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Why does government want to push a new expressway through Auckland without proving the need?

How come there’s still no publicly available business case for the government’s next big transport priority in Auckland – the East-West expressway that will cut Onehunga off from the foreshore? Simon Wilson reports from Council.

Mayor Phil Goff took the stairs to the meeting room on the top floor of the town hall two at a time. “Got to get your exercise where you can,” he grinned, not looking at all in need of it.

“How’s it going?” I asked, politely, the way you do.

He stopped, the grin disappeared, the shoulders slumped and he muttered something about all the pressures. Then he turned away. Oh dear.

Today was the Planning Committee. Which can be dull, technical, full of mind-boggling bureaucratic detail. The agenda for the public part of the meeting ran to 294 pages. There were another 105 pages of attachments and addenda. Goff sat there bravely – he doesn’t chair this committee so he didn’t even have anything to do to help him stay awake – and all the other councillors did their best to look bright eyed and bushy tailed too. Especially Cr Wayne Walker from Albany, who loudly called hello to various people he knew on the other side of the room. Keeping everyone awake, I suppose.

Actually, maybe it was luck or maybe it was the inspired chairing of Cr Chris Darby, but they didn’t wade through 294 pages plus another 105. With the matters at hand, some councillors and many officials have done all that already, some of them many times.

Besides, perennial agitator Penny Bright got in early to help focus their minds. She’d been denied speaking rights, so she jumped up and made a speech about how she had called the police to arrest Darby because he was breaking the law in not letting her speak, and she had also called in the Serious Fraud Office because the council had allowed a $600 million investment in Tamaki to disappear.

Darby adjourned the meeting and they went to get a cup of tea, except Cr Greg Sayers, who is new and was sitting near Bright and didn’t know to get away quickly. She talked on, he listened, nodding and nodding. Eventually she sat down quietly and the meeting started again. The police didn’t come. Nor did the SFO. We’ll watch that space with interest.

Goff delivered a little lecture on the evil temptations (not actually his words) of the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund. The HIF is like the serpent’s apple, if you can imagine Bill English and Steven Joyce with long scaly tails and fangs. It’s cheap money to build roads and sewers and how tasty would that be? Except, as Goff knows, it would load the council with more debt and that would mean they lost their high credit rating, which would mean they’d have to pay more interest on their existing loans.

A billion dollars, sitting all shiny on the tree and it can’t be touched.

“I’m meeting the prime minister about this on Friday,” said Goff, who bounds up stairs and probably really likes apples. He seemed so dejected. Just last week the government scorned his request for a regional fuel tax. He faces a massive job constructing a budget that will work and he has to do it soon and he’s not getting any help from Wellington.

What the Planning Committee did was turn to page 38 and debate, self-approvingly, a motion that greenfields housing (in Kumeu, Drury, Silverdale and the like) was being sensibly progressed. It was the new Future Urban Land Supply Strategy, which Darby said would do away the “anywhere anytime at any cost” approach of the past. He said there was a “very stringent monitoring programme”. Then he warned that none of it made any sense unless “we can close those short-term funding gap issues”.

True that. The council does not have enough money to grow the city the way it needs to grow and that is the root of Goff’s heartache.

Cr Penny Hulse, wildly popular in Waitakere, and perhaps trying to be helpful, said did they know that raising rates has the effect of raising their debt-equity level, so if they raise rates they would be allowed to borrow more? Nobody responded, especially Goff, who definitely would not have wanted to hear anyone suggest bigger rates rises.

But then it was time to talk about the expressway the government is pushing from the industrial heartland of Penrose through to the airport motorway, along the north Manukau foreshore. That route because it doesn’t bowl many houses. But it does impact massively on Onehunga and the Manukau harbour.

The argument for this road, to be called the East-West link, is trucks. The argument against is where’s the business case? Council officers explained they have repeatedly asked government agencies – Treasury, NZTA, anybody in Wellington, really – for the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) data and it has not been forthcoming.

This is odd. When you’re planning a road whose principal benefit for many will be that it eases private vehicle congestion at peak peak times (you know, like holiday highways), it’s logical that cost-benefit analysis won’t capture all the value. If you’re stuck in the car with the kids at the end of a long weekend there’s no economic downside because that’s not productive time you’re wasting. But when you plan a road almost exclusively for freight, as is the case with the East-West link, you’d think you could BCR the wazoo out of it. So why haven’t they?

There is no publicly available data analysis to show the East-West link is a wise investment for the city.

And yet the government has declared it an RNS, a “road of national significance”. It’s going to cost $1.5-1.8 billion, which will come entirely from central government, but still, it’s our city. Are there better uses for that money? (Yes of course, please post your answers to Twitter.)

Concept drawing for the proposed East West link, June 2016.

Submissions are open (until March 22), then there will be a period of review, and a process of mediation is expected later in the year. The bulldozers aren’t coming in tomorrow but they’re not far away. Councillors Darby, Denise Lee and Daniel Newman have worked hard with council officers to make this thing work for the city, and they seem pleased with their progress. But that’s not the same as being happy.

The weight of worry sank onto many shoulders.

Cr Darby: “This was never supposed to be an expressway hard against the harbour edge. It’s already three times more expensive than when it was first proposed. There’s no BCR!”

Cr Mike Lee: “The political importance of this project has been declared but that’s not the same as its strategic importance. We’ve got it, it’s in our own plans, because the PM made it a condition of government signing up to the City Rail Link.” It had a “catchy name”, he sneered, before anyone even knew where it was going to go.

Cr Newman: “They’re going to dredge the Manukau at Onehunga. Is that the best option or merely the cheapest for NZTA?”

Cr Ross Clow: “The plan protects the route for light rail to the airport, which is the preferred option of Auckland Transport, but I’m not aware the council has yet endorsed that option.”

Cr Mike Lee: “It hasn’t.”

Cr Clow: Why aren’t we leaving the option of heavy rail open?”

And finally, the mayor. He asked for an explanation of the cost escalation and he asked for a BCR analysis. No big speech, just two simple, blunt requests. Is someone going to spell out, with numbers, the value of this highway?

He was right to do that. But it wasn’t at all clear if it will get him, or the council, or us, the citizens, anywhere at all. This one is far from finished.

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