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.
The NZ Herald reported yesterday that the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the Puhoi-Wellsford Road of National Significance is likely to have its consent fast-tracked through the same Board of Inquiry process to that used by NZTA for the Waterview Connection project. This is of course no surprise as all the Roads of National Significance are going through the same process. Of particular note is that it seems the primary reason why Puhoi-Warkworth justifies being considered as a project of ‘national significance’ (the statutory test for whether something can be sent to a Board of Inquiry or must go through the normal consenting process) is the level of environmental effect generated. The article details these effects:
Massive earthworks carving through difficult country for Auckland’s next highway will dwarf excavations for the Waterview motorway tunnels.
A report for Auckland Council consideration today says the $760 million first stage of the Puhoi to Wellsford tolled highway – one of the Government’s seven “roads of national significance”- will need more than nine million cubic metres of ground moved from its 18km path to Warkworth.
That is almost seven times what is being dug for the Waterview motorway, and the report warns significant and irreversible environmental changes are likely.
The project will also pass through some pretty sensitive environmental areas:
Despite the council report’s warning of environmental challenges such as to the ecologically important Puhoi Scenic Reserve, it recommends the project go under fast-track consenting provisions, for the Government’s Environmental Protection Authority to hold hearings through a board of inquiry and issue a decision within nine months of notifying applications.
Looking at the plans for this project, I don’t think that it will be a straight forward “rubber stamping” exercise for Puhoi-Warkworth to get consent. The sheer environmental impact of the proposal is massive and it will fundamentally alter the environment in a pretty sensitive and previously fairly untouched area – due to the rugged terrain a motorway standard route will be slammed through.
For some reason, Cameron Brewer seems to think that agreement by the Council that the project meets the legislative definition of being of “national significance” (which as I noted earlier more relates to its level of environmental effect rather than its scale of supposed benefit) justifies Labour and the Greens withdrawing their opposition to this project. As we’ve noted many times before on this blog, something needs to be done to State Highway 1 north of Auckland – but this proposal is just complete overkill with most of the benefits likely to occur if we do a few key parts of it (Warkworth bypass and a Schedewys Hill deviation) plus quickly get onto safety upgrades.
That’s a sensible way to move forward. I thought Cameron Brewer supported being careful when public money gets spent? I guess, like so often happens, that principle goes out the window when it comes to flash new motorways.
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.
And from 2010
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.
And from 2009
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 two articles 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?
I guess we will see.