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Portugal’s Ghost Roads

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.

Tauranga Eastern Link – another white elephant motorway?

NZTA were pleased to announce on Wednesday that they are making good progress on the “Tauranga Eastern Link” road, a Road of National Significance that we haven’t paid much attention to in the past. Given our general disdain of the justification for projects given this title (Victoria Park Tunnel and Waterview Connection excepted) I thought I’d look in a bit more detail around what the Tauranga Eastern Link road actually is – and whether it falls into the category of pointless and stupid RoNS (like Puhoi-Wellsford, parts of the Waikato Expressway and most of the Wellington Northern Corridor project) or more reasonable RoNS (like the aforementioned Auckland projects and perhaps part of the Christchurch projects though I’m not too familiar with them).

The Tauranga Eastern Link project, according to the NZTA website, is a four-lane median divided highway between Tauranga and Paengaroa (don’t worry, I’ve never heard of Paengaroa either), which bypasses Te Puke and shortens this route quite considerably. Its route is shown in the map below:

Interestingly, this road will be a toll road, so the economics of it are somewhat more dependent than usual on getting traffic predictions right. Something we’re notoriously bad at. They’re also very much dependent upon getting future growth predictions for the general Papamoa area correct – something that comes through pretty strongly in NZTA’s justification of the project:

Why we need it

Planning for the future and addressing the need to manage growth, ensure economic development and traffic safety issues for the region are key objectives for building the Tauranga Eastern Link.

Western Bay of Plenty – growth snap shot

  • One of New Zealand’s fastest growing residential areas.
  • Population is expected to double over the next 30 years to 286,000.
  • By 2051 Papamoa East is predicted to be a city the size of Nelson with 40,000 people and the total population of the eastern corridor itself will be upwards of 60,000.
  • Set to become the fourth or fifth most populated region in New Zealand.
  • As the population continues to grow, this will increase pressure on existing infrastructure.
  • The key drivers of this growth will be increasing use of the Port of Tauranga, New Zealand’s largest port, and the development of new residential, commercial and industrial land to the east of the city.

Planning for future land use and transport in the Western Bay of Plenty has been considered in an integrated manner under the SmartGrowth Strategy developed by local authorities and road controlling agencies. This strategy has a focus on corridors – known as SmartTransport Corridors. The Tauranga Eastern Link is a key priority within the development of the Eastern Corridor, and is an essential component of an integrated transport network.

The urban areas within the eastern corridor, including Papamoa East, Te Puke and Rangiuru, by 2051 are expected to grow with around 60,000 new residents anticipated to move to the area. Development of the eastern corridor will support and complement the existing developing areas located south-east of Mount Maunganui.

In broad terms, future development along the eastern corridor is expected to contribute around $8.5 billion to the Western Bay of Plenty sub-region economy. This includes:

  • 17,500 new homes
  • 450 hectares of industrial development
  • up to 100,000 square metres of shops, office and commercial activity.

From a growth management and planning perspective, the Tauranga Eastern Link is integral to the development of the eastern parts of Tauranga and will form a transport network that will support and enable the anticipated growth.

In terms of road safety the Tauranga Eastern Link will provide safer traffic flows. The section of State Highway 2 between Tauranga and Paengaroa, is the second-worst state highway under the New Zealand Road Safety Assessment Programme, based on fatalities and serious ongoing crashes per kilometre.

The troubles of Mangawhai Heads always make me a bit sceptical of huge population growth projections in somewhat peripheral areas, plus I do wonder whether building new motorways to enable a whole heap of coastal sprawl is really the kind of land-use and planning integration the country actually needs. But let’s set that issue aside for a bit.

One of the main criticisms this blog has had of the RoNS projects is that they very much ignore the significant changes in travel trends over the past few years – with a pretty dramatic tapering off of traffic growth. Obviously volumes are still going up in some places and down in others, so I thought I’d take a look at what’s happening along this existing State Highway 2 corridor – using NZTA’s helpful state highway traffic volume data. I’ve taken annualised average daily traffic totals between 2007 and 2011 for the points (approximately) along SH2 shown in the map below:

These points should give us a fairly good overview of what’s happening generally along the corridor as they cover points still kind of in the wider Tauranga metropolitan area to Te Puke and then beyond Te Puke. So let’s take a look at what the data shows us: 
Much like the general trend across New Zealand for the past five years: a bit of bouncing around but a general trend of slightly downwards. Looking at the data a bit more closely highlights that assumption: I’m going to hold back, for the time being, on passing final judgement on this project – perhaps because the SAHA report on the RoNS projects actually suggested the Tauranga Eastern Link had a reasonable cost-benefit ratio (especially compared to most of the others). However, I really struggle to see why building a duplicative road across open countryside next to an existing state highway with falling traffic volumes really warrants being one of the country’s top priority transport projects. With falling demand along the corridor, plus the fact that this road will be tolled, it seems to me that there’s quite a possibility that this will be one extremely empty road come 2016 when it’s finished.

I suppose at the very least it’ll be an amusing road for the next government to make fun of and use as justification for cancelling a whole pile of other RoNS projects around the country.

Tauranga Eastern Motorway to be tolled

Today the government and NZTA confirmed that one of the “roads of national significance”, the Tauranga Eastern Motorway, will be tolled to advance its construction. I don’t really know too much about this particular project, other than one of its major benefits will supposedly be “to stimulate development east of Tauranga”, which seems to mean “to enable urban sprawl”. In any case, here’s the media release:

Construction of the Tauranga Eastern Link road of national significance will start up to 10 years earlier than previously possible following the Government’s approval for the route to be tolled, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) confirmed today.

NZTA Bay of Plenty Regional Director Harry Wilson says this decision clears the way for the NZTA to get the main construction underway in early 2011.

“Having confirmation that we’ll be able to start early is excellent news. The Tauranga Eastern Link will make an important contribution to the Bay of Plenty’s economic and social well-being and the earlier we can get the road built, the better,” says Mr Wilson.

The four-lane road will run from Te Maunga (near Baypark Stadium) in Tauranga to the existing junction of State Highways 2 and 33 (the Rotorua and Whakatane highways) near Paengaroa. It will be made up 17km of new road and an upgrade of six kilometres of existing highway.

As well as improving the efficiency of freight vehicles accessing the Port of Tauranga and beyond, the Tauranga Eastern Link will improve safety for residents along the current route of State Highway 2 and open up access to new developments planned for Papamoa, Mr Wilson says.

With an estimated cost of $455M*, it will be the largest state highway project ever built in the Bay of Plenty. The NZTA is currently evaluating tenders from two major consortia and expects to announce the successful tenderer in October this year.

“We’re excited about what completing this project will mean for the Bay of Plenty and are grateful for the support of our local government partners – Tauranga City Council, Western Bay of Plenty District Council and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.”

Mr Wilson says tolls will apply to the section of new road from the Domain Road intersection to Paengaroa. A free-flow tolling system will be used to enable motorists to travel the 23km journey without having to stop or slow down to pay a toll.

“We know there will be a lot of interest in the project as it gets underway and we’ll be working hard to keep people informed of progress. This will include a dedicated website and an on-site visitor centre which is due to be opened next year,” says Mr Wilson.

The fact that this can be a toll road is because the existing State Highway 2 will provide the necessary free alternative that the current legislation requires.

Thinking about this, it makes me wonder whether the reason NZTA are going for a completely “off-line” solution for the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” is so they can toll it. However, the ability to toll a road certainly does not mean that it will be more cost-effective. I’m pretty certain that the dodgy business case for the holiday highway was predicated on the road being untolled, and all the predicted traffic between Puhoi and Wellsford being likely to use the road. If a toll was applied, and that put off a reasonable chunk of potential users of the road (and I can’t quite imagine the toll staying at a mere $2), then the time-savings benefits the project will supposedly create will plummet due to far fewer people using the route.

Of course the Puhoi-Wellsford road may not be tolled (although unless there’s an exit at Puhoi the whole Orewa-Warkworth section will be within the existing tolled area), but it would be interesting to know what the plans are.

Tolling

It’s interesting to see that the NZTA board has recommended that the “Tauranga Eastern Link” road of National significance be “sped up” by having a toll applied. Here’s the press release in full:

The NZ Transport Agency Board has recommended that tolling be progressed as a funding option for the Tauranga Eastern Link project.

The Board’s recommendation means that a formal proposal to bring forward the start of construction on the $455 million project by tolling one section of the road can now be submitted to the Minister of Transport. After discussions with Cabinet, the Minister will then decide whether to recommend to the Governor General that an Order in Council (OIC) be established to toll the road.

The Tauranga Eastern Link will be a four-lane motorway from Te Maunga to Paengaroa – without travelling through Te Puke. It comprises two sections – an upgrade of the existing State Highway 2 between Te Maunga and Domain Road at Papamoa and a new motorway from Domain Road to Paengaroa. Only the completely new section of the road is proposed to be tolled.

NZTA Board Chair Brian Roche said over 80 percent of more than 3,500 submissions received during public consultation earlier this year supported advancing the project through tolling. Tolling the road would allow construction to start in 2010 with completion by 2016 – five to ten years earlier than without tolling.

Mr Roche said the Tauranga Eastern Link would bring significant benefits to the region.

“As a road of national significance it is a key piece of infrastructure that will improve connections between the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga and its port. It will allow people and freight to move more efficiently through the region, reducing transport costs and improving economic productivity.”

Mr Roche said the project would also make travel safer in the region. “The new road will be four lanes with a median barrier which will reduce the number of serious and fatal crashes. It is also expected to remove much of the heavy traffic from the main streets of Te Puke and Waitangi, and significantly improve safety on this section of State Highway 2.”

Mr Roche said the NZTA had worked closely with Environment BOP, Western Bay of Plenty District Council and Tauranga City Council to progress the project.

It is interesting to see how keen the government seems to be to apply tolling to these roads of national significance, as we heard just a few days ago that a toll is very likely for the Transmission Gully Motorway in Wellington. I imagine that if the Puhoi-Wellsford Motorway ever gets built it’s pretty likely that this route will be tolled too, and this offer some insights into why these projects are the main focus of transport spending at the moment.

Insight number one – it’s all about trucks. Trucking companies love toll roads, as the amount of toll is pretty negligible compared to the cost on them of congestion or or longer routes. If a few minutes can be saved off a trip, then that is well worth a trucking company paying $5-$10, as they can simply build that into the cost of transportation. What really matters is the ability to avoid congestion and the significant delays that can involve. So really, this really is largely about making life better for trucks.

Insight number two – the tolling system set up for the Orewa-Puhoi road really needs more toll roads for it to make economic sense. It was indicated a few months ago that administration costs eat up over half the $2 toll for that road. With more toll roads, the complex system would become much more economically ‘profitable’.

I must say I do find it interesting that even though there has been an enormous shift towards putting money into these seven “roads of national significance”, there is still not enough money to build these roads quick enough without applying a toll. I’m not absolutely opposed to the idea of road tolling, and in fact I think that putting a clear and obvious cost on the use of a road is probably a very good idea – so that people are aware of the cost to provide the infrastructure and so that there’s a bit of a dis-incentive to use it unless you feel that the benefits of your trip really do outweigh the cost of the toll. In other words, they’re fairly decent demand management tools – particularly as more modern systems have the ability to vary the toll (potentially at peak times) so that congestion can be managed more cleverly than what we see at the moment.

However, we must still remember that most of the cost of projects such as Transmission Gully and the Tauranga Eastern Link will be paid for through typical measures – where our “money from roads should be spent on roads” blinkered ideology continues to reinforce our auto-dependency.