation of the Warkworth to Wellsford leg has been postponed indefinitely, due to tests that have shown land in the area is so unstable, it would be uneconomic to build a motorway on top of it. It is the poorest possible soil seen in New Zealand.
While the project’s northern half (the closest half to Northland and the section with the most significant existing safety problems) sounds like it’s being chopped forever, it appears as though other elements are being added to the project to enable holiday makers to get to their beach houses quicker. This from the same article as the earlier quote:
However, they have confirmed the motorway would almost certainly join up with a new link road to Matakana, via a large roundabout, which is highly likely to push development to the north of Warkworth, and towards the coast. It is understood Auckland Council planners are already redrawing the rural urban boundary proposed for Warkworth, to reflect the same changes.
It seems that perhaps Northlanders are waking up to the fact that the project which was supposed to have a transformational effect on their economy is slowly but surely evolving into what its critics have called it all along – little more than a “holiday highway”. Here’s a recent article from the Rodney Times:
The Far North District Council says the money could be put to better use on Northland’s roads.
In July the council accepted and agreed to promote a report by traffic engineer Dean Scanlen which calls the motorway “an expensive gift you don’t want”.
Mr Scanlen suggests the benefits of bypasses at Warkworth and Kawakawa, and a tunnel at the Brynderwyn Hills would far outweigh the benefits of a four-lane road between Puhoi and Wellsford as planned.
New political party Focus New Zealand also believes the money could be better spent on Northland roads.
President and Okaihau farmer Ken Rintoul says Northland has bigger transport problems such as the 12 single-lane state highway bridges and poor route security which cuts Northland off in extreme weather.
Mr Rintoul says the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway will create a dangerous bottleneck at Dome Valley which will not be bypassed for a further 10 years.
We have long said that the focus should be on bypassing the towns along the route and then spending money to improve safety by straightening out curves and adding improved passing facilities. All of which could be done sooner and each bit as individual projects. Further the benefits could be felt as soon as each small section is finished rather than having to wait for the completely offline motorway to be completed. I do think a tunnel under the Brynderwnyn’s sounds a bit fanciful and very costly though.
Some still support the project, but seemingly only on the basis that it’s extended much further north in the future:
But Northland Regional Transport Committee chairman John Bain says the road will make a huge difference, improving access to Northland’s main market.
More than 30 per cent of everything Northland produces travels south on the road to Auckland and beyond, he says.
“It used to take three hours to get to Auckland, now it takes two hours. The next step makes it even quicker and opens up the North for all the benefits.”
Mr Bain says it will make the trip easier not only for freight but tourists too.
Mr Bain says the motorway will eventually reach Wellsford, then Whangarei and further north. He wants the Whangarei District Council to consider designating a corridor for a future bypass of the Brynderwyn Hills. Designating the land now means the land corridor will not be too exorbitant to buy and gives everyone certainty.
Given the problems faced by the Warkworth-Wellsford section alone, it seems like it would be a very very long time before extending the motorway north of Wellsford is even considered. And sure I can see how going from three hours to two hours between Whangarei and Auckland could have had a major effect, but this proposed road really only cuts about 10 minutes off travel times at most. That’s hardly earth-shattering and with the exceptions of the Brynderwyn’s there isn’t much to really hold vehicles up for the rest of the route.
I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time until the Warkworth-Wellsford section is quietly dropped from being part of the road of national significance – much like Otaki to Levin was. That section appears to be the only of the RoNS not to have at least an indicative completion date as per the table below which I received as part of my OIA request from the Ministry of Transport. The paper it came from was dated Feb 2013.
The sheer stupidity of the Puhoi to Wellsford project might be starting to hit home for some of the residents of Warkworth and surrounding areas as the exact route of the motorway starts to be understood.
Warkworth residents hoping for a link from the Woodcocks Rd industrial area to the new motorway proposed from Puhoi appear to have had their hopes dashed.
The latest version of the route finalised by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) shows the new motorway would bypass Warkworth completely, forcing residents to drive almost as far north as Kaipara Flats Rd to access the new route.
Concerns have been raised that many residents in Warkworth, Sandspit and Snells Beach are unlikely to travel north in order to head south, and will therefore not benefit from the new motorway.
NZTA staff told a meeting of the Warkworth Area Liaison Group this month that Mahurangi College had opposed any access along Woodcocks Rd. Staff also stressed that the main purpose of the motorway was to improve access to Northland.
However, they have confirmed the motorway would almost certainly join up with a new link road to Matakana, via a large roundabout, which is highly likely to push development to the north of Warkworth, and towards the coast.
It is understood Auckland Council planners are already redrawing the rural urban boundary proposed for Warkworth, to reflect the same changes.
While Puhoi residents have won their battle to get access to the motorway, the latest route shows there will only be a northbound off-ramp, and a southbound on-ramp, meaning anyone heading north would not be able to hop off, and then back on, the motorway.
The NZTA is planning to lodge an application to secure the designation within the next month as the first step in the process towards getting the road built. Once that has been completed it is expected that construction could start sometime between late next year and 2019. Here is a map of the confirmed designation they are seeking
One of the biggest issues I have with this project is that it does absolutely nothing to improve the existing road which as a result of the motorway completely bypassing Warkworth will still be used by a lot of Warkworth residents as well as people wanting to avoid paying the tolls that are likely to be on the road. It means that the safety issues on that stretch of road won’t get addressed as why would they spend any serious money on a road that is about to be bypassed. Further it will end up becoming Auckland Transports problem to deal with as the NZTA will almost certainly hand the road over to AT as they would no longer need it – just as they have done with the old state highway that acts as the free route for those wanting to avoid the toll road.
The new route will likely need to be tolled too. For starters it hooks directly into the existing toll road with no north facing ramps at Puhoi so it means that unless the NZTA plan to remove the existing toll and wipe the $100m+ debt from the books, there will be no way for someone using the Warkworth to Puhoi section to avoid paying to use this new road. However the Governments roading binge is also putting a lot of pressure on our transport funds which is one of the reasons for the 3c per litre increase in petrol that occurred at the start of the month and which will happen again in at least the next two years. I think it is quite likely that the toll will be increased to help cover some of the costs of the new section – although not by a level which would be in proportion to the length or cost of the project.
The existing toll road between Orewa and Puhoi is about 7km long and saves drivers about 10 minutes as well as 5km of windy and suburban roads yet even so the NZTA have said in the past that only 70-80% of all vehicles travelling between the two points use the toll road. By comparison the route proposed above only saves about 1km over the existing road and even with having to go through Warkworth, people generally average about 80km/h over the distance. Assuming you would travel at 100km/h for the entirety of the slightly shorter new road the time saving would only be approximately 3-4 minutes. That isn’t bad but when compared to the expected cost of $760 million as well as how many people are actually using the road it simply doesn’t seem feasible. The South facing ramps at Puhoi also mean that it will be easy for travellers to avoid any toll imposed on the new section as they could still drive the existing road to Puhoi then get on the motorway and travel the existing toll road (and depending on where they are coming from this could be just as fast)
It’s also worth pointing out again just how stupid the travel time savings promoted by the government are with comments made by Gerry Brownlee suggesting vehicles would need to be travelling at over 250km/h to be achieved.
One key issue is that the existing road is only really busy at holiday times when Aucklanders are flocking to the beaches to the east of Warkworth or further north which is why the term “Holiday Highway” was coined. Of course the NZTA, the government and Northland keep telling us, this project is more about connecting Northland to Auckland. So let’s look at those two claims a bit closer. Handily the NZTA release monthly data on traffic volumes at a number of sites around the country. The sites measured aren’t as exhaustive as their annual numbers but there are two very useful ones. One is the traffic volumes on ALPURT – the name for the toll road – and is useful for indicating how many people might use the new motorway while the second is from a site just north of Wellsford which is helpful for showing just how much traffic is moving between Auckland and Northland. The graph below shows the monthly average daily traffic volumes recorded at these two sites along with the 12 month rolling average.
As you can see both sites have extremely strong peaks in January as well as smaller peaks in October and April which just so happen to coincide with public holidays. In saying that ALPURT has seen its annual average start to rise with it increasing by about 900 vehicles per day over the past few years but what is unclear is if that is a result of more vehicles doing the overall journey or more people shifting off the old windy road and onto the new shorter and much faster toll road. North of Wellsford however traffic volumes are falling, not at an alarming rate but they have fallen by about 300 vehicles per day over the last few years. In all there are about 8600 vehicles per day (over the course of the year) being counted north of Wellsford. That is certainly not a number to justify spending billions of dollars on. One thing to note is that other state highway sites do see seasonal variation but nowhere near to the extent that these two do (at least of those I have looked at).
Now remembering that the ALPURT numbers don’t include the traffic that bypasses the toll road what it suggests to me is two things. The first is that there simply isn’t that much interregional traffic movement occurring. Even during holiday periods the average amount of daily traffic is less than what many single lane roads within Auckland carry. Even many of our rail network level crossings – which will suffer increasing delays as we put more train services on – carry more daily traffic than what occurs even during the busiest month of the year on this section of the state highway network. With the vast majority of the traffic originating from Warkworth or the surrounding areas, it suggests that if you are going to spend money on the area – and the road does need some improving – then doing so in a way that allows the majority of people using the road would be a smarter move.
In the past we have suggested what is dubbed Operation Lifesaver. Like many of the roading projects in the Integrated Transport Plan we believe that the vast majority of then benefits can be achieved by cheaper solutions. The idea for this road is fairly simple, instead of building a fully offline motorway fix the key issues that exist with the road at present. That means bypassing Warkworth (that alone would deliver a lot of benefits), easing corners and installing additional passing lanes. It also means that the projects could start sooner as most of them would take place within the existing road corridor plus the benefits can be felt immediately compared to there being no benefits from the motorway until the entire road has been completed. We have suggested in the past that a the NZTA should consider an upgrade and link from Perry Rd to the new motorway as a way of allowing the project to be staged by building the bypass of Warkworth first then seeing if there is still the need to do the full project.
One other interesting comment from the article on the first link,
Meanwhile, investigation of the Warkworth to Wellsford leg has been postponed indefinitely, due to tests that have shown land in the area is so unstable, it would be uneconomic to build a motorway on top of it. It is the poorest possible soil seen in New Zealand.
I’m guessing the only reason the government hasn’t announced officially that this section has been cut back as it – combined with the proposed road from the end of the project across to Matakana Rd – would play even more into to suggestions that the road is primarily about getting people to their holiday homes in Omaha. It would definitely remove one of the arguments that the road is about connecting Northland. It is also worth noting that as the majority of traffic heading north of Albany is going to Warkworth or the surrounding areas, not further north, then without that link to Matakana Rd that traffic is still going to have to be forced back to Warkworth and through the busy Hill St intersection.
One of the recent OIA requests I had back also suggests that the NZTA are going to consider building this motorway as a PPP, like they are doing with Transmission Gully. I wouldn’t mind quite so much if the private sector was actually taking a risk on building these roads but the financial institutions have learned from the mistakes in Australia and so the NZTA get left holding almost all of the risk (including the risk that predicted traffic volumes won’t materialise). While we don’t pay the massive upfront cost of building the road, we will end up paying a huge amount more over a 25 year period. The payment structure is illustrated quite will in this graph which is for Transmission Gully. Note: the OIA request I mentioned has quite a bit of detail about how the contracts will be structured. I will try and get a more detailed post up about it in the next few days.
And just to make things even worse it appears that Auckland Transport are trying to shoehorn Penlink into the same contract.
Auckland Transport is working with the NZTA on a business case to progress Penlink as a possible joint public private partnership – to be constructed/tendered along with their Puhoi to Warkworth project.
“This is still under development and is expected to be completed in December,” Auckland Transport communications general manager Wally Thomas says.