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The most expensive road in New Zealand history is coming to Auckland. Why?

The government is about to push through a plan to build the most expensive road in New Zealand history – without declaring an up-to-date business case or providing any good evidence of the need. Simon Wilson asks why it wants to waste so much of our money.

Boy did it rain last week. In that rain I drove down the Southern Motorway and took the South-eastern Highway turnoff. From there it took me 11 minutes to drive west along Church St, down into Nielson St and on to Mangere Bridge on SH20, the motorway leading to the airport. The traffic was very heavy.

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) is going to put a new four-lane highway along that route, called the East-West Link (EWL), or the East-West Connection, depending on which agency you are talking to at the time.

NZTA told me in an email this week the new road will shave 9-15 minutes off the travel time.

Yes, you read that right. NZTA wants to reduce an 11-minute trip basically to no time at all. Truck drivers on the Southern Motorway will be able to hit that off-ramp for the South-eastern and pretty much be teleported onto Mangere Bridge. Hey, it’s only eight kilometres.

Is this just bullshit?

Well, not quite. First, the NZTA figures are future projections: that time saving will apply to the traffic flows they anticipate in 10 years’ time, in 2026. Second, although my 11 minutes could be typical, the traffic on that road is irregular. Sometimes, says NZTA, the trip takes a lot longer.

Still, I didn’t have an easy run. That rain. Most of the route has a 50km/h speed limit and much of the time I was on it we were down to 30 or 40km/h. I had to stop six times, four of them for traffic lights and twice because a truck had pulled up and was backing off the road. There was a major snarl up at the Onehunga end. It’s hard to imagine we could have gone much slower. Besides, I’ve been back and done the route again, at different times, always with heavy traffic, and the times have been pretty consistent.

The obvious conclusion is that NZTA is expecting significantly more traffic on that route than there is now. Fair enough, roads don’t get built in a day and they have to plan ahead.

But there’s another obvious conclusion. If the demand for the EWL is a future demand, why do NZTA and the government want to start building it right now? Auckland has many proposed transport projects where the demand is real and immediate: light rail out of the central city, rapid transit from the eastern suburbs to the central city and to Manukau, a dedicated busway on the Northwest Motorway… Why is the EWL happening now when those others are all on the schedule for sometime maybe another time maybe never?

Trucks, trucks, everywhere trucks on the road from Penrose to Onehunga.

The EWL will cost $1.85 billion dollars, which is more than the $1.4 billion cost of the motorway tunnel project at Waterview – in its day the most expensive roading project in New Zealand history. The EWL has that dubious honour now. It has a BCA (business case analysis) of 1.9, which sounds good. Technically, anything above 1.0 means there’s a positive economic reason to build, although for various good economic reasons the government usually requires something around 3.

But even at 1.9 there’s less to that BCA than meets the eye. In December 2015 NZTA published its case for the new road, stating the cost would be in the range $1.25 billion to $1.85 billion. The BCA was 1.9 at the low end of that range. One month later NZTA announced the upper end of the range, $1.85 billion, was more likely to be right. It said inflation accounted for the rise, and it also said the BCA was still 1.9. Since then it has consistently refused to produce a new BCA, saying the 2015 one still holds true and a new one will not be required until later.

How do they get away with that? With active government support. The East-West Link is on a fast-track. The Minister of Finance, Steven Joyce, has had it designated a Road of National Significance (RONS) which means it is not subject to some of the usual evaluations. A RONS, by definition, is an economically important road – even if the evidence for that is missing. Strange but true, the status overrides the facts.

Reinforcing that, NZTA was given permission late last year by the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, to apply to the Environmental Protection Authority for approval to build. This circumvents some other procedures laid out in the Resource Management Act. NZTA wants to get the diggers in at the start of 2018.

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce wants the EWL built. CEO Michael Barnett says traffic congestion in the area costs freight operators millions of dollars a year. National Road Carriers, representing the freight companies, agrees. “Based on an average 10-minute delay per trip,” says CEO David Aitken, “congestion is costing freight operators a conservative $50 million a year.”

Hmm. Already looked at that “10-minute delay”. But even if his $50 million a year was right, the EWL would take 37 years to make economic sense. Is that a good business case?

The Auckland Council also wants the road built, more or less, sort of, possibly not really. It’s hard to know. On the government’s insistence the EWL was exempted from ATAP (the Auckland Transport Alignment Project), the agreement between council and government announced late last year.

Visualation showing the proposed new road dipping into a trench around the Onehunga port with the current Onehunga Harbour Rd going over the top, and a walking and cycling bridge above. Credit: greaterauckland.org.nz

The council has never openly opposed the project, but in December its planning committee (which has all councillors on it) recommended a delay. NZTA ignored that. The council has also expressed environmental concerns. Now it is “seeking more information”. Its chief economist, David Norman, told me, “We want to understand what impacts (if any) there will have been on travel patterns resulting from configuration changes, and therefore what (if any) impact this has on the expected economic benefits. We have also requested the opportunity to look over the original assumptions and calculations of transport and economic benefits such that we can evaluate how these benefits may differ through changes in configuration.”

Translation: the proposal has changed since the end of 2015, so where’s the new cost-analysis? And (I’m putting words in his mouth now, but hey) what are they hiding?

NZTA’s refusal to produce a new BCA is more than peculiar. The only justification for the new road is to provide economic benefit, so what is that benefit?

The Green Party has done its own calculations, based on the available information. Transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter points out that the NZTA’s existing BCA report states “capital costs would need to increase by some $800 million for the BCR to reduce below zero”. That appears to have happened. Genter believes the BCA is now likely to be less than 1.0.

On top of that, the big question remains: if nearly $2 billion dollars of funding is available right now for Auckland transport projects, which ones should it be? The opportunity cost of the EWL is enormous. (On this site Monday we’ll introduce some pretty exciting options.)

State highways 1, 16, 18 and 20 form the linked motorway circuit around and through Auckland. NZTA says the EWL is now “one of the New Zealand Government’s top priority transport projects in Auckland”.

Other questions arise. First, what’s wrong with the present road? The answer is, quite a bit. The Penrose-Onehunga industrial area is a sprawling precinct full of factories, warehouses and enormous bases for freight carriers like Toll and Mainfreight. According to NZTA, nearly 70,000 people work there. It’s also the route to Metroport, an inland port storage facility. Metroport has stacks of containers as far as the eye can see and big rigs constantly coming and going.

No question, all this requires an efficient roadway giving access to state highway 1 to the east and the airport to the west. It also needs to link efficiently to the other inland freight storage precinct at Wiri, on SH20B from Manukau to the airport. Wiri is also enormous.

The EWL route is now the only part of the roads those freight trucks travel in Auckland that is not a motorway. You can see why they’d want to complete the loop – except the EWL will be a four-lane arterial route, not a motorway.

Yes, you read that right too. The most expensive roading project in our history will not even be a motorway.

That’s because it can’t be. A lot of the traffic on Neilson St is not using it as a through route: many, if not most, of those vehicles start or stop their journeys along this route. Trucks entering and leaving the road, slowing others, are inevitable. The route, even if converted to a four-lane highway, will remain a difficult road.

Freight trucks from the port don’t use it when they’re headed to the airport: they barrel on down to Manukau and then take the route across SH20B, through Wiri. And when the Waterview tunnels open they’ll avoid the choke points of SH1 altogether by taking the new ring route through the Waterview Connection. So the EWL is not for them.

Absurdly fanciful: in what universe does this look desirable, sensible or even realistic? NZTA artwork for the proposed new road.

Other problems. Neilson St has its own choke points. One is at the Onehunga end, where the road takes a ridiculously complicated tour around the backstreets off Onehunga Mall in order to reach SH20. This section can get really clogged up – but that problem could be fixed for a few million, not $1.8 billion.

There is also a choke point at the Metroport intersection, right by a little café from which the smell of cheese scones fills the morning air. At that intersection trucks coming out of the facility for a journey south must turn right across the traffic, which can create real delays. And yet there are no traffic lights! If egress from Metroport is an issue you might think that was a relatively simple way to solve it.

Driving that road, it’s hard to see there has been much thought given to making it as efficient as possible now. It’s like they’re waiting because they want to build a motorway, or near as, instead. I know, I’m not a traffic engineer, but that does seem like poor traffic management.

There are environmental concerns, especially as the EWL would run along the mangrove foreshore of the Manukau inlet. It’s a habitat for national and international migratory birds, several species of which were previously extinct in the locality and have re-established themselves.

In July last year NZTA actually stated: “The proposal will therefore likely result in significant, irreversible changes to the environment.”

Will the suburb of Onehunga retain its links to the foreshore, parklands and beaches that have just recently been redeveloped? NZTA says none of that work will be undone and the recreational facilities on the foreshore will be enhanced. The new road would begin at the Mangere Bridge, past the newly restored beaches and lagoon. Still, it will be disruptive.

Onehunga will have tens of thousands more residents over the next couple of decades. A “Wynyard Quarter-style” development is planned. The Onehunga Enhancement Society (TOES), a powerhouse in the area, has just released its own big future plans, which suggest a different approach from the EWL.

Another problem: regardless of the road, over the coming decades the industrial heart of the city is expected to migrate south. It’s Wiri and west of Wiri to the airport that will see the most substantial growth.

The EWL is not the only grand scheme for the area. This projection is by W10 Architects for The Onehunga Enhancement Society (TOES), who oppose the East-West Connection. https://www.facebook.com/TOESonehunga/

There’s more. NZTA has actually produced six options for the EWL. Two of them (options A and B) basically involve upgrading the existing road. They do not run along the foreshore and were expected to cost as little as $600 million. They carry the highest BCA of the six, and used to be favoured by the council. Somehow, NZTA has managed to discard them in favour of the most expensive and environmentally disruptive option of the six. It’s called option F and it will cost three times as much as options A and B.

A week ago NZTA took out large newspaper ads to extol the virtues of the EWL. They made generalised claims for the road and didn’t address any of the specific issues. What’s going on?

On top of all this there is potentially the biggest issue of all: rail. It’s simply absurd that the government’s transport agency in charge of roads is making its plans independent of any planning for the future of rail.

Rail is a freight issue: it’s already used to move freight from the port to the inland port and it’s a viable option for medium and long-distance haulage from the airport as well. Some freight companies believe the most pressing need is not for the EWL but for a third line on the rail track. That would allow freight to move by rail from the port without having to work around the timetables of the commuter trains. The EWL contains no provision for this because NZTA does not plan the railways.

And guess what? That third line would cost a mere $58 million. The government is going to spend close to $2 billion on a problem that could, to a considerable degree, be resolved by spending a little less than $60 million instead.

Rail is also a commuter issue. As Auckland’s rail network improves, ever more of those 70,000 workers in Penrose-Onehunga will be catching the train to work. There are another 20,000 people working in and around the airport and most of them will, one day, be catching the train to work too. Does anyone seriously think there will not be a rail link to the airport within the next 15 years?

And rail is a traveller issue. Eighteen million passengers a year now pass through Auckland Airport. The “council-controlled” Auckland Transport favours a light rail link, but the option of heavy rail connecting Manukau and/or Onehunga to the airport has not been ruled out; on the contrary, there are some indications the government itself may want to rule it in. There’s more to come on that.

This is the way transport planning currently works: NZTA does roads while rail is considered separately. Planning is done in silos. So the EWL sucks up money that might be better spent on light rail or other rapid-transit projects and roads planning is not strategically linked to heavy rail planning either.

If you’re looking for a really good example of the folly of planning in silos, that’s it right there: the East-West Link.

It feels like a last gasp of an old way of planning for the needs of the city. More traffic needs more roads, we are told. Vested business interests demand special privileges, so they can keep on doing things the old way, causing problems instead of solving them. No integrated planning. No proper strategic planning for a better city. And grandiose roading projects that trump simpler solutions.

Auckland’s better than that. The freight companies should be too. So should the government. And so should the council, which knows much better and must stand up to this.


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