While the council and government battle over when the CRL, a project that will create transformational change in the city, the NZTA is pushing on with building a motorway on the edge of town. The NZTA has just announced that an alliance of companies are about to spend $17.5 million on getting the preparation done so that the agency can start the process to obtain consent later this year. Here is the press release:
The NZ Transport Agency has taken the next step towards construction of the Pūhoi to Warkworth section of the Ara Tūhono – Pūhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance by naming a special alliance that will prepare the NZTA’s case for the consents its needs for the new highway.
The Further North Alliance, which includes both engineering consultants and lawyers, will support the NZTA’s application to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for the Notice of Requirement to obtain the necessary land.
The NZTA plans to lodge its Notice of Requirement with the EPA in the third quarter of this calendar year, and is seeking to be ready to start construction on the Pūhoi to Warkworth section as early as the end of 2014, subject to property purchase and funding.
The NZTA’s Regional Director for Auckland and Northland, Stephen Town, says alliances to construct projects are common but this is the Transport Agency’s first planning alliance and the $17.5m contract is a sensible option.
“The alliance reflects the ambitious timetable we have set for this project, and It makes good sense to have our specialists working together in a team rather than as individual companies. The combined experience and expertise of the Further North Alliance will help us meet our timetable for a very complex project and at the best possible price.”
The planning alliance comprises Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) and GHD, who are both engineering consultants the legal firm Chapman Tripp, and the NZTA.
Further geotechnical investigations are already underway between Pūhoi and Warkworth and the Alliance thanks property owners for their co-operation and patience with the on-site teams. A range of environmental specialists are also walking the entire alignment for initial surveying with sampling scheduled to take place in coming weeks.
There is this little note for editors
The four-lane, 38-kilometre Ara Tūhono – Pūhoi to Wellsford RoNS is crucial to supporting growth in Northland and improving transport links between economic centres in the Northland, Auckland and Waikato/Bay of Plenty regions.
Ara Tūhono – Pūhoi to Wellsford is part of the NZTA’s roads of national significance programme (RoNS for short), which represents one of New Zealand’s biggest ever infrastructure investments. Once completed, the seven RoNS routes will reduce congestion in and around our five largest metropolitan areas, and will move people and freight between and within these centres more safely and efficiently.
This route will only really help congestion problems that exist at holiday times, when everyone tries to leave the city at the same time. The rest of the year it will allow vehicles to get from Warkworth, or further north to the congestion on the Northern Motorway a little bit easier so far from easing congestion this will likely add to it. And here is the statement from the minister, Gerry Brownlee.
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee is welcoming the creation of a new planning alliance which marks another step forward in the process to construct the 18km Puhoi to Warkworth section of the 38km Ara Tuhono – Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance.
“The value, innovation and flexibility of the alliance approach, bringing together companies with different engineering and other skills working together as one team, has already been demonstrated in the construction of large projects which this Government has prioritised and progressed,” Mr Brownlee says.
“Auckland’s Victoria Park Tunnel is a great example – where the innovation of the alliance approach combined to construct a much improved highway and preserve the city’s heritage – a project that came in early and under budget.
“The Government welcomes the decision to extend the alliance concept for the first time to the planning process of a project to improve transport connections between Northland and Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand.”
The planning alliance, to be known as the Further North Alliance, comprises engineering firms Sinclair Knight Merz and GHD, legal firm Chapman Tripp, and the NZ Transport Agency.
The new highway between Puhoi and Warkworth is the first stage of a four-lane motorway project that will eventually extend to Wellsford, replacing the existing State Highway 1 and expected to cost around $1 billion to construct.
“This project was identified by the Government as one of seven Roads of National Significance, to help stimulate economic development in Northland, and provide a safer and more reliable transport connection between Northland and Auckland and into Waikato and the Bay of Plenty,” Mr Brownlee says.
“Northland is blessed with great agricultural, mineral, tourism and other resources but has been starved of proper infrastructure investment for too long, something this Government is addressing.
“Northland’s economy currently accounts for just 2.5 per cent of GDP, even though the region has 3.8 per cent of New Zealand’s population.
“Investment in new highway infrastructure through the Roads of National Significance programme will help Northland’s economy to grow, rather than simply responding to growth.
“Investment and innovation go hand in hand to ensure projects of this scale and importance are delivered successfully,” Mr Brownlee says.
One thing that I always find really odd is just who this project is meant to benefit. As Brownlee, and his colleagues like to tell us, it is about unlocking Northland. Yet the road doesn’t even go into Northland, it stops well short of the border. Yet oddly, because the road itself sits within the Auckland region, it gets added on to all of our plans, whether we want it or not. If we really wanted to spend money on improving transport in Northland then spending the $1 billion that is planned for just this section alone on upgrading and even sealing some roads actually within Northland would likely have a far more positive impact. This was even acknowledged in some OIA documents I received last year.
We also learned last year that to get the time savings promised on the route, vehicles would need to be travelling at speeds of up to 250kph. What is particularly interesting is there is still no mention about any intention to build the section from Warkworth to Wellsford. We have learnt in the past that the terrain though there is particularly challenging plus has extremely low usage by vehicles currently. I wonder when they will finally tell us they are dropping that section?
I have found myself making a number of trips over the past week or so along the stretch of State Highway 1 immediately north of Auckland. Both times I’ve gone north the traffic has been pretty bad, but in rather unexpected ways which have provided me with some quite useful insights. I’ll run through these briefly before getting on to what this could mean in terms of some sensible improvements to this road.
Firstly, the concept that we make massive transport investments based on the state of the road for a few days a year is completely silly. It’d be like forcing shopping malls to build carparks big enough for the Boxing Day sales… oh wait, we do that.
Both times going north the first area of delay has been between where the motorway cuts down to two lanes just before the Johnston Hill tunnels, and just north of Puhoi. This is not surprising due to New Zealand drivers being unable to merge. Interestingly though the traffic seemed to improve by the time we got to Schedewys Hill and north of that, until….
The next area of delay was around Warkworth, once again caused by the merge before the Warkworth bridge (why on earth wasn’t that duplicated as part of the widening of SH1 through Warkworth? The mess of the Hill Street intersection creates a lot of problems here too, particularly for southbound traffic on SH1.
In addition there have been odd areas with nasty traffic. Like between Warkworth and Matakana on one day in late December. Changes to SH1 won’t do anything to solve these problems except get more vehicles to them quicker.
Using “Operation Lifesaver” as a guide for our thinking, the main elements of that scheme would solve a lot of the issues that I’ve experienced. In particular a bypass of Warkworth would solve congestion problems caused by Warkworth and separate out traffic heading north of Warkworth from traffic heading to the eastern beaches and from traffic heading to Warkworth itself. Something like what’s shown below – with the red being the proposed Puhoi-Wellsford route, the blue being a connection between the existing road and the Warkworth bypass and green being a connection to the road heading to Matakana and the other eastern beaches.
The section of the route shown in red south of the blue link wouldn’t be built.
The other area where some improvement seem like they’d be good value is immediately north of the Johnston Hill tunnels, with the existing road being widened to two lanes northbound for another kilometre or so to ease the merging movement until after all the lanes coming together have sorted themselves out. So perhaps a bit past the Puhoi River bridge – once again something that probably wouldn’t cost very much in comparison to the whole scheme.
There’s also an interesting debate to be had around Wellsford I think. Although having SH1 going right through the town causes delays it does seem as though Wellsford is very reliant on SH1′s through traffic for its economic survival.
This is probably going to end up being a fairly annual post but if you need to head north tomorrow, don’t be surprised if a few thousand of your fellow citizens think of doing the same and jam up the roads. Every single holiday season we seem to get exactly the same outcome. Its one of the few days a year that we actually could use the Puhoi to Wellsford road but its realistically its hardly worth spending $1.7 billion on. But as usual I expect we will stories in the Herald and probably other media outlets talking about some massive traffic jam and on queue there will be a discussion with a couple of drivers who lament that the road isn’t already under construction. We will also hear tales of how there were huge queues at the toll machines with people struggling to use them and then complaining again that they are paying to sit in the previously mentioned traffic jam.
Here is one of the reports from last year which unfortunately involved a pedestrian being hit although my guess is that wasn’t the only reason for the delays.
Meanwhile, a fatal accident at Wellsford about 9.30am triggered long waits on the Northern Gateway toll road which persisted until late afternoon. Even leaving Auckland proved tiresome as traffic crawled both ways from mid-morning.
The trip from Auckland to Wellsford, about 77km, usually takes about an hour. But traffic was yesterday backed up from the top of the Northern Motorway and stopped completely in places.
Cars were crawling 500m every 10 minutes at some stages.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched almost the length of the 7.5km toll road between Orewa and Puhoi for three hours from late yesterday morning.
Some hot and frustrated drivers and passengers got out of their cars to stretch their legs and cool off.
Angry motorists vented their frustration on Twitter.
Doug Hanna wrote that he had visitors from Auckland staying with him at Oakura, north of Whangarei: “Took 5 hours 40 to get here today. Took us 3.10 yesterday.”
Hamish Rouse was travelling in the opposite direction: “NZ Traffic anywhere out of Auckland is insane. Just came down from up North. Poor northbound travellers.”
The giant traffic jam was caused by two lanes of motorway traffic having to merge into one lane before the Johnstone’s Hill tunnel, and then merge again with vehicles from the coastal road on the one northbound lane beyond the toll road.
Although the Government has designated a $1.65 billion four-lane highway from Puhoi to Wellsford as one of seven “roads of national significance”, the first stage to Warkworth will not be completed until 2019 and the final stage not until 2022.
Thousands of motorists spent hours stewing in traffic jams between Auckland’s Northern Gateway toll road and Warkworth yesterday.
Traffic started banking up north of Puhoi at about 10.30am, and three hours later was jammed for about 25km from Warkworth back to the Hillcrest Rd bridge over the southern end of the toll road at Orewa.
The worst problems were where lanes merged, whether at the end of passing lanes or at the northbound entry to the Johnstones Hill tunnel at the Puhoi end of the toll road.
It was not until 4pm that the Transport Agency reported a relatively free flow had been restored to the tunnel, which is confined to one northbound lane for safety reasons at the other end, where traffic from the alternative free coastal route through Orewa merges with State Highway 1.
Transport Agency northern highways manager Tommy Parker said State Highway 16 through Helensville remained free-flowing throughout yesterday as an alternative route to Wellsford, and drivers should always consider that option if travelling further north over the holiday period.
The agency regards December 27 as traditionally its second busiest day for traffic over the Christmas-New Year break after January 2 for the main road north from Auckland, with about 50 per cent more vehicles than the daily average, but Mr Parker said yesterday was even worse than usual.
“It was particularly bad this year – we have seen some quite large delays made worse by a lot of vehicles towing boats and caravans,” he said.
“We had expected the traffic would spread across a number of days, but people decided to travel on the same day.”
Mr Parker said traffic was unexpectedly light on Boxing Day, and he was at a loss to know why.
“Presumably people were all at the races or the sales.”
But after yesterday’s chaos, he was confident the traffic would also be “significantly lighter” today.
Despite extra difficulties observed by Herald staff where traffic ground to a standstill in attempted mergers at the end of passing lanes, Mr Parker said the agency was not considering temporarily closing the lanes to simplify flows.
He said that had not been done for years.
The agency had discontinued the practice because it believed some drivers became confused and erratic when confronted by cones blocking the lanes.
As well, the agency had no evidence that blocking the lanes improved flow.
Neither did he believe motorists had been short-changed by paying $2 to use the toll road, only to be forced to a slow grind little more than 2km along it, during the worst of yesterday’s congestion.
He said electronic signs south of the road warned drivers of queues ahead, giving them options of going to SH16 from the Silverdale interchange or using the Hibiscus Coast highway, which was also relatively free-flowing until it merged with SH1 near Puhoi.
Whoever leaked the draft City Centre Future Access study (CCFAS) is, as Mr Anderson said in a comment the other day, a complete and utter idiot (assuming that it’s someone from Auckland Transport rather than Central Government). After working so hard over the past year to get beyond the differences in opinion between the two parties which plagued last year’s review of the CRL’s original business case, it’s really dumb to spoil this goodwill by jumping the gun. But I guess what’s done is done. Let’s just hope it doesn’t have a long-lasting impact on the project.
From Brian Rudman’s twoarticles on Friday we know some really interesting details have emerged from this important study into future access to and from Auckland’s city centre (which isn’t what the CRL is solely about of course, a fact that seems to escape many from time to time).
We know that without CRL, even by 2021 (a mere nine years away) the CBD is projected to be one heck of a congested place, with most bus networks at capacity and general traffic speeds having slowed down tremendously from their current levels. Remember that the CRL isn’t due to open until around 2021/2022 and also that the bus network will be revised significantly by 2016 to improve the efficiency of the PT network tremendously. In short, it seems that we simply can’t delay CRL’s opening date beyond 2022 without utter chaos resulting.
We know that other options to “solve” this problem, including surface buses and an underground bus tunnel, perform significantly worse than the CRL in terms of a benefit-cost analysis. I suspect that this is because they rely upon significant existing roadspace being taken away from general traffic and given to the exclusive use of buses – whereas CRL uses a completely different transport network. This highlights an amusing irony: that the CRL is likely to clearly be the best option for car users. I wonder if the AA will start changing its tune from supporting “buses instead of trains” now?
We know that there’s something strange going on in terms of accurately capturing the benefits of the CRL project, if it’s clearly the best option for improving access to the city centre, the implications of “do nothing” are horrific, but it still doesn’t have a cost benefit ratio of greater than 1. There is something of a logical fallacy there: the best solution to a problem that needs to be fixed almost by definition must be worth doing.
On this last point, Rudman’s opinion piece highlights the connection between this clear logical fallacy and the often vexed issue of discount rates, which lower the benefits of a project by a certain percentage each year to take into account net present value and the opportunity cost of spending money now. New Zealand uses an 8% discount rate and assesses projects over 30 years – which is pretty high compared to most international countries and means that in year 30 after a project’s completion we’re only saying the benefits are worth 11% of the benefits in “year one”, while we don’t bother counting the benefits in year 31. For some projects, like an intersection upgrade or widening a road, the benefits get “eaten up” pretty quickly and a shorter assessment period and a high discount rate make sense. But for projects with very long-lasting benefits – the CRL being perhaps the most prime example of that – the high discount rate and relatively short assessment period are illogical.
This is perhaps best illustrated in a graph comparing the benefits of CRL under New Zealand’s system and the UK system:
Of course lowering the discount rate and lengthening the period we count the benefits will improve all projects and doesn’t magically mean we can now afford a whole pile of stuff we couldn’t afford before. But it highlights that BCRs are perhaps not the objective tool for measuring whether or not we should do something they’re often made out to be (and of course this rings true for motorway projects as well), but rather an excellent tool for comparing apples with apples – like has been done in CCFAS. Likewise using a BCR to compare the Puhoi-Wellsford project with possible alternatives such as bypassing Warkworth or the more extensive Operation Lifesaver would tell us a lot about which option makes the most sense
Judging by what we do know, and assuming that there’s no massive change between the draft report and it being finalised, it will certainly be interesting to see what Central Government’s eventual response is. They may rely on the BCR number (which could still go up in the final version) to say there’s no proof the project is worth doing, but now that the consequences of a “do nothing” seem to have been explored in more detail – and are pretty horrific – that approach seems unlikely. What’s perhaps the most interesting conundrum for the government is that it sounds like CRL is clearly the best option for those people government really cares about: the car drivers. Will the government help out the poor car drivers by helping fund a project which means hundreds of extra buses on downtown streets are no longer necessary and avoids the need for whole major roads to be completely closed off to general traffic and given up to buses only?
Pretty much every single time we hear the government talk about the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance they say that its crucial to Northland’s economy, even standing up and saying so in parliament here are a few quotes from different exchanges:
Phil Twyford: Does it make economic sense to borrow to fund the Pūhoi to Wellsford “Holiday Highway”, which has a benefit-cost ratio that barely breaks even and costs $1.7 billion, when a $400 million upgrade would fix the congestion and safety problems? Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: Although I disagree with many of the assertions made in that question, I would say that I think that providing a stronger link to Northland, where there is so much poverty yet so much economic potential, is a good idea.
Phil Twyford: Has any assessment been done comparing the impact on Northland’s economy of spending $1.7 billion on a roading project that is not even in Northland with other options such as upgrading the North Auckland rail line, more quickly and cheaply improving safety on State Highway 1, actually upgrading roads in Northland, or a regional economic development package? Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: It may surprise the member to note that people cannot get their goods out of Northland unless there are roads outside of Northland. It sort of makes sense that if you want to get from Northland down to some other part of New Zealand, you need a road to get there. Eighty percent of all freight in this country is carried on the road. That is why we are putting the money into the road transport programme and the roads of national significance. Tell us, which of the roads in the programme would Labour stop? Phil Twyford: Will he confirm that the proposed spend of $33 million on the Pūhoi to Warkworth design and property purchase while downgrading Warkworth to Wellsford to being a possible road of national significance confirms that the project has nothing to do with improving Northland’s economy, and everything to do with making it faster to get to the Prime Minister’s holiday home in Ōmaha? Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: Well, firstly, I reject that last statement; I think it is outrageous that the member has been so stupid as to make it. Let me tell you this: the programme has always had the Pūhoi to Wellsford road being designed, the designations put on it, the properties acquired, etc., in the current land transport period. It will be built in the 2015-18 period, unless we get a Labour Government, which will can it.
But how much is it meant to cost again, this from a document that was sent to the minister dated 03 August 2012 which is still using figures from 2009.
But putting aside the benefits and costs, is the Puhoi to Wellsford route the best way to improve the Northland economy? Well if improving the Northland economy is the goal then even the NZTA don’t seem to believe that the road is the best way to achieve that. Also from the document dated 3 August they state that the best thing we could do is to improve access to Marsden Point and getting goods to other destinations clearly comes in second.
Wow, who would of thought that the best way to get transport to improve the economy of Northland is to actually spend money on infrastructure in Northland. Of course these aren’t the first issues we have raised, the 2008 study showed there was little benefit in upgrading the route while we also showed that based on Gerry’s answers to written questions you would have to travel at up to 250kph to achieve some of the time savings that the benefits above are based on.
As Mr Anderson said yesterday, its really time for an independent inquiry into the NZTA and transport priorities, there is just far to many issues cropping up.
From time to time I like to check on the written questions asked by MPs to ministers, these questions are important as the ministers are required to answer them and the results are stored on record so they can be a great way of finding out information. One of the things that the online tool allows you to do is filter the questions by portfolio so is fairly easy to find all the questions asked to the transport minister. It is probably worth pointing out to anyone who wants to use it themselves that for some reason the thing is incredibly slow in searching and changing pages so don’t be surprised if it takes a little while. Anyway going through some of the recent questions I came across a series from Green transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter about the time savings on a number of the Roads of National Significance projects and the answers highlight just how shonky some of the numbers for them are.
First up Puhoi to Wellsford where we get some absolutely astounding figures, here is the current situation:
7287 (2012). Julie Anne Genter to the Minister of Transport (06 Sep 2012): What is the approximate distance in kilometres of the current route that will be replaced by the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance? Hon Gerry Brownlee (Minister of Transport) replied: I am advised that approximately 42 kilometres of the current route will be replaced by the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance.
7288 (2012). Julie Anne Genter to the Minister of Transport (06 Sep 2012): What is the current travel time estimated by NZTA for the route that will be replaced by the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance? Hon Gerry Brownlee (Minister of Transport) replied: I am advised that between Johnson Hill Tunnels and South of Te Hana the current travel time is approximately 35 minutes during the southbound afternoon peak and 34 minutes during the northbound afternoon peak.
So this seems to be roughly about right, it means that the average speed along the entire route is just over 70kph and the time given by Google for the same distance in normal conditions is listed as 32 minutes. But here is where things start getting odd:
7286 (2012). Julie Anne Genter to the Minister of Transport (06 Sep 2012): What will be the approximate distance in kilometres of the completed Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance? Hon Gerry Brownlee (Minister of Transport) replied: I am advised that the completed Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance will be approximately 38 kilometres.
After 3-4 years of investigating the project, the NZTA have yet to be able to announce a route from Warkworth to Wellsford due to the extremely difficult geography and geology of the area. Without knowing where the new road will go, how can we know how long it is going to be? Even putting that aside, here is were the real craziness begins:
7289 (2012). Julie Anne Genter to the Minister of Transport (06 Sep 2012): What will be the average time saved per trip by the proposed Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance? Hon Gerry Brownlee (Minister of Transport) replied: I am advised that travel times between Johnson Hill Tunnels and south of Te Hana will be reduced by 26 minutes during the southbound afternoon peak and 15 minutes northbound during the afternoon peak.
Those time savings are just ridiculous, are they really suggesting that you will be able to drive the 38 kilometres southbound in just 9 minutes, perhaps the plan is to buy everyone a supercar and remove the speed limits as it works out to an average speed of over 250kph. The northbound route is a little better but still would see average speeds well above our current limits vehicles would have to average 120kph to get 15 minutes of savings, even on the shorter route. In fact my calculation is that even with the shorter route and an average speed of 100kph, the time savings all the way from Wellsford to Puhoi would only be about 12 minutes. I would go further and suggest that half of the 12 minutes of savings that would likely just come from bypassing Warkworth and perhaps some work to the area south of the Pohoehoe viaduct.
Travel time savings often make up quite a large chunk of the economic benefits associated with transport projects, if they are so blatantly wrong as in this case then it really makes you question what is going on. Even at 12 minutes, is that kind of time saving really going to make a difference to the Northland economy, I don’t think so.
I thought the most interesting part was the answer to the last question Mr Twyford asked:
Phil Twyford: Is the Minister aware of a 2008 report prepared by Sinclair Knight Merz consultants—the current consultants working on the Pūhoi to Wellsford project—that said that “the scope for substantial economic growth with the upgrading of SH1 is limited.”, and “Even a significant increase in this contribution of the project [to tourism] would be modest when set against the likely costs of road upgrading.”, and does he agree with the project’s consultants on this matter?
Hon MAURICE WILLIAMSON: I am aware that when any huge projects of the nature of the roads of national significance are proposed, a wide range of views are held. Those who are opposed to building roading networks come out with some of the most shonky figures to try to prove why you should not do them, and those who support them come out with their numbers. I think the numbers that the New Zealand Transport Agency is using, which are well founded, well analysed, and well based on, are the actual numbers that this House should give some credence to.
The “shonky figures” referred to come from this report, and in particular the section of that report shown below:
The really interesting thing is that the same consultants who prepared this 2008 report are still the lead consultants providing NZTA with advice on Puhoi-Wellsford. I wonder whether Mr Williamson’s comments were merely ignorant of this fact, or whether he accidentally let slip that the project really is based on “shonky” advice?
There are often two competing arguments when it comes to transport investment:
Build the project now, you’re going to need it eventually
Only build what you need when you need to build it
This is a really interesting debate, because both sides of the argument have a good point to make. The first argument suggests that if we’re going to really need a piece of infrastructure a while in the future there’s little point “wasting” money on an interim fix – you might as well bring forward investment on the big project. But at the same time, we need to recognise the concept of “net present value” and noting that if we’re spending money on something we only kind of need now, we’re probably taking money away from something we really need now.
There are a few classic example of this debate around at the moment. With Puhoi-Wellsford, we have seen necessary short-term projects put off (like upgrading the notorious Hill Street intersection) because the larger project is going to bypass this anyway – at some point in the future. Another example is the City Rail Link, where the debate seems mostly around when we will need this project, rather than whether we will need it: even Steven Joyce agreed that the CRL was the logical next rail project for Auckland and it ‘made sense’ to protect its route.
It’s quite possible that the absolute need for the CRL could be put off for a bit by spending big bucks on bus infrastructure around the central city and its main feeder routes – but if we’re going to end up needing the CRL anyway in the not too distant future, why bother with all of that? Of course some improved bus infrastructure will be needed regardless of whether the CRL is built, but how much value would we really get out of a ‘band-aid solution’ in advance of the CRL? This is a similar question to one raised by the Transport Politic blog (brought to my attention by this post) in relation to Ottawa, Canada: which is now looking at replacing its BRT system with a light-rail system:
Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.
But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway… Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?
The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.
Ottawa has incredibly high public transport use, and on the one hand the BRT system has clearly “built the demand” for the light-rail system. But on the other hand, the BRT system clearly took a lot of time, effort and money to put in place – and it’s now needing complete replacement. Why not have just built the LRT system in the first place? This question is explored further:
With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?
In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.
I think there’s a cursory lesson for the CRL in particular here, but also wider in terms of helping us get a better answer about the appropriateness of “band-aid solutions”. There are some key matters to consider:
What’s the cost of the interim measure and will its benefits be realised by the time you further upgrade to the “real” long term solution?
What of the interim measure will still have some functional and helpful use even after the long-term solution is implemented?
How far into the future do the interim measures really push the need for the ‘proper’ project?
Vancouver’s B-Line bus services are an example of a good “band-aid solution”, as they fit well with our criteria noted above. They involved relatively little infrastructure spend (the benefits of the initiative could be realised extremely quickly), they helped build a market for future Skytrain lines and they managed to effectively shift a lot of people pretty quickly. This has meant the B-Line services did a pretty good interim job and made it possible for Vancouver to focus on constructing one major line at a time, rather than jumping into a heap at once.
Looking at Auckland, applying the same criteria provides us with a useful process for understanding just how far we should go with further bus investment before we really bite the bullet and build the CRL. As far as I can understand it, the way Auckland operates its bus network in the city centre doesn’t work very well even at the moment. That can be improved through changing the routings and through some infrastructure investment (particularly better bus lanes), but really this only fixes things to a certain extent, or for a certain length of time. After that it will really be necessary to either spend some serious cash on finding a way to make the city (not just the city centre, but right across Auckland) handle even more buses (ignoring, for the time being, the issue of trying to create a world-class city centre) or build the CRL. That’s when we really start to ask ourselves whether those additional interventions are desirable – even if they are feasible and could push the need for the CRL out a bit further into the future – or whether we just cut to the chase and build the darn thing.
If we are smart enough to learn from Ottawa, we will realise that spending serious cash on what will always be a ‘band-aid solution’ just doesn’t make sense.
It is interesting that Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee invoked the Auckland Harbour Bridge in a recent interview about the Roads of National Significance. This is the first time that I have seen any real example to back up the vast claims the government and the NZTA routinely make about this programme.
Breakthrough transport infrastructure projects can produce extraordinary benefits to an economy and society and the AHB is a good example of such a project. The way that this kind of investment works is by making a radical change to a place; a transformation. Unlocking access to a resource or amenity hitherto unavailable and for which there is pent up demand. We can see exactly how transformational the old Coathanger was because its success even surprised the authorities who oversaw its conception. From Wikipedia:
The bridge was originally built with four lanes for traffic. Owing to the rapid expansion of suburbs on the North Shore and increasing traffic levels it was soon necessary to increase the capacity of the bridge – by 1965, the annual use was about 10 million vehicles, three times the original forecast.
This is a common characteristic of truly breakthrough projects. They are hard to sell because of the scale of change they will affect, they are almost unimaginable until completed. The difficulty for many, especially those responsible for running things as they are, is to imagine how much things could really be that different. Status Quo bias. The second characteristic is that the wrong lessons are often taken from such experiences, but we’ll come to that later.
Patrick Reynolds Against The Day_12 2009
More on the bridge from Wiki-
In the 1950s, when the bridge was built, North Shore was still a very rural area of barely 50,000 people, with relatively few jobs, and its growth rate was half that of Auckland south of the Waitemata. Opening up the area via a new main road connection was to unlock the potential for further expansion of Auckland.
So we can see how the bridge was transformational, there really was only a very poor connection across the harbour so a whole lot of really appealing land on the lovely and beachy Eastern Bays was suddenly made so much more accessible. It was like a whole new valuable area was fished Maui-like out of the sea really close to the city. Although of course this isn’t what happened but rather an existing underdeveloped place was effectively moved closer to the centre of economic activity- the city. This is still true even though the bridge itself is a fairly poor thing by many important measures, certainly aesthetically, but also because it is so mono-modal:
When the bridge was built, rail lines and walking and cycling paths were dropped for cost reasons. -Wiki
Especially when compared to its model, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is no ornament and it is still actually a barrier to anyone not in a vehicle. But even so, no matter how workman like and clumsily, it got the job done. Looking back it is easy to see that this was because of a near perfect confluence of timing, location, and mode.
Auckland, with the rest of the post-war world in the fifties and sixties was riding a baby boom, a driving boom, and a fashion for outward spread. The Bridge opened to satisfy a huge pent-up demand for residential land relatively close to town. A speculators’ and builders’ wonderland immediately followed.
The bridge worked because it unlocked a blockage to the expansion of an outwardly growing young city. Is this what the RoNS are designed to achieve; capitalise on demand for the further sprawl of Auckland? And Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch?
Patrick Reynolds Ak Harbour Bridge 2009
If so then this is the explanation for the sudden appearance of Warkworth as a future growth node on the Auckland plan. But we have to ask if the idea of expanding Warkworth from a charming riverine village of 3,500 souls to another Albany with an additional 50-100,00 people in low density auto-dependent suburbia is either desirable, likely, or even possible?
Desirable? No. Not for Warkworth, which would immediately cease to have what is valuable about it now; in the pursuit of country living suburbia has a habit of killing the thing it loves. Not for Auckland; to spread that far, to further disperse habitation and therefore work and play based on the private vehicle would be to add cost barriers and reduce productivity; this is anti-agglomeration. And not, of course, for the environment of New Zealand and the planet; more auto-dependant sprawl is not something to be subsidised and promoted for everyones’ sake.
Likely? I doubt it. And here we get to the nub of what is different about these projects. The bridge suddenly brought a development resource right onto the city’s doorstep. Will speeding country driving by 5 or so minutes over the distance of Auckland to Warkworth profoundly alter the economics of ex-urban development? Is there huge pent-up demand and capital ready to flood into new houses there? There are currently some 60 000 available residential building sites on the fringes of Auckland so while we may have a dwelling crisis it is hard to see how even more distant and yet to be serviced sites will face strong demand. And is the private car the new mode of growing demand? We are seeing all around the western world that the rising costs of vehicle use and indeed a new fashion in more urban living making the growth pattern of the post war boom no longer work as surely as it did, and it is no different here with all driving stats flat at best for the last seven years or so.
Is it possible? I don’t know but commenters on this site have suggested that the land around Warkworth is neither suitable nor appropriate for this scale of development. The are no services there to support such a population, and is this really the best economic model for the country anyway? Do we not already have too much capital tided up in houses and their supporting infrastructure? Much better to build more efficiently nearer to existing services as well as social and employment opportunities.
So for this particular RoNS to create a step change like the Harbour Bridge did through residential development I think falls somewhere between highly unlikely and completely impossible. It fails to meet even one of the criteria that the earlier project did. It is the wrong time [no pent up demand], the wrong place [too far from centre of activity], and the wrong mode [driving is on the wane, not growing, and facing increasing costs].
Patrick Reynolds Ak Harbour bridge 2000
So perhaps the boom-burb model of economic development is not what the supporters of the RoNS believe make them so valuable and the example of the Harbour Bridge is really not what the Minister meant. Here is the other way that the RoNS are supposed to be so valuable:
Minister of Transport on the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance:
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: It may surprise the member to note that people cannot get their goods out of Northland unless there are roads outside of Northland. It sort of makes sense that if you want to get from Northland down to some other part of New Zealand, you need a road to get there. Eighty percent of all freight in this country is carried on the road. That is why we are putting the money into the road transport programme and the roads of national significance. Tell us, which of the roads in the programme would Labour stop?
-Parliamentary Question Time
So true, imagine if there were no roads, or rail line, or shipping routes, or flights to and from Northland, or at least if these were so suboptimal as to prevent any goods getting to market, milk spoiling, logs rotting, tourists unable to get to the Bay of Islands, then yes, making that connection for the first time would indeed be a breakthrough, and have a truly transformational outcome. Is this an accurate picture of the situation? Well there is one day of the year when traffic does get stuck heading north out of Auckland, December 27th, but even that dissipates well before it reaches Northland and only holds a cargo of impatient holiday makers.
As has been observed here time and again Warkworth could indeed do with a bypass, sections of State highway 1 should be made safer, the rail line is long overdue some work and especially the planned for connection to the natural deep port at Marsden Point should be built, but there are no cases of freight or people being unable to make it through to Auckland or offshore because of the lack of a four lane highway in the Auckland countryside.
Or is there even a cost barrier to these goods reaching Auckland? Will the time saving of 5 or 10 minutes that this project is planned to save change the value of Northland produce so profoundly? Anyway are these improvements certain to be delivered in practice because all such deliveries will still be subject any delays in the Auckland City part of their journey where being stuck for 5 or 10 minutes will only become more likely as a very consequence of the additional driving that this roads-only investment programme is bound to produce? Any economies from all this road spending are certain to be negated by the delays caused by the traffic induced by them and the lost opportunity to invest in other modes. Even a declining mode will have to be used if all other options are run down.
It is very difficult to see how any radical change in performance of Auckland or Northland’s economy can accrue from these investments. Taking the example of the Puhoi to WellsfordRoNS it is much more convincing that any improvements will be incremental at best and therefore greatly at risk from other changes such as rises in fuel price and are in any case nowhere near big enough to create a return on the vast expense.
The Charge of the RoNS Brigade
It seems clear from the minister’s mention of the Harbour Bridge that the whole theoretical underpinning of this programme rests on a series of assumptions that are misplaced and dated. The RoNS look like a classic case of the general fighting the previous battle, assuming all conditions from that last campaign still hold, but being doomed to fail because he doesn’t see how the world has moved on. In this case it is necessary to believe that road is always the best mode, that sprawl will continue for ever, and that investing aggressively in both will always provide economic growth. The facts on the ground say otherwise.
And there is another way that the Minister is mistaken about this precedent; the success of the AHB was in fact all about the city. That land had been there all along, what the bridge did was make it instantly accessible to the city. The city is the true transformation enabler. This government and its supporters remain wilfully in denial about the economic force that are cities in general and New Zealand’s only city of scale in particular. Their insistence that wealth only comes from heavy lifting, preferably by a truck, and never from innovation and social interaction makes them dangerously reckless with our taxes.
And it makes them completely blind to another project that does fit all the criteria for being transformational, that offers improvements that are a step change and are not merely incremental. That has the power to change the shape and proximity of place. That is consistent with the growing direction of the zeitgeist, and helps answers the really big technological, economic, and environmental issues of our time: The CRL.
By working so hard to conform to the conditions of the last century they are blind to the realities of the current one.
Yesterday NZTA released a map of their projects and priorities in Auckland, as part of the National Land Transport Programme release of information. The whole map (in case NZTA remove or update it) is shown below: As Cam’s post yesterday noted, there’s something in the way Puhoi-Wellsford is shown that really stood out – showing the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road as a “possible” Road of National Significance. This is compared to the Puhoi-Warkworth section which is (presumably) a “definite” RoNS.
This is pointed out a bit clearer in the image below:
Labour’s Transport Spokesperson Phil Twyford picked up on this issue in parliament today, and in a press release. Here’s the parliament exchange with Gerry Brownlee:
But just recently NZTA have come out to say that the map was wrong, and in fact Warkworth to Wellsford still is part of the RoNS – not just a ‘possible’ RoNS:
The NZ Transport Agency has confirmed that there is no change to the status of the Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance north of Auckland, and apologised for any confusion caused by an error in a pamphlet published yesterday as part of announcements for the 2012-15 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP).
NZTA Chief Executive Geoff Dangerfield says it is planned to upgrade the entire route, but the preferred alignment and timing of construction of the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road of national significance is yet to be determined.
While all of the material released as part of the 2012-15 National Land Transport Programme give emphasis to the activities planned for the next 3 years, one pamphlet relating to Auckland contained an error with a map refering to the Warkworth to Wellsford section as a “possible” road of national significance.
The NZTA announced in April this year that it had determined the preferred route to build a new motorway between Puhoi and Warkworth.
“We said then, and repeat now, that the new route will form part of the whole Puhoi to Wellsford road of national significance,” Mr Dangerfield says. “We also said that an indicative route for the Warkworth to Wellsford section was not being announced at that time, because we have not yet done the necessary work to determine where this section of the highway will go and do not expect to do so within the next 3 year period. That was what the dotted line was meant to convey,” says Mr Dangerfield.
There is no change to the status of the Puhoi to Wellsford RoNS.
The government and NZTA find themselves in a really difficult position when it comes to Warkworth to Wellsford. On the one hand, the project clearly doesn’t make economic sense – with a much more basic upgrade providing far better value for money than a whole new alignment. However, on the other hand cutting the project back to Warkworth would really undermine the way it’s being sold as a connection between Auckland and Northland. A project ending at Warkworth would really come across as being largely for the benefit of those travelling to the beaches east of there during the holiday periods.
Of course the sensible approach would be to just build the Warkworth bypass section and do some safety upgrades on the existing road to buy us a decade or two until we really need to build the whole thing (assuming we ever do). That should free up well over a billion dollars for spending on more useful projects. I’m pretty sure NZTA know this too.