(originally published on Insight, 31 January 2020)
It is entirely appropriate to be cynical about Labour’s $12b infrastructure package announced on Wednesday. They cancelled most of the projects National had planned and obtained consents for (which is why I don’t get excited when I hear housing consents are now higher than in 1974). They spent two years toying with ideological nonsense such as light rail to the Auckland Airport, while Julie-Anne Genter wrote of most of the country as being “car fascists.”
Now it is election year and the big ticket transport project promises, similar in cost to the $11b fiscal-hole Steven Joyce warned about in 2017, have been dumped into the news all at once. Considering this is the most difficult to pick first-term Government election I’ve ever seen, you’re either naive or a fanatical Labour supporter if you aren’t cynical.
Reckless borrowing plans aside, the package isn’t all bad. It addresses some projects which haven’t progressed beyond empty promises and vague intentions for decades. The Penlink Highway on Whangaparaoa Peninsula has been moved forward from 2029 to 2021 and it is well overdue. Unfortunately, like most infrastructure projects in New Zealand, the two lane bridge will be too small, too late and future local body elections will continue to be dominated by candidates with ‘Penlink’ in their affiliation. At least it will be a toll road and theoretically financially neutral assuming the toll proceeds pay for the borrowing that builds it. Assuming.
The widening of the Southern motorway at a cost of $423 million between Papakura and Drury is of obvious value to anybody who listens to the quarter-hourly traffic reports on news radio each day. If it weren’t for the mention of specific accidents shutting down the entire network periodically, you’d think it was just pre-recorded and replayed.
The Mill Rd arterial route has been a local issue for over a decade, harking back to consultations run by Papakura District Council around upgrading the road into a highway from Manukau to Drury for 40,000 daily commuter trips. National announced prior to the 2017 election (anyone spot a pattern here?) that they would inject $1b into the project. Now accusing Labour of stealing their ideas, National might, but won’t, understand how the Act party feels.
National…like Act, but shit.
Skypath is finally going ahead at a cost of $360 million. Of course the economics of it don’t really stack up and the ability to walk or cycle across the harbour bridge isn’t going to answer the prayers of anyone who, like myself, commute across the bridge twice a day. However, this expensive clip on to the Harbour Bridge is symptomatic of the half-arsed and slow manner in which New Zealand goes about infrastructure projects.
Proposals for a crossing in the vicinity of the current harbour bridge go back to 1860 when engineer Fred Bell was commissioned to design a crossing of floating pontoons but the £16,000 cost estimate ($2 million today) scuppered that plan. A 1946 Royal Commission recommended the construction of a six traffic lane bridge, with the ability to change lane direction depending on traffic and pedestrian footpaths either side. The National Government opted for a four lane bridge, without footpaths and weren’t even going to build a motorway until locals protested over traffic effects. Opened in 1959, the bridge was already unable to cope by 1965 when annual use reached three times the original forecast. In 1969, two lane clip-on sections were added to each side by a Japanese company leading to them being nicknamed ‘Nippon clip-ons.’ A little bit racist.
Finally, sixty-one years after its initial construction, the Auckland Harbour bridge could be considered finished, once foot and cycle traffic can finally use the bridge in the same manner almost every other major bridge in the world allows. Hopefully it doesn’t lead to an increase in the number of suicides of which there are currently 1-2 each year. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida has had over 100 deaths since its 1987 construction. Despite 24 hour patrols and the installation of six crisis phones, the rate has not declined.
Since the mid 1960’s, before the addition of the four clip-on lanes, lanes, and the Greenhithe bridge as part of the nearly-complete Western Ring Route, the construction of a second harbour bridge has been mooted. Numerous plans have failed to progress beyond concept stage, including a 2008 proposal which mooted a multi-tunnel link one kilometre east of the bridge. Anyone who uses the bridge regularly will attest to the fact that the bridge itself is generally free-flowing and that the congestion generally occurs on the motorways leading up to the bridge, making the 2008 proposal farcical.
When standing in the 2018 Northcote by-election for Act, I put forward a fully costed proposal, designed with the help of a handful of traffic and engineering experts, to construct a second harbour crossing that actually could eliminate the congestion issues on State Highway 1 and the streets leading onto it such as Onewa Rd. Costing under $6 billion, the proposal would have linked the North-Western motorway to a crossing at Meola Reef near MOTAT. The bridge would stretch across to Chelsea, meeting a new motorway that snaked and tunnelled its way up to the Upper Harbour Highway.
It takes just one major accident on State Highway 1 to paralyse the city because we force all traffic going to South, East and West Auckland, from North Shore, to go through the CBD despite being a destination for only 18% of daily commutes. That second harbour crossing proposal would have eliminated Onewa Rd congestion, taken tens of thousands of vehicles off State Highway 1 and demolished precisely zero private residences in doing so. While very popular amongst the residents of the two thousand doors I knocked on, in a byelection that appeared to be tight, people weren’t going to risk letting a Labour candidate win, so Act’s support was hoovered by Dan Bidois.
This election, infrastructure plans that look the same will be the arena fought over by two parties that are the same. In terms of paying for it, I’m sure Act has some sensible solutions that will be announced in time. Borrowing and spending billions in an everyone-pays fashion ain’t our style.