Friday, January 14, 2011

Auckland is going under! But will NZ buy it?

"Auckland is about three and half times the size of greater Christchurch but appears to have received about 100 times more public transport funding towards infrastructure".

Building the New Lynn trench at $160 million, now Auckland wants to build rail right under the city at $2.3  billion.

A strong business case for building an underground commuter rail connection from Auckland's Britomart station to create a loop with the western line at Mount Eden has been produced by a consortium of highly experienced international transport engineering consultant firms. The line would have three inner city underground stations allowing faster, more frequent services, greatly increase the number of trains possible (Britomart with its clumsy narrow entry system is near capacity) and offer easy walking access tofro a station to virtually the whole CBD area, a huge advantage in attracting punters. The expected cost is around $2.3 billion dollars. A simple map, on this Stuff newsite report conveys what is proposed well.

Auckland is  growing rapidly, so there are real issues here that can not be ignored. Whether using standard international measures or a more a conservative NZ Transport Agency version for evaluating the cost-benefit ratio of this transport project the consortium identified a cost benefit ratio bottom line of 1.1 through to 3.5 - that is for every dollar spent on-flow benefits range from $1.10 created to $3.50 created. This is a very strong case made more compelling by the lack of other options for Auckland – with the city centred on the narrow isthmus between two harbours the amount of room to build any more motorways is severely compromised and rail can transport huge numbers of commuters.

What Transport Minister Stephen Joyce - and I imagine the rest of New Zealand - gags upon in this proposal is the huge cost!!

Auckland has already received almost $2 billion in funding towards public transport under the previous Labour Government. This includes the $600 million upgrading and double tracking of existing lines; the new lines to Onehunga and Manakau; the rebuild of many stations ranging from city centre Britomart (tax payer share $200 million); Newmarket $84 million, New Lynn underground rail (and above ground bus) at $160 million. The cost of electrifying these lines now adds a further $600 million, and the cost of buying electric trains units comes in the form of a $500 million government loan to KiwiRail. Add to this a further $200 million of taxpayer money towards the Northern Busway and of course, financial assistance towards the 52 kilometres of bus laning along Auckland roads. Not counted of course is the full time bus lanes on the new Manakau Bridge which in effect cost the taxpayer $46 million.

Three things stand out here - the huge cost of retrofitting a city towards public transport, a prerequisite for any larger city to function,  following years of taxpayer money being put into extravagant motorway schemes that have only generated more traffic and increased congestion!

Secondly -  for Canterbury residents, 13% of the countries population -   the chronic failure of Canterbury and Christchurch leadership on public transport issues. Notwithstanding Auckland's "greater need" it is absolutely ludicrous to think that Canterbury did not have the clout or political leverage to get some chunk of the action here. Auckland is about three and half times the size of greater Christchurch but appears to have received about 100 times more public transport funding towards infrastructure. To think what wonderful direct busways, shooting across the city, underpassing busy roads, sweeping along segregated tree lined boulevards, could have been built;  or even the carefully constructed long term strategy for introducing commuter rail over a thirty year period which could have been constructed with even just a small percentile of this funding. To think of the quality commuter coachlines and comfortable bus stations that could be spanning the province - had we but adequate visionary and practical transport leadership. Instead the province fired off over $250 million in taxes to Auckland, smug in the knowledge that doing public transport is "not rocket science" and "what a wonderful bus system we have" (though of course not so sophisticated or high quality planners or politicians rely upon it!).

The third thing that stands out and has put Stephen Joyce, Minister of Transport, on the spot, is Auckland's political clout! This is especially so when coupled with the results of a business case which even measured by conservative standards is hard to argue with from a Government that theoretically espouses good business practice. I loved the cartoon in the "Listener" just after the local body elections, showing a Frankenstein sitting upright and breaking the bonds that held him down, the Frankenstein is called Auckland or supercity and the head sewed on is that of newly elected Labour Mayor Len Brown. Two "scientists" - expected Mayoral victor John Banks and far right former ACT MP Rodney Hide stand aghast "Wrong head Rodney, wrong head !!" cries Banks, is the caption. I think it expresses what many New Zealanders must feel.  In fostering the amalgamation of 11 separate local authorities in the Auckland into one city, they have tilted the axis of New Zealand, giving one city-state enough concentrated power to dominate New Zealand and compete with, even undermine, Government for the whole country. Although the business plan study for the rail tunnel describes Auckland workers and CBD workers as more productive, due to concentration of skills and the tighter agglomeration of services, it is hard to see how this can be so when most of the wealth of New Zealand rests on tourism, dairy products, forestry, and coal etc, much of this based well away from Auckland. Indeed the rail tunnel report in saying Auckland has 32% of the NZ workforce and produces  36% of the GDP [p17 - see link below] seems to suggest that there is nothing hugely productive about Auckland region, despite other claims put forward. Or more efficient when there public transport system is already, in effect, hugely subsidised by other New Zealanders and there are now plans for it to be more so.

When National came to power it also rejected regional fuel taxes that Labour was moving towards. Regional fuel taxes appear to have been a major component in the highly successful upgrade of public transport in Canada during the last decade. Perhaps this rejection of regionalism was justifiable, given New Zealand's small size and undersized regional areas, and consequent boundary problems, but it left Joyce nowhere to stand except to bleat helplessly that Auckland and Wellington would need to pay more towards their very expensive commuter rail systems. Indeed Joyce seems to have made one of the few attempts to sheet back capital costs (and not just operating costs) to those who benefit from rail telling reporters in April 2010 how he would like to recover the full amount of the loan plus interest over the expected 35-year life of the new trains, (adding wistfully "I don't think anybody's under that illusion"). Auckland Chamber of Commerce head, Michael Barnett claims (NZ Herald 15 Dec 2010) that Auckland rail commuters are currently receiving a subsidy equivalent to about $7 a trip and wonders if the costs of the new loop route were added in whether this will rise to $12 or $16 per trip. Joyce himself claims in a recent NZ Herald column [see below] all the huge amount spent on Auckland rail to date has been to carry a mere 2% of commuters!

Yet for all this, the business case study results, prepared  for Auckland and KiwiRail - and the need to find commuting options beyond more roads - seems so strong Joyce and National will have to respond. The Government will have to come to the party even as Minister of Finance English is saying the $750 million to railways to jump start a $4.4 billion revival plan is "it" - all that the Government intends to give towards rail.

National also has another exposed flank, the rather absurd "holiday Highway" (as it has been dubbed) in essence virtually extending the Auckland motorway 85km to the north, between the little settlement of Puhoi and Wellsford, at a cost of $1.7 billion over twenty years. This project was mooted as one of the "Roads of National significance" (RoNS) put forward by National soon after election as their transport policy, but has almost no obvious support or significant economic value - a cost-benefit ratio study delivered to Minister Joyce 9 months after he announced the proposal showed that for every dollar spent it can be expected to return a mere 40cents of benefit. Joyce who can be very judgemental about public transport costs is strangely mute about this white elephant trail, but it is clear that it will leech money from the whole country for very small return, - hardly the hard headed business approach of National Party pretentions. 

The irony of the Auckland rail tunnel is that it will inevitably involve Government funding, if not from this Government from the one that replaces them, even if this is not as generously as in the past and Canterbury will pay again, tens of millions if not hundreds. Meanwhile Government funding to Christchurch cycleways [less than $2 million] is cut; the absurd farce of the city's ponderously slow bus lane implementation (13 years to get 3 routes built) is prolonged by Government cuts; the new Bus Exchange gets minimal taxpayer support (compared to Auckland or Wellington) and has funding to go underground withheld. Christchurch city can't get an extra $21 million to put its whole transport system through an underground hub, Auckland seeks over 100 x $21 million (2,300,000,000) to carry undeground what will probably never be more than half its public transport patronage. Even in cities with extensive rail networks buses still remain a huge factor. The disparity between ambitions, vision, commitment to infrastructure are so huge the question springs to mind; are we operating on the same planet?

Indeed are our local Southern politicians operating at all, when it comes to building public transport infrastructure in our supposedly "world class" city? In my experience YEAR AFTER YEAR the city of Christchurch stands by and allows all sorts of opportunities to create fast direct busways and logical rail corridors be built out, forever compromised, pathways blocked that only huge expense will ever re-open. Public transport being linear relies on clear run corridors (irrespective of whether serviced by buses, guided buses, trams, light rauil or heavy rail). Quality transport pivots on identifying and securing corridors, even for projects whose actual implementation may be years in advance. There is no evidence to suggest that any civic authority in Christchurch has a strategy on this. Amongst the latest losses - and a huge one;  a west side of city -university/airport direct link with a bus (future light rail?) underpass under the motorway extension (a cut and cover tunnel - possibly the simplest engineering project possible ) linking the south east and northeast sectors;  instead the city council repeats the fantasies of a decade by calling for another amateurish or generalised study of rail, which will no doubt the results echoing a similar general study done by Ecan in 2005 (which failed to even look at alternatives to the current inadequate rail alignment). Anything short of a proper cost-benefit ratio study such as done in Auckland (which cost $5 million!) can only be a nonsense. 

Will underground earth movements in Auckland further effect Christchurch's future? Yes, I think so, almost a second earthquake, the tunnel under Auckland  will be just another bloody great sink hole for Canterbury cash whilst our own province can't get its act together on a sensible but visionary public transport policy. 

For those who would like to read more about this issue - I suggest the following opinion pieces;  tough talking supercity Councillor and long time transport spokesperson Mike Lee lambasts the Government and Minister Joyce for reticence about going down the Auckland rail tunnel here; political analyst Rod Oram , writing in the Sunday Star-Times, digs deeply into the "holiday highway" and finds it built upon suspiciously weak ground here ; and (fairly rare for a Cabinet Minister) Stephen Joyce responds to Oram with an opinion piece here. For those who would like to read the original business case, all 127 pages, it is available here.

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