Another Tauranga motorway approved

Tauranga continues to aspire to the title of mini-Auckland with an announcement from the government on Friday of $520 million for another motorway into the city, the 6.8km Tauranga Northern Link. The funding even includes a money set aside for a future extension of the to be built motorway a further 6km+ to Omokoroa.

Tauranga Northern Link Map

Transport Minister Simon Bridges today announced a $520 million roading package that will transform State Highway 2 (SH2) between Tauranga and Waihi.

The package includes:

  • The $286 million Tauranga Northern Link (TNL).
  • $85 million worth of safety improvements designed to reduce death and serious injury crashes.
  • Up to $150 million to provide for future traffic growth, paving the way for an upgrade between Omokoroa and Te Puna.

“This is a significant transport investment for Tauranga and the wider Bay of Plenty area. It will improve safety, reduce congestion and support growth on what is a very busy route, making a noticeable difference for motorists and easing freight movement,” Mr Bridges says.

“It is yet another example of the Government’s focus on increasing economic growth and improving safety through transport investment.

“We know that transport is an enabler of economic activity so we need to continue unlocking key congestion points to get people and freight moving efficiently around the country.”

The TNL is a new 6.8 km highway which will connect Tauranga’s Takitimu Drive Toll Road with SH2 Te Puna.

“The TNL is a long awaited project in the Tauranga community. Last week I attended a public meeting to hear the views of local people and it’s clear there’s a lot of support for getting this project underway.

“Once complete it will reduce traffic through the busy townships of Bethlehem and Te Puna, provide a better commute into the city, and support the Western Bay’s many industries.

“Today I’m also announcing that $150 million has been earmarked for a future extension of the TNL. A business case for extending the TNL from Te Puna to Omokoroa is expected to be completed toward the middle of next decade.

“All up this means the TNL will provide a four lane highway linking Tauranga’s Takitimu Drive Toll Road with SH2 at Omokoroa,” Mr Bridges says.

 

The project isn’t exactly new and a quick search finds it has been around in some form since the early 1990’s and was designated in 2001 so at least the project wasn’t just pulled out of thin air like the Puhoi to Warkworth project was. What surprised me the most about the announcement was the timing. I’ve seen discussion of the project before but it hasn’t been listed in various documents as happening at least within the next few years. It’s not even a project listed on the Bay of Plenty section of the NZTA website.

The daily traffic volumes at the western end of the project at Te Puna are shown below and the road is obviously busier once it gets closer to Tauranga – such as around Bethlehem. They’ve definitely taken a sharp upwards turn in recent years and given Tauranga’s plans to open up more development, especially around Omokoroa I suspect those volumes will increase.

Te Puna Traffic Volumes

While the announcement has been made now, the press release mentions construction won’t actually start till 2018 and the extension obviously some time later. As there’s already a designation the focus till then will be on design but it raises the question of why make such a public statement about it now? The funding for the as yet un-assessed extension also highlights the dramatic difference in playing field that exists with transport in NZ. Public transport, walking/cycling and even local road projects seem to have to jump through huge hoops to get funding but for state highways the cash is handed out without question.

The $436 million for those two bits of motorway can be added to some of the recently completed and currently under construction projects around Tauranga. This includes the $455 million Tauranga Eastern Link, the currently under construction $102 million to grade separate sections of SH2 through Bayfair and the $45 million to build an underpass at Maungatapu. There’s also the $62 million the NZTA recently spent to buy the failing Takitimu Dr (Route K) toll road off the Tauranga City Council.

The one aspect I do think is very good about the announcement is the significant amount of money going towards safety improvements between Te Puna and Waihi. One of the improvements already made a few years ago inspired me to write this post about how we need to see more focus on improving safety and so $85 million is likely to have significant benefits. The map below shows where the focus of that spending will be

Tauranga-Waihi SH2 Full Corridor Map

And this one focuses just on the Te Puna to Omokoroa section

Tauranga - Omokoroa to Te Puna Safety Improvements Map

Tauranga: Sunshine, sprawl, and high house prices

Back in 2014 I wrote a short paper exploring how population density had evolved in New Zealand and Australian cities. Among other things, the paper provided a rough estimate of the degree to which various cities were going “up” or “out” – i.e. whether population growth was increasing or decreasing the density of the neighbourhood that the average resident lives in.

Based on the data, you could divide New Zealand cities into a couple of different categories:

  1. Cities that are growing slowly or not at all, e.g. Dunedin, Whangarei, Gisborne
  2. Cities that are growing and becoming increasingly dense, principally Auckland but also Wellington to a slightly lesser extent
  3. Cities that are growing primarily by spreading out, e.g. Hamilton and Tauranga
  4. Christchurch, where normal urban processes were disrupted by the 2011 Canterbury Earthquake and the slow rebuilding effort since then.

There is an interesting comparison to be drawn between Auckland and Tauranga. They are both port cities with stunning natural environments, lots of sunshine, a fondness for urban motorways, and high growth rates. Tauranga is obviously much smaller, with less than 1/10th of Auckland’s population.

But whereas Auckland was the city that went “up” the most, Tauranga went “out” more than any other NZ city this millennium. Between 2001 and 2013:

  • The population of Auckland’s urban area grew by 23%, but its urbanised land area* only expanded by 11%
  • Tauranga’s urbanised population grew by 27%, while its urbanised land area expanded by 25%.

[* Defined as Census meshblocks with more than 3 residents per hectare. This isn’t a perfect measure as it tends to exclude industrial areas.]

In other words, Tauranga’s urban population expanded proportionately to its population, allowing it to remain a low-density suburban city. In order to accomplish this, the city opened up substantial new greenfield areas to the south, west, and east:

Tauranga urban growth 2001-2013

The future seems to herald more of the same. Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty’s 2013 SmartGrowth Strategy identifies some opportunities for “possible intensification”, but largely commits to outward growth along motorways:

Tauranga SmartGrowth Strategy map

Tauranga’s sprawl serves as a useful “counterfactual” scenario for Auckland – does an abundant supply of greenfield suburbs necessarily result in cheap housing?

Perhaps. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way in Tauranga. According to the Demographia housing affordability survey, which compiles a range of useful data but is rather weak on interpretation of that data, median house prices in Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty are currently 8.1 times higher than median household incomes – an increase from 6.8 the previous year. This is rather high by national and international standards.

Moreover, house prices in Tauranga appear to have followed a broadly similar trend to Auckland, with a run-up in the 2000s, several years of flat or falling prices after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and rapid price inflation in the last year or two.

What does this tell us about housing markets? Three things, I think.

The first is that people are willing to pay higher prices to live in cities with desirable amenities like harbours and sunshine. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. We pay more to eat in restaurants that offer better ambiance and tastier food. Why wouldn’t we pay more to live in nice places? And Tauranga, like many other New Zealand cities, is undoubtedly an attractive location:

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The second is that greenfield land supply is not necessarily a solution for house price inflation. Tauranga is less than one-tenth the size of Auckland and its house prices are already high relative to local incomes. Adding greenfield land supply hasn’t prevented or reversed previous price increases. In larger cities, where fringe locations are much less of a substitute for desirable central locations, it’s likely to be even less effective.

The third is that Tauranga (and many other New Zealand cities) may have to rethink their approach to housing policy.  This is especially true for cities experiencing rapid growth. According to Statistics NZ’s latest (medium) population projections, Tauranga’s population is expected to increase by a further 43% over the next three decades. So the pressure on Tauranga’s housing market is likely to continue unless something changes.

In this context, it’s worth asking a few critical questions:

  1. What is a reasonable expectation for house prices, given geographical constraints, environmental and man-made amenities, and demography and demand?
  2. If greenfield land supply isn’t sufficient to enable growth without accelerating prices, what other policies are needed? For example, how can planning policies facilitate choices of dwellings in various places at various price points?

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.