Kapiti Expressway stage one: Review

This is a guest post by architect and our occassional Wellington correspondent Guy Marriage

The first section of the Kapiti Expressway opened on 24 February, at 4am, with little fanfare. As an immediate response to this implicit request, that induced me to make some more traffic by driving up and down the new road, just to see what it is like.
While the section opened up so far is long, from McKays Crossing just north of Paekakariki, stretching north over 20 km nearly to Otaki, it is also completely finished and the verges are well planted. Overall, of course, the Expressway has more to be done, both north (to bypass Otaki) and south (to connect into the Transmission Gully project, itself still many years away). But what has been built so far is well done, and no wonder: it was vastly expensive. It does not, of course, move traffic any faster overall, as it still has obstructions both north and south of it, but it does at least give the impression that one day it will free up traffic to drive smoothly up the coast. Certainly Ken Shirley and his mate Steven Joyce should be well happy.

There are two lanes, each way, with a wide shoulder each side and a continuous center barrier. It should see the accident rate come down : it appears to be well designed in terms of camber and curve, and as the main heavy traffic route into and out of the capital, the truckers will love it. The route has long, lazy, winding curves, rather than being straight as an arrow, and feels enjoyable to drive, rather than the previous bumpy, constricted, one lane road it was before.

What is interesting is that the places that used to cause the constriction before, like Paraparaumu and Waikanae, have completely disappeared. The road was designed to bypass them, and so it has: no trace of them remain. There is a sign pointing to an offramp of course, but due to the winding route and the roadside barriers there was no actual sign, at least not from the seat of my low-slung sedan. Truckers, obviously, will be able to see out over the top of the barriers, but I was surprised – there were moments when I was sure that we were probably going through a Kapiti Coast town, but due to the roadside barriers, I could see nothing.

In terms of urban design, I find the barriers pretty awful. No doubt they are highly functional, but as a series of disjointed concrete panels with minimal decoration (some lines running vertically) and varying heights, they do look a little like a children’s drawing. Perhaps that is the intention. Perhaps they actually were. Nonetheless, they work. I don’t see the town and the town doesn’t see me.

Building on this part of the coast is difficult as the land is sandy and marshy. Perfect for ancient Maori tribes to sit and catch and cook (the land of many many earth ovens), but less suited for building roads on. Millions and millions of tonnes of rock and shingle were moved and compacted to build this smooth raised highway, which meant deep digging down into the subsoil to remove the marshy, sandy topping. No doubt, technologically it is a marvel, and the roading industry will give itself rewards for their cleverness, but ecologically it has been rather savage, and will have destroyed the natural drainage patterns in the area. The good thing is that the roading designers have recognized this and have built up an elaborate series of waterways surrounding the road, with marshy ponds and overflow channels well supplied on either side. The marshes are extremely well planted – there are several million new bits of flora installed and growing happily in the elaborate landscaping. The local wildlife is also loving it – evident by, sadly, the bodies of at least 6 dead Pukeko on the road in one small area and this just from the first day. It’s not easy to train a Pukeko to keep off the road, but at this rate, the obviously healthy local population of moor hens will be considerably smaller before long.

A continuous cycle trail is present, visible through the landscaping, and already utilized by the local school kids coming home a new way home from school. A cycle / pedestrian bridge oversails the road at one point, long, thin, black, and somewhat sophisticated, but mostly the bridges are just simple, straightforward and modern, with none of the elaborate patterning seen on Auckland motorway cuttings lately. I’m glad for that – simple is better – and as yet there is no graffiti. There is really only one decorated feature on the trip – a prow of a small hillock, which the road snakes around, almost cutting it off but not quite – its concrete panels carved with tribal patterns, no doubt referring back to days gone by when it would have had a more significant local role as a landmark. The decoration makes a pleasant change from the greenery, but it is the only feature of any significance on this road of supposed National Significance.

Overall then, the road is fine. The trip is pleasant. The time taken is shorter but it won’t really be evident for many years yet till the works at the southern end are completed. The cost is enormous, the value, as yet, unknown.


RoNS 2.0?

The government’s Roads of National Significance have dominated transport spending over the last eight years and within the next 4-5 years, almost all of the motorways originally proposed will have been completed. Yet despite this, current plans are for transport spending on state highways is set to continue to increase over the coming years – NZTA are currently forecast to spend $1.9 billion on state highways this financial year, based on MoT projections, by 2024-25 this it is likely to be close to $2.9 billion a year.

Although they’re not (yet) officially called it, signs are pointing to the government preparing for RoNS 2.0. Some of these signs have been public comments and commitments and others come from decisions reported from the NZTA. Here are a few of them.

Last Friday, Transport Minister Simon Bridges suddenly announced that the Government would spend $400-500 million to four lane 22km of State Highway 1 between Whangarei and the turnoff to Marsden Port (SH15A), starting in just a few years.

There are couple of thoughts I’ve had about this. Regardless of the merits for one, at least this upgrade is actually in Northland, unlike the Puhoi to Wellsford road the government are building but for which they claim massive benefits for Northland. I also wonder how much of this is about trying to win back the Northland seat off Winston Peters with a less obvious form of pork barrel politics.

NZTA figures show that on average, about 15,000 vehicles use the road per day with about 12% of those being heavy vehicles – a fairly high heavy percentage and notably, both figures are higher than SH1 between Warkworth and north of Wellsford, which the NZTA announced a route for recently and expected to cost more than $1 billion. Speaking of that road,  it surely won’t be too long before people are calling for the ~45km gap between the two roads and over the Brynderwn’s to be done too to give a full motorway/expressway between Whangarei and south of Cambridge. It certainly seems to be on Bridges mind

“Ultimately we’re planning a significant upgrade of the highway all the way from Whangarei to Auckland which will include the completion of the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance which will make journeys along this entire corridor safer and more efficient,” Mr Bridges says

Interestingly both the number of vehicles and the percentage of heavy vehicles seems remarkably similar to the traffic counts on SH2 at Mangatawhiri which was upgrade some years back. It remains mostly a single lane road except for some passing lanes but has been designed so it could be relatively easy to expand in the future. I wonder if the same sort of approach could be done here instead.

A few weeks earlier, at the opening of the Kapiti Expressway, Bridges apparently mused about extending the expressway north of Otaki. Previously the NZTA had scaled back government plans for the section from Otaki to Levin to focus primarily on safety improvements but mid last year said they were re-investigating options which sounds ominously like they trying to justify an expressway again. This section happens to have about the same volumes as the Whangarei route above.

But what is emerging is that these aren’t one offs and they appear to be related to a wider package of work. Looking around the NZTA website recently I came across this Board Resolution titled “Portfolio of inter-regional business cases (North Island)“.

They say they are developing a 10-30 year strategic view of the land transport system and that one of the focuses on improving inter-regional routes. The key inter-regional areas they want to focus on first are basically the SH1 spine and links to Tauranga:

  • completing key enhancements to key inter-regional journeys linking Tauranga, Hamilton, Auckland and Whangarei
  • enhancing key inter-regional journeys linking Hamilton to Levin
  • improving access to Wellington.

From those three focuses there are split into eight different programmes and the resolution above was to get approval to spend $18 million to develop early stage business cases on these programmes. They say all get a high rating for both of the NZTA’s relatively bogus Strategic Fit and Effectiveness measures (Strategic Fit = how well does it align with government policy, Effectiveness = how well the proposed solution achieves the strategic goals). The third leg of the NZTA’s assessment criteria is Efficiency which the business case that assesses the benefits and costs of projects – arguably they should get rid of effectiveness as that should be covered in the business case. The programmes, BCR’s and estimated costs are shown below.

That suggests about $4.5 to $7 billion could be spent on these routes and likely much more given they’re only rough estimates and much more detailed assessments are needed. That’s certainly enough to eat up significant chunks of funding and keep the road builders happy for some years after the completion of the RoNS.

Of the eight above, below are the four considered the most urgent. Most will have both indicative and detailed business cases developed

  • SH1 Auckland to Whangarei – SH1 Northport to Te Hana and SH1 Whangarei to Northport
  • SH29 Piarere to Tauriko – SH29 Piarere to Te Poi, SH29 Te Poi to Summit and SH29 – Summit to Tauriko
  • Tauriko (Tauranga) network – SH29 Tauriko Network Plan
  • Wellington’s port access programme business case.

So are we heading for RoNS 2.0, or perhaps they’ve just been smelling too much tarmac recently?

Are regional towns and cities too small?

Last week, I took a look at the question of whether Auckland is too big. (Answer: Probably not.) However, there’s also another, related question that I didn’t discuss: Are other New Zealand towns and cities too small?

“Too small” is obviously a subjective concept – what’s just right for one person will be painful for another. So I’m going to return, briefly, to the theoretical model I discussed in the last post, which analysed city size as an interplay between agglomeration economies and congestion/crowding costs.

Most New Zealand towns and cities are not large enough to be congested or crowded in any meaningful way. They are more likely to face challenges with the sustainability of local businesses and the affordability of maintaining infrastructure. Even a reasonably-sized growing city like Hamilton has experienced struggles in this area. Fortunately, it seems to be improving, but it could still do with more customers within walking distance and more people starting up businesses

But it’s not just about the number of people – productivity also matters. When businesses are more productive, they tend to pay higher wages, which increases demand for local goods and services and strengthens the local tax base. This also makes it easier to address the challenges faced by many regional towns and cities.

Unfortunately, New Zealand has a lot of issues with poor productivity, and, as Motu Institute economist Dave Maré has shown, these issues are worse in smaller towns and cities even after controlling for differences in firm and worker characteristics:

Population growth in smaller towns and cities can enhance their productivity performance, if it’s managed well. Agglomeration economies also apply in smaller places. For instance, a town with a large enough population to sustain three restaurants rather than two will also tend to have better restaurants, as increased competition forces them to raise their game.

However, towns and cities also trade with each other. A factory in Hamilton may buy parts from an importer in Tauranga. A family living in Dunedin might take a day-trip to Oamaru to check out their steampunk society. And so on and so forth. When this happens, it expands the market available to firms in each location, giving them more opportunities to benefit from agglomeration economies.

In other words, good transport links between towns and cities can enable increased productivity (and in doing so, make them more desirable for new residents and businesses). There is some evidence that this process isn’t occurring in New Zealand towns and cities. In a new research paper from the Productivity Commission, economist Guanyu Zheng investigates “geographic proximity and productivity convergence across New Zealand firms“. It offers some important insights on what’s happening at the ground level of the NZ economy.

Zheng’s key conclusion is that:

The speed of convergence to the local frontier is greater than the speed of convergence to the national frontier. This indicates that geographic proximity is important in the diffusion of technology. One possible reason is that much information and technical know-how is tacit and non-codifiable. Geographic proximity facilitates information exchange between firms and enhances the capability of firms to absorb tacit technology.

Shorn of the economese, this means that firms in Wellington tend to compete with (and catch up with) other firms in Wellington, and firms in Nelson tend to compete with other firms in Nelson. There’s less competition and catch-up between firms in different cities, which impedes New Zealand’s productivity performance. However, there are a few industries, like agriculture and professional services, where convergence happens more rapidly. These industries differ in a lot of ways, but they are both relatively knowledge-intensive, with high returns for adopting new ideas, with outputs that are relatively easy to trade across distance.

What can we do to address this?

The first step is correctly diagnosing the cause of the problem. Aside from New Zealand’s long and hilly geography, the main reason that it’s so difficult to trade between cities in NZ is the perverse legacy of the 1930s-1980s approach to industrial and transport planning. As I’ve written before, this had two main components:

  • First, there was a deliberate policy of making freight transport between regions costly and difficult. The Transport Licensing Act 1931 banned trucks from moving goods more than 150 kilometres until its repeal in 1982, while the Railways Department had all sorts of obscure rules about train loading and unloading to guarantee employment in rural depots.
  • Second, industry location was regulated and subsidised to ensure a stable and “equitable” distribution of economic activities throughout the country. For instance, there were regulations that virtually prohibited the opening or closing of meatworks and other rural processing plants between the 1930s and 1980s.

These policies appear to have a long-lasting negative legacy. Firms that were required to locate in small towns, paying high transport costs to sell to the rest of New Zealand, have been at a disadvantage since then. They don’t have scale in their local market, and it’s excessively costly to ship freight to the rest of NZ. As a result, they’ve struggled to stay alive, let alone to grow.

Overcoming high costs to distance within New Zealand could potentially have large economic benefits by enabling faster productivity convergence between local towns and cities as well as between them. The problem is that there is no single “Think Big-esque” thing that we can do in order to sort these problems out.

Viewed from a certain angle, the Roads of National Significance were an attempt to reduce high costs to distance between regions. They’re likely to be successful in some cases – for instance, the Waikato Expressway will make travel between Auckland and the Waikato considerably faster, and boost the Waikato in the process. However, as a strategy for addressing a system-wide issue they are likely to fall short for two reasons:

  • First, too much money has been spent on urban and urban fringe motorways that will have minimal impact on inter-regional connectivity. Puhoi to Warkworth and Transmission Gully motorways are prime examples.
  • Second, they leave a whole bunch of other problems unsolved. For every kilometre of RONS, there are probably twenty kilometres of roads with dangerous curves, a lack of passing lanes, or other issues. And there are also opportunities to improve the speed and reliability of the freight rail network.

In other words, we can’t rely upon the RONS to sort out our problems with geography. In some locations, they may contribute to the solution, but in others they may crowd it out.

By way of illustration, the following chart shows the last decade’s worth of spending on new and improved roads in the Northland Region. This is an area where better internal road links could be quite beneficial, as travel speeds are slow. Between 2007 and 2016 a total of around $420 million was spent within the region. This is only around half of the cost of the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway, which means that you could cancel that, double funding on road links within Northland, and still have money to spare.

So, returning to the question that I started the post with: New Zealand’s towns and cities could benefit from more agglomeration and higher productivity levels. Population growth would help, in many places, but an equally important priority is to improve connectivity between towns and cities to enable more competition between places.

What do you think about the cost of distance within New Zealand?

Motorways interchanges completed late and over budget

On Friday Transport Minister Simon Bridges officially opened the Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd sections of the Western Ring Route.

Simon Bridges officially opening the two projects

Simon Bridges officially opening the two projects

The NZ Transport Agency says the official opening today of two upgrades to Auckland’s Northwestern Motorway kicks off a significant year in the city’s transport history.

The Lincoln Interchange and Te Atatu Interchange projects were officially opened by Transport Minister Simon Bridges at a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning.

They are the first of several improvement projects to be opened this year as part of the Government’s $2.4b Western Ring Route – designed to keep Auckland moving.

Both of these projects are crucial building blocks in the Western Ring Route, providing an additional route to State Highway 1 and the Harbour Bridge and changing the way people move around Auckland.

NZ Transport Agency Highways Manager Brett Gliddon says the improvements at Lincoln and Te Atatu are part of a series of projects being completed during the next year to ensure the Northwestern motorway is able to handle the growing demands from everyone who uses it – drivers, people using public transport and those who walk and cycle.

“Increasing the motorway from two to three lanes in each direction on this stretch of the motorway will help traffic to flow better leading to greater travel time reliability, and an efficient alternative route to use instead of State Highway 1,” says Mr Gliddon.

I was apparently invited to the opening but the NZTA sent the email to the wrong address – not that I would’ve been able to attend due to work commitments.

Regardless of what mode you use, for many out west the completion would be a welcome change as works and the disruption that came with it have been an ongoing challenge. But I wonder just how successful the project has been, especially the Lincoln Rd section. Here’s are some of the quick facts from the NZTA’s press release.

The $145million upgrade of the Lincoln Interchange has widened and realigned the onramps and motorway exits to improve safety and traffic flow. There are new dedicated, purpose built bus lanes providing a greater level of service than before. The Northwestern Cycleway has also been extended and improved.

The $65million Te Atatu Interchange project has added an extra lane in each direction between Te Atatu and Lincoln Roads, new motorway on and off-ramps as well as raising and widening the Te Atatu overbridge.


Work will begin later this year on the Lincoln to Westgate project to tie into this just completed work at the Lincoln Road Interchange. It will include widening the Northwestern motorway to three lanes, improved on and off ramps, creating bus lanes and extending the Northwestern Cycleway.

So let’s take a quick look back to when these two projects each began.

Lincoln Rd Interchange

The project started all the way back at the end of October 2010 and has seen the interchange vastly supersized, for example the bridge over the motorway was widened from two lanes to seven. At the start of the project the NZTA laid out these basic facts. The important ones for this post being that it would cost $100 million, be completed in 2013, include all four ramps and extend the cycleway as far as Huruhuru Road.

Lincoln Rd Key Features

Immediately you can see a few glaring issues, these being that the project is $45 million over budget and three years late. To be fair, I understand the timeframe was deliberately delayed so that funding could be diverted to help deal with the immediate aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes, three years late? I can also accept the idea that they slowed construction so it could better be tied into the progress of the rest of the Western Ring Route. Not much point adding lanes and capacity only for it to hid the queue not far down the road. As infomercials love to say “but wait, there’s more”.

As I mentioned the works were to include all four ramps and extending the cycleway to Huruhuru Rd – via a torturous four leg crossing of Lincoln Rd, no underpass here. Here’s a map of the interchange design. I’ve rotated it to better compare with the following image.

Lincoln Rd Interchange details

Here’s what it looks like as of the beginning of April.

Lincoln Rd Interchange - April 2016 2

You can see very clearly that the westbound onramp and the extension of the cycleway past Lincoln Rd are completely missing. That’s because they’ve been moved in with the project widening the section of motorway from here to Westgate – another ~$100 million project.

So all up it appears we’ve got a project that is $45 million over budget, three years late and they still haven’t even completed some of the work they said they would do.

Te Atatu Interchange

Thankfully the Te Atatu interchange doesn’t appear to have the delays that the Lincoln interchange suffered, but it does appear to have had its own cost blowout. This is from the press release when the project got under way.

Key features of the $50m project include widening the Northwestern motorway between the Te Atatu Road and Patiki Road interchanges, widening all five ramps on the interchange, enhancing existing facilities for walkers and cyclists and widening and raising the Te Atatu Road overbridge.


Work will start on the improvements at Te Atatu in the new year and is set to be completed in 2016.

Here’s the Te Atatu interchange from April

Te Atatu Interchange - April 2016 2

So the project was completed in 2016 like they said it would be but was $15 million over budget.

Te Atatu Rd Underpass

The Te Atatu project includes the fantastic cycleway underpass

So all up we’ve got projects over budget, late and missing components. Perhaps not quite the NZTAs finest hour. Imagine what kind of amazing local cycling network that extra $60 million could have delivered if spent within the area.

It’s quite likely that within the next decade we’ll be seeing the heavy machinery out in these sections once again, this time adding the piece of the puzzle that was absurdly left out of this project, the Northwest Busway.

RoNS 2.0 (again)

The idea of continuing the Waikato Expressway all the way to Tauranga including a tunnel under the Kaimai Ranges has once again been come up after Transport Minster Simon Bridges suggested the idea has some merit. Now apparently called the Kaimai Connection it is being pushed by a number government MPs from the region.

The Kaimai connection – completing the golden triangle between Waikato and the Bay of Plenty – is being discussed at the highest levels.

On Friday, Transport Minister Simon Bridges said he is encouraged by the idea.

“It is pretty hard to argue against, at least in principle, the idea of carrying it on to some degree to the Bay of Plenty,” said Bridges. “It is a very compelling idea to continue.”

Early in January, Hamilton City Councillor Martin Gallagher and National MP for Taupo Louise Upston called for an expressway between Hamilton and Tauranga to be prioritised.

“Of course, I’m not digging myself into any election promises at this stage, because there is a whole lot of planning and investment required,” Bridges said.

An article on the call by Martin Gallagher and Louise Upston for the road is here.

Another Government MP is supporting the call and he was also calling for it around five years ago

National’s Hamilton East MP, David Bennett agreed it is time to turn concept into reality.

“The next phase for the Waikato is to connect with the Bay of Plenty,” said Bennett. “We have an existing connection, but it certainly can be improved.”

Tauranga is ready for the next step, said Bennett, and by 2020, the Hamilton and Huntly sections of the Waikato Expressway would be complete.

Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this project be raised. Almost exactly a year ago a fourth government MP was saying also the same thing.

A vehicle tunnel under the Kaimai Range needs to be considered with the same weight as a second harbour crossing in Auckland was given, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller says.


He included an interesting analogy:

“I look at somebody like Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson. He looked at what Auckland could be “one million people by the turn of the century “and people scoffed at him.

And who was it that did the scoffing and cancelled Dove-Meyer Robinson’s plans again?

Five years ago when David Bennett was suggesting it he was also supported by the truck lobby – although they at least acknowledged it wasn’t something happening soon.

Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said road transport operators thought a road tunnel could stack up economically within 20 years as freight grew and time and fuel costs were taken into account. “When we look at the future projections, all the modes of transport have to step up. The bulk will go by road. We believe it could well be that in the longer term a road tunnel through the Kaimais would be viable.”

So there’s a lot of support for the idea but does it stack up?

As I understand it the long term strategy from the NZTA is to make SH29 (and SH1) the main route connecting Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland which is in part to get more trips on the Waikato Expressway which is currently being built. That would divert traffic off the SH2 route through the Karangahake Gorge and towns of Paeroa, Waihi and Katikati.

Kaimai Connection

If built as an expressway it would require something to be done about the steep grades on some parts of the road over the Kaimai Range and that’s where the tunnel comes in. Reports from a few years ago suggested the NZTA were looking at a number of tunnel options in three locations,

NZTA regional director Harry Wilson says one option involves building a road tunnel near the existing rail tunnel, another is building a tunnel near Thompsons Track, between Katikati and Apata. The third option, known as a summit-level tunnel, involves building a tunnel half-way up the existing alignment of State Highway 29.

So far 10 options have been identified in these three locations.

“To date, high-level cost estimates indicate the price for each option including approach roading would range from $1.5 to 2 billion,” Mr Wilson said.

“While we are not discounting the possibility of building a tunnel, the early indication from the cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost of building a tunnel could outweigh the benefits of the project.”

I don’t recall ever hearing what option they chose as the preferred one however I have heard the cost could be more than double the $2 billion figure suggested back then. The last statement about the costs outweighing the benefits is likely a massive understatement. The NZTA’s traffic stats indicate that SH29 over the Kaimais has only just reached an average of 10,000 vehicles per day within the last few months.

Kaimai Traffic Volumes

It’s a project that would make the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing’s very weak business case look saintly and that’s with AWHC expected to induce up to 60,000 more vehicles a day to cross the harbour. The SH2 route through Waihi and the Karangahake Gorge just over 8,200 vehicles per day.

Back in 2012 the idea was added to the 2012-22 Government Policy Statement on transport as part of a list of potential future RoNS

28. Possible new routes have been identified through the State highway classification system. This system categorises State highways based on the function they perform, such as moving freight to and from ports or linking major population centres. The classification system provides a national consensus on the role and function of different State highways, and thus the levels of service that can be expected over a 20 year timeframe.

29. Routes that may be considered on this basis for future RoNS include:

  • Hamilton to Tauranga
  • Cambridge to Taupo
  • Napier to Hastings
  • State Highway 1 north and south of the current Christchurch motorway projects.

30. Based on the State highway classification system these four routes have high volumes of traffic, and are important for freight movements including port access.

Interestingly there was no mention of them at all in the 2015-25 GPS.

It seems to me that perhaps a key main reason these MPs are pushing for this project is that the Waikato Expressway will be completed in around four years and they are keen for more money to be poured into the Waikato which has had the second highest per capita spend on transport.

Spending - NZ - 2015 - Per Capita 3



From driving the route a few times per year I suspect there are a lot of much lower cost improvements that could make a big difference to issues like safety and travel times.


Hamilton Bypass to be Bypassed

The NZTA yesterday announced they’ve awarded a $1 billion contract to build another bypass of Hamilton and comes after they spent $200 million on the existing bypass at Te Rapa which opened three years ago. Construction won’t begin till next spring as the contract includes the detailed design work which will take place first.

A consortium of contractors and designers has been awarded a contract to build the biggest roading project to be undertaken in the Waikato, the NZ Transport Agency says.

The 21 kilometre long Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway will be constructed by a group made up of Fletcher, Beca, Higgins and Coffey (FBHC), in an alliance with the Transport Agency.

The proposed design for the section includes five interchanges, 17 bridges and new connecting roads at Ruakura Road and Resolution Drive.

Waikato Expressway - Hamilton Bypass

As usual with these things there seems to be a fair amount of artistic licence that goes into the press releases. For example

The project is one of seven sections of the Waikato Expressway, a Road of National Significance (RoNS)identified by the Government as key to unlocking New Zealand’s potential for economic growth.

Once all seven sections are complete, the expressway is expected to cut travel times between Auckland and Tirau by up to 35 minutes and significantly improving safety.

So how much of that claimed 35 minute savings comes from this project and how much from the other sections that have already been completed or are under way? Including the time savings of other projects was one of the key criticisms of the NZTA by the board of inquiry that rejected the Basin Reserve Flyover in Wellington.


“The expressway connects inter-regional traffic with local destinations which is vital for the economy and for our vibrant communities. We have to get these things right and we can only do that if we partner up,” she says.

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker says the project is important to growth and development in Hamilton and the wider Waikato region.

“We have been waiting in anticipation for completion of the Hamilton section of the expressway and it’s great to have this work now locked in,” she says.

“It is a fantastic project that will deliver considerable value to Hamilton’s economy and lifestyle.”

I’m not quite sure how a rural motorway out past the edge of town is going to do anything to make communities in Hamilton more vibrant and isn’t the point to allow traffic to bypass the city and get to or from Auckland faster. The project also isn’t likely to do much to the economy either. Even by 2041 some sections are still expected to have fewer than 10,000 vehicles per day using them – and that’s likely using the NZTAs often over-optimistic assumptions. Another way of putting that is it’s on par with what the old Kopu bridge carried back when it was a single lane bridge.


I suspect that if this section was assessed on it’s own it might be lucky to scrape above a BCR of 0.2

I wonder how liveable and vibrant Hamilton would be if $1 billion was spent on projects that more directly benefited locals?

Basin Bridge Bowled again

Fantastic news out of Wellington yesterday with the High Court rejecting completely the NZTA’s appeal of the decision by the Board of Inquiry to decline consent for the Basin Reserve Flyover

Basin Bridge Image 2

The High Court today dismissed the NZ Transport Agency’s attempt to overturn the rejection of its controversial plan to build a 300-metre concrete flyover alongside the Basin Reserve.

In a decision released this afternoon, the Court stated:

The Transport Agency has not established that in its decision the Board of Inquiry made any error of law … Consequently the Agency’s appeal is dismissed.

And earlier:

The Board’s decision does not contain any of the errors of law alleged.

The Transport Agency had appealed against the Board of Inquiry’s decision to decline consent for the $90m flyover alongside the Basin Reserve.

The Government set up the Board of Inquiry process as a way of fast tracking consents for large projects to stop them being held up in years and years of appeals. The only appeals were allowed on points of law.

Some of the key reasons consent was declined in the first place was

  • That while the project would improve the cities transport system that it would do so at the expense of heritage, landscape, visual amenity, open space and overall amenity.
  • They are uncertain how the plan would have actually accommodated for Bus Rapid Transit as proposed in the Spine Study.
  • That the quantum of transport benefits were substantially less than what the NZTA originally said in lodging the NoR as they included transport benefits from other projects.
  • That while North/South buses would be sped up, that the modelling doesn’t show any impact effect of this on modal change.
  • That while there are some improvements for cyclists it’s mostly in the form of shared paths which will introduce potential conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists.
  • That the dominance of the bridge would cause severe adverse affects on the local area and the mitigation measures proposed would do little to reduce that. They also found the new building proposed for the Basin Reserve would exacerbate this.

Some of these are likely to have massive implications for other projects such as the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing and the Reeves Rd Flyover. For example it likely means that the NZTA are going to have include not just the tunnel and direct connections in their consent for AWHC but also all the associated road widening of the Northern Motorway and Central Motorway Junction – which we understand is substantial. It could also stop the idea of building a combined road and rail tunnel across the harbour as the NZTA would have to consent the connections on either side. This will likely be why they’ve told us that they will not be including rail in current consent process.

AWHC - Indstry Briefing


Coming back to Wellington it will be interesting to see how the NZTA respond. It’s time they gave up idea and started thinking about other solutions.

MoT’s review of capital spending on roads, part 3

This is the second post in a series on the Ministry of Transport’s working paper on New Zealand’s capital spending on roads, which was prepared as an input to the 2015/16 Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Land Transport Funding. It was released to Matt under the Official Information Act just before Christmas. Previous posts:

In the previous post, I took a look at the MoT paper’s findings on the economic efficiency of state highway spending. MoT showed that since 2008 spending on the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) has gone up, while benefit-cost ratios have gone down. As a result, we have almost doubled our spending on state highways without achieving any more economic or social benefits from that spending.

This week, I’ll take a look at a different question: Is it possible to spend our road budget more efficiently? If we chose to build other roads instead, would we get more benefits from them?

The MoT paper examines this issue quite comprehensively, and comes up with an unambiguous “yes”. But before I get into it, it’s worth reviewing the system that the Government is currently using to assess transport investments. Projects are ranked on three criteria:

  • Strategic fit [i.e. is this project trying to do something that the Government cares about?]
  • Effectiveness [i.e. will this project actually do what it’s intended to do?]
  • Benefit and cost appraisal [i.e. will this project deliver more benefits than costs?]

In short, the BCR is only part of the picture. In practice, it’s less important than strategic fit. However, it’s still an important criteria for determining whether we are getting good value out of our transport investments, especially as many of the strategic outcomes that the Government wants are accounted for in a transport cost-benefit analysis.

With that in mind, Section 5.4 of the MoT paper compares BCRs for local road and state highway projects which have committed funding versus those that will probably receive funding or which will remain unfunded.

This analysis, summarised in the chart below, shows that BCRs for state highway projects tend to be lower than BCRs for local road projects whether or not they have committed funding or not. This might be an indication that too much money has been allocated to new state highways – effectively, there are worthy local roads that are going unfunded.

Another worrisome finding is that BCRs for “committed and approved” state highway projects are considerably lower than projects that are merely “probable” or which have not been given funding. This suggests that even within the state highway budget, funding isn’t going to the projects that offer the best returns.

MoT BCR by funding priority chart 1

However, the MoT paper notes that these figures include “significant spending on large strategic projects” – the Auckland Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative (AMETI) in  local roads and the RoNS in state highways. Is it simply the case that a few big funding calls are skewing the results?

Here’s what the chart looks like with those projects removed. As you can see, “committed and approved” state highway projects other than the RoNS also offer a lower return than the “probable and reserve” projects that may or may not get funding. What the hell is going on here?

MoT BCR by funding priority chart 2

Elsewhere in the paper, MoT sums up the situation as follows, with a nod to the idea that traffic forecasts are over-predicting growth:

MoT state highway benefits

It also compares these figures with BCRs for other transport spending, including NZTA-funded PT infrastructure and services and walking and cycling projects, and concludes that:

MoT BCR by activity class summary

In other words, the focus on big state highway projects means that the Government is passing up higher-value spending that serves other modes. Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t offer a lot of additional analysis. But it would be interesting to know how much analysis NZTA or MoT has done on the bus infrastructure projects that are needed to get good transport outcomes in Auckland, such as the Northern Busway extension, the Northwest Busway, extensions of the AMETI busway, and bus interchanges to support Auckland’s New Network.

With all that in mind, how would we be spending money if cost-benefit analysis was the key criteria?

Section 6.2 of the MoT report contains a number of colourful charts to illustrate how we could be doing things differently. Here’s the bit that stuck out for me. It classifies new state highway projects, excluding RoNS, according to their BCR (vertical axis), funding priority (horizontal axis), and total cost (size of bubble).

If BCRs were the key criteria for project funding, the black-coloured bubbles would be de-funded and the red-coloured bubbles funded in their place:

MoT de-prioritised projects 1

MoT de-prioritised projects 2

As you can see, if the Government were focused on getting the highest benefits out of its transport budget, it would have to de-fund most large state highway projects that are currently underway. Yikes.

It’s not clear what conclusions MoT’s drawing from this analysis, as the final paragraphs are entirely blacked out. However, I’d be surprised if they weren’t a bit skeptical of the way that public money is being spent…

Next week: MoT’s analysis of roads spending by region. Preview: Canterbury’s getting a raw deal.

MoT’s review of capital spending on roads, part 2

This is the second post in a series on the Ministry of Transport’s working paper on New Zealand’s capital spending on roads, which was prepared as an input to the 2015/16 Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Land Transport Funding. It was released to Matt under the Official Information Act just before Christmas. Previous posts:

As I said last week, MoT’s paper suggests that there are big issues with the land transport budget. Current road spending does not seem to represent good value for money. To their credit, MoT appear to be acknowledging this. However, it doesn’t seem to have percolated up into the investment decisions being made by the Government.

This week, I want to look at what NZTA’s money (the National Land Transport Fund, or NLTF) is being spent on, and how economically efficient that expenditure has been.

Section 4 of the MoT report contains a lot of useful data on past and future spending on roads. Here’s what’s happened to the roads budget over the last 15 years, and what’s expected to happen over the next decade:

MoT spending on new roads 1997-2022 chart

Basically, about a decade ago we started spending a lot more on new or improved roads. A lion’s share of new spending went to state highways, in spite of the fact that local roads carry more traffic. As we have previously discussed at length, this spend-up coincided with a flattening of growth in vehicle kilometres travelled. (It also coincided with an acceleration in price inflation for civil construction.)

In other words, we’ve spent a decade spending increasing amounts of money on roads for which demand is not increasing. And the last three Government Policy Statements plan for state highway spending to increase further.

In order to pay for state highway spending, it’s been necessary to divert money from other activities – local roads, maintenance, PT, and walking and cycling have all taken a hit. The Government has also raised petrol taxes several times. The MoT report offers some analysis of how spending priorities changed between the 2008 GPS and the 2012 GPS.

The following chart compares projected spending ranges for new and improved state highways (the darker uppermost bands) and new and improved local roads (the thinner, lower bands). It shows that funding for state highways – the Roads of National Significance – was raised by around half a billion dollars a year, while local road funding was cut back.

MoT GPS 08 12 road spending comparison

One would hope that the Government’s decision to allocate vast amounts of funds to state highway projects was based on a sound economic rationale. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence of this in the MoT paper. Section 5 of the MoT paper analyses benefit-cost ratios (BCRs) for road spending. It notes some caveats with the data – BCRs for some projects had to be inferred from “efficiency scores” – but there is enough data to paint a picture.

Here is MoT’s picture. It is not a pretty one:

MoT state highway BCRs 2005-2012

Essentially, MoT finds that average benefit cost ratios for state highway projects declined significantly in 2008/09 and have stayed low ever since. An eyeballing of the graph suggests that BCRs prior to 2008 averaged a bit over 3.5 – meaning that state highway projects were expected to return $3.5 in social benefits for every dollar invested. Since 2008, they have averaged a bit over 2 – meaning that state highway projects now only return $2 in social benefits for every dollar invested.

MoT’s analysis of this graph is entirely blacked out in the released document. Nonetheless, the implications are simple: we have almost doubled our spending on state highways without achieving any more benefits from that spending. BCRs aren’t everything, but it’s really, really hard to understand why the Government would want to spend money so ineffectively.

The answer is that they feel that the Roads of National Significance offer a better “strategic fit” with their overall objectives for the land transport budget. I’m not necessarily opposed to this evaluation approach. In my experience, cost-benefit analysis invariably has some blind spots. Using qualitative “strategic fit” criteria can allow policymakers to take account of broader goals that aren’t well covered in NZTA’s Economic Evaluation Manual.

However, I don’t think that strategic fit should override all other analysis. If you think that a project is important for supporting a productive economy, that’s fair enough. But if an evaluation of the project’s impact on freight costs and agglomeration effects in urban areas results in a low BCR, you should question your prior assumptions about its economic benefits. It’s foolish to think that four-lane divided highways are magical devices for creating economic growth. Economics simply doesn’t work that way.

Next week: Do we have better options for spending the transport budget?

2014 – A Year in Review Part 3 – Roads

In the third in my series of posts wrapping up the year I will look at what’s happened with roads this year.

Roads of National Significance

The RoNS have continued as they did last year with one notable exception.

Western Ring Route

The Western Ring Route works are in full flight now as will be evidenced to anyone who drives along SH16 with roadworks in place from east of Western Springs all the way through Northwest of Lincoln Rd from 5 separate projects.

  • St Lukes Interchange
  • Waterview Connection
  • Causeway upgrade
  • Te Atatu Interchange
  • Lincoln Rd Interchange

The TBM working on the Waterview connection has broken through with the first tunnel and in December made a start on the second one. At the same time the most visible part of the project has been the large yellow gantry has been building towering ramps that will connect the tunnels to SH16 in each direction.

Over the next year we should finally see the Lincoln Rd section completed and I imagine significant progress on the other projects – although they are still a few years from completion.

Puhoi to Wellsford

In 2014 the NZTA were issued with consent to build the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway – a road even the NZTA’s analysis says is only really busy during holiday periods. Amazingly we’re still yet to see any real economic analysis for the project which is likely because it’s terrible based on the work we saw before the government named it a priority. The government of course continue to claim it’s all about the economic development of Northland despite the existing toll road – which saved more time than this motorway will – not making any difference.

Confirmed route

Over 2015 we’re likely to see the NZTA working towards a PPP to get this project built however it’s not likely we’ll see any construction start.

Basin Reserve Flyover

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2014 was the Board of Inquiry declining the NZTA’s application to build a flyover around the edge of the Basin Reserve. In the end the commissioners hearing the case concluded the impact on the local community from having a massive flyover was just too much after it was able to be shown that most of the benefits the NZTA claimed the road would provide were actually attributable to other projects.  The decision was embarrassing for the NZTA and the government seeing as it was using the governments new fast track process which means the decision can only be appealed on points of law – which the NZTA are doing.

Basin Bridge Image 1

I’m not aware if a date has yet been set for the appeal but it is likely to be later next year.

Transmission Gully

Also in Wellington, the first transport PPP was signed in July for the construction and operation of Transmission Gully, another project with a horrific business case. Initial works should have started by now however won’t really ramp up till next year. The PPP will see the NZTA paying $125 million a year for 25 years once the project has been completed. Unlike many PPPs that failed overseas, for the consortium building the road there is little risk as all the demand risk sits with the NZTA, in other words we pay providing the road is open – and if it is damaged from a something like an earthquake we have to pay at least some of the costs of that too.

Other RoNS

The other RoNS projects in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Christchurch have continued along. I’m not sure of the progress of all of them however the Tauranga Eastern Link is meant to be completed in 2015.

Auckland Motorway Projects

In 2013 the government announced a series of additional motorway projects for Auckland. The widening of the Northern Motorway between Upper Harbour and Greville Dr has just been completed and in November started consultation on ideas for further changes to that section including a motorway to motorway interchange between SH1 and SH18. Some of the ideas are absolutely massive in scale such as concept 3.

Northern Corridor Improvements Concept 3

Of the other projects, works to grade separate Kirkbride Rd moved ahead and earlier this month the NZTA announced the contract had been signed with construction starting in January

We haven’t heard much about the other accelerated project which will see the southern motorway from Manukau to Papakura widened but I would expect we will do in 2015.

In addition to the accelerated projects the NZTA has now made a start on widening SH1 Northbound between Ellerslie-Panmure Highway and Greenlane – a project that’s been on the cards for a while and for which the Ellerslie Station platform was narrowed a few years ago to accommodate.

Accelerated Regional Roads

In addition to the RoNS, and to shore up their support from some rural communities, this year the government announced a spend up of over $200 million on a number of regional state highway projects that can’t get funding due to it being sucked up by the RoNS. The Funding for these projects is coming from the proceeds of asset sales the government has undertaken. Some of the projects appear to be of low value however not all are.

Govt Accelerated Rural Road Package


Auckland Transport started the year with the opening of the new Panmure station and in November they opened Te Horeta Rd which is the new road running alongside the rail line and Panmure station from Mt Wellington Highway to Morrin Rd.

East West Link Connections

In October both AT and the NZTA launched consultation on ideas for the East West Link after calling off a proposal for a motorway through Mangere right at the beginning of the year. They haven’t announced the results yet but I’m fairly certain either option C or D has been picked as the option they are proceeding with.

EW Option - Option D

Mill Rd

In November AT announced they have come up with a route for the Mill Rd corridor and will be working towards securing a designation for it. The most disappointing aspect for me about the project – other than some of the case for it has likely been destroyed by the fast tracking of the SH1 widening – is that even with a brand new corridor, AT are still designing a crap outcome with features like unprotected cycle lanes or shared paths and pedestrian/cycle unfriendly roundabouts.

We’re still driving less

One positive trend I have started to notice is our transport institutions are starting to take notice of is that we’re driving less. In the last few months in particular it’s started to be mentioned in publications such as the Briefing to the Incoming Minister and in research papers.


What have I missed?