A visual representation of ATAP, 2016-2021 (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)
A visual representation of ATAP, 2016-2021 (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 21, 2021

How Auckland’s flagship transport project lost its lustre

A visual representation of ATAP, 2016-2021 (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)
A visual representation of ATAP, 2016-2021 (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)

It was supposed to be the roadmap for Auckland’s 21st century transport network, but somewhere along the route ATAP lost its way, writes Matt Lowrie of the blog Greater Auckland.

Politicians love the fanfare of announcing big projects and so were likely somewhat taken aback at the lack of enthusiasm from the announcement last Friday of a record $31.4 billion, decade-long package of transport funding for Auckland.

The package is the latest iteration of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) and just three years ago we at Greater Auckland were celebrating the previous version as a huge step forward for transport planning in Auckland. So why is this version considered a failure? Put simply, it remains a 2018 plan but in a 2021 world.

For a bit of background, ATAP first emerged in 2016 when Len Brown was mayor as a way of getting the government and Auckland Council on the same page when it came to the long-term transport strategy for Auckland. Prior to that, the council and government were effectively speaking different languages and couldn’t even agree on basic assumptions, like the level of population growth the city would experience, let alone what to actually build to address that. This had led to the council clashing with the government time and again on transport issues and resulted in much needed projects such as the City Rail Link (CRL) being delayed for years.

Then-transport minister Simon Bridges, prime minister Bill English and infrastructure minister Steven Joyce officially open the new Waterview Connection Tunnel on June 18, 2017 in Auckland. (Photo: Simon Watts/Getty Images)

Through the first ATAP process the government and council agreed on the assumptions and challenges Auckland faced, investigated various options for addressing those, and finally came up with a ‘Recommended Strategic Approach‘, including a high-level, 30-year investment package. Perhaps most significantly it publicly confirmed for the first time that the answer to increased congestion couldn’t be more roads. As then transport minister Simon Bridges put it, we can’t just build our way out of this problem in the long run….. it’s not possible to just keep on adding lanes to the motorways, it becomes more and more expensive for less and less gain”.

There was a minor update to ATAP in 2017 to account for higher than originally forecast population growth and the need for “mass transit” (light rail) on Dominion Rd. However, both the original ATAP and this update contained a key flaw in the form of a “funding gap” between what it said was needed and how much funding was expected to be available.

In 2018, with a new government now in place, ATAP was updated again. This new version was much more detailed than before and focused on just the first 10 years. Most critically, it agreed on funding for it rather than just leaving a funding gap. It also suggested where any additional funding that might arise should be focused. You can see from the high-level investment split that there was a huge focus on rapid transit, as well as decent investment into other key areas:

ATAP 2018 funding breakdown

We were pretty happy with this plan at the time, especially considering where things had been only a few years earlier with endless arguments over City Rail Link timing and funding. This new version outlined an aggressive plan to improve Auckland’s transport system over the next decade.

Unfortunately, over the past three years key progress has not exactly been as projected with ATAP undermined through terrible delivery and inconsistent investment decisions:

  • The abysmal lack of progress on light rail has eaten away at a centrepiece of ATAP 2018, not only delaying any progress on the city centre to Mangere corridor but also delaying the critically required northwest rapid transit corridor. Relatively minor bus improvements are little more than a consolation prize for the northwest.
  • Auckland Transport has been utterly hopeless when it comes to delivering cycleways, not yet even completing the Urban Cycleways Programme that was meant to be done by mid-2018, let alone getting on with implementing any of their excellent 2017 cycling programme business case, which they’re now revising.
  • Government investment decisions on the NZ Upgrade Programme weren’t consistent with ATAP at all. Instead of bringing forward investment from later in the 10-year period, such as providing extra funding for light-rail or northwest rapid transit – that ATAP had suggested was essential – less important parts of the Mill Road project were brought forward and the amount of funding allocated to Penlink was doubled from what was in ATAP.

That brings us to last Friday’s announcement at the beautiful Manukau Bus Station. As noted earlier, this latest version of ATAP sees funding over the coming decade increase significantly up to $31.4 billion. A new version of the table above breaks that down:

ATAP 2021 funding breakdown

You’ll see the funding for many of the categories here have increased, which is mainly to deal with the increased costs of projects. The one exception to this is public transport projects (rapid transit as well as bus and ferry), which collectively have reduced by $360 million, almost identical to the $367 million of increased road funding. This is apparently somewhat coincidental, however, with the drop mainly due to the phasing of the CRL.

Next month the government will make a decision on the way forward for light rail. That will almost certainly require a lot more funding than ATAP currently allocates for it so that figure will go up. Though it does beg the question of why you’d announce a 10-year funding package that excludes one of the most critical projects that will occur during that time.

Below is a map of the projects in the ATAP package.

ATAP projects planned for delivery 2021-2031. For a higher res version click here.

The main problem lies in that ATAP is merely an evolution of the 2018 version. Meanwhile, the world has changed a lot in three years. We’ve had a global pandemic, new technologies like e-scooters caught everyone by surprise and, at long last, there’s widespread agreement that we actually need to take climate change seriously and dramatically reduce our emissions.

In their joint announcement of the new ATAP, transport minister Michael Wood and mayor Phil Goff put a lot of emphasis on reducing emissions using that favourite NZ measure, “per capita”:

“For the first time we’re turning around transport emissions rising in Auckland. The ATAP 2021-31 package alone would result of around 13% decrease in emissions per capita when compared with the previous package, and is projected to increase public transport trips by 91%.

“Alongside our recently announced policies to reduce transport emissions, ATAP could help prevent up to 3.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions in Auckland over the next decade. This is a good first step, but we know we have to do more.”

But as the detail of the report notes:

“Significant population increase means that while there is a decrease per person, overall emissions increase slightly by 6% when the package is viewed in isolation of other government and council policies.”

In 2021, with both the council and government having declared a climate emergency, every policy should be actively contributing to reducing our emissions. It’s simply not good enough for ATAP to rely on other policy interventions to do its job for it, especially when the solutions exist and are proven to work, such as reallocating road space to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport.

It’s not hard to see why emissions will continue to increase. Phil Goff praised ATAP, saying:

“ATAP gives a strong boost to public transport. Public transport, walking and cycling will increase over the next decade from 23% to 29% of morning peak trips, which is good news for addressing the problems of traffic congestion and carbon emissions.”

Yet the Auckland Climate Plan, unanimously supported by the mayor and councillors, calls for, by 2030, the following targets:

  • Public transport mode share to increase from 7.8% to 24.5%
  • Cycling mode share to increase from 0.9% to 7%
  • Walking mode share to increase from 4.1% to 6%

That’s a combined target of a 37.5% increase in non-car modalities – and that’s across the day, not just during the morning peak as in the ATAP figures. Furthermore, the 91% increase in public transport trips mentioned in the ATAP 2021 announcement appears to be based on a figure impacted heavily by Covid-19, not what we were achieving prior to March last year. Perhaps one of the reasons ATAP’s public transport mode share doesn’t come close to those Auckland Climate Plan targets is that it apparently doesn’t provide enough funding for Auckland Transport’s “aspirational” network and service frequencies, which would see it delivering more frequent and reliable public transport services.

In Auckland our agencies so consistently disregard their existing transport plans, policies and strategies that you have to wonder why they bother creating them in the first place.

Not everything about ATAP is bad though. One positive to emerge is a trial called the Community Connect programme. This will give those on low incomes a 50% discount on public transport trips. This is great, though I hope there is also going to be work to help destigmatise the use of public transport by those on lower incomes. Far too often the car is seen as a sign of success, meaning public transport use is lower in the communities that measures like this could help the most. It brings to mind a quote from Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogotá: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

What’s gone with ATAP is that it’s simply not aspirational enough. Despite our high hopes at the time of launch, it has fallen into the business as usual trap – just at the time we need it to be truly transformational.

This story first appeared on the Auckland transport and urban planning blog Greater Auckland.

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