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Auckland Transport is still trying to sabotage the inner city

Heads should roll, writes Simon Wilson. Auckland Transport is preparing to ask for government funding to build an expensive and inefficient bus route through the central city, blocking plans for a new park, despite its own analysis revealing it has chosen the wrong option. Why?

How do senior executives at Auckland Transport manage to keep their jobs?

We’ve known for a few months that Auckland Transport wants to change the planned route of buses crossing the central city. And as I wrote here, it’s clear AT’s new plan, if approved, will mean Auckland loses the chance for an important new inner city park. But that’s not the worst of it.

Now, thanks to the result of a local government official information request (LGOIMA) lodged by Greater Auckland, it’s been revealed that the plan favoured by AT has a negative business case, is less able than other options to meet the various goals of public transport and will even be more expensive.

It’s hard to think of this as mere incompetence. But what else could it be? We have a general aim of making the city a better place to live, work and play – is AT deliberately trying to sabotage that aim? Why? Does AT not care how much money it spends? Does it not care about the environmental goals, or the efficiency and functionality goals, or the goal of building a more resilient network, or even the goals of enhancing cycling and walking as well as public transport?

The problem appears to be that it has been leaned on by the University of Auckland and AUT University. AT lists “stakeholder” opposition to the option that measures up best to its own criteria – those stakeholders being the two universities. No word about the claims of other stakeholders, notably commuters, students and others using the buses, everyone who might benefit from the new Victoria St linear park and everyone else who benefits from a more efficient transport system. All of them, according to AT’s own analysis, would be better off.

Artist’s impression of the proposed both-ways bus lanes on Wellesley St, an option Auckland Transport wants to reject.

What does AT want to do?

To recap, the issue is how buses coming from the north and the east get through the central city. Currently they run east to west on Wellesley St and west to east on Victoria St. The existing plan, as outlined in the City Centre Masterplan, is for Wellesley St to take buses in both directions, so that Victoria St can become a kind of park: grassed areas, lots of trees, single-lane vehicle access. Because it’s long and thin it’s called a “linear park”.

Under this proposal eastbound buses would run up the Wellesley St slipway just by UA’s new science block, with a large bus station built in the underpass beneath Symonds St. It’s the use of the slipway that appears to be at the route of the problem with the universities. This plan is referred to as option 1B.

Option 1B

AT, however, favours a plan known as 4D. The buses would continue on their present route using Victoria St as well as Wellesley St, and the big bus station would be in Grafton Gully.

There are several other options. One of them, known as 1D, is the same as 1B except that the eastbound buses on Wellesley St turn right at Mayoral Drive and head up Wakefield St to Symonds St – thus avoiding the Wellesley St slipway. This option has a positive business case and appears to be acceptable to the two universities. But not to AT.

Option 4D

How they stack up

The indicative business case analysis (IBC, the document revealed under the official information request), reveals very starkly the gap between 1B, which is supported by the council’s own design office, and 4D, which AT prefers. Some indicators:

  • Provide a “great user experience”: 1B does this; 4D partly doesn’t.
  • Provide for “effective operation of the city centre public transport network”: 1B exceeds the criterion and 1D meets it; 4D partly fails to meet it.
  • Greatest travel time improvements for passengers: 1B and 1D.
  • Least impact on general traffic: 1D.
  • Create “engaging places for people and businesses”: 1B and 1D do this; 4D partly doesn’t.
  • Cost to build: $45 million for 1B and 1D; $50 million for 4D.
  • Business case: “positive” for 1B and 1D; “negative” for 4D.

In fact, only one option gained a positive grade (meaning it partly met, fully met or exceeded the criterion) for all indicators: 1B.

Despite this, AT says in its executive summary: “Option 1B is not preferred and discounted from going forward … Option 1B is not supported by stakeholders due to potential patronage impacts, poor customer outcomes, and the use of the slip lane.”

Perhaps it hopes we’ll all just accept the summary and no one will read the whole document. But at Greater Auckland, they did read it all. As GA says, “The idea 1B delivers poor customer outcomes completely contradicts the text [which states] it would be better for customers.”

Wellesley St between the two universities. Under 1B the slipway at left would be developed for buses to get onto Symonds St. This concept illustration shows a new station for westbound buses in the underpass

What does AT have to say about all this?

I asked them. In a written response, media relations manager Mark Hannan said AT are “only in the very early stages of planning” and are currently preparing the indicative business case (IBC) to take to the NZ Transport Agency for funding.

That indicative business case is actually the document released to Greater Auckland under the official information request and discussed in this piece.

Hannan added: “There are a range of potential options for outbound bus routes in the Wellesley – Victoria St area, so we’ve gone out to consultation and asked for feedback.  We will take the feedback and use it to update the IBC, that way we can transparently show what our stakeholders and the public think. We received more than 2000 submissions in the public consultation which closed two weeks ago, we’re now going through all the feedback.”

I can help with that: 1600 of the submissions were made using a form created by Generation Zero, which supports the creation of the linear park in Victoria St. It’s very likely the overwhelming majority of submissions favour a linear park option.

In response to further questioning, Hannan stated that the IBC is a “draft”. It feels disingenuous of them to claim they are still preparing their position, when the IBC, “draft” or no, clearly states they do not want to take 1B to NZTA.

Next step: council. AT is a supposed council-controlled organisation but it’s hard to see where the control is on this. Mayor Phil Goff and planning committee chair Chris Darby have work to do.

Meanwhile, AT is getting a new CEO before the end of the year: the recruitment process has already started. As far as we’re concerned tomorrow would not be soon enough.

And those two universities? Why are they so keen to stop the buses travelling up Wellesley St to Symonds St? We’ll report more on that soon.

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