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“A project of this magnitude needs to deliver truly transformational benefits – benefits that are going to be felt for generations to come”

The next harbour crossing: A key building block in a post-Covid economy

The critical importance of well-performing infrastructure to New Zealand's economy was demonstrated by the reduced capacity forced on the Waitemata Harbour Bridge after a wind gust tipped a truck and the bridge superstructure was damaged.

It was a 60-second event, but one which saw Auckland gridlocked, adding millions to the city’s congestion cost and reinforcing calls for more progress to be made towards designing and building another harbour crossing.

Although the need for a new crossing is urgent, the decision shouldn’t be rushed or reactive. It should be considered, evidence based and justified on the basis of long-term economic, social, environmental and cultural outcomes.

And based on the currently available evidence, there are very good reasons to question whether the favoured approach – a road and rail tunnel (or twin tunnels) under the harbour, fairly close in alignment to the existing bridge – will deliver what our city needs.

Disruption a thing of the past?

For a start, many people seem to think that, with the new tunnel in place, the sort of disruption we saw as a result of the bridge closure would be a thing of the past. I say ‘no’ and here’s why.

The plan is for the new tunnel to connect into Spaghetti Junction and take over as State Highway 1, connecting the north and south of the city. Meanwhile, the bridge would be converted into a CBD connection, becoming, in effect, an enormous off-ramp.

Under that scenario, what would happen if an accident caused the tunnel to be blocked? Or, for that matter, the lanes to the north or south of the tunnel? Just as we did during the bridge closure, we’d be forced to rely on SH16/SH18 to get from the north to the south of the city. The western route (SH16) played a vital role during the bridge debacle, but it would have been completely swamped had we been at pre-Covid traffic levels.

So the resilience benefit would be minimal.

The solution to congestion?

Then there’s congestion. Sticking with the current alignment would mean pumping a whole lot more traffic into an already very busy motorway corridor – the sections of motorway to the north of the bridge are already under strain and cannot easily be widened.

According to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s own research, the decongestion benefits for the road component of a new tunnel are mediocre.

None of this is an argument for leaving a new road connection out of the mix, as some are calling for. A rail-only crossing won’t provide much relief to the 55% of commuters travelling south across the bridge in the morning who have destinations outside the CBD, or for the ever-increasing volume of freight – heavy traffic has grown 30% in the last five years, and further restrictions on freight use of the bridge are expected by 2030.

Rather, it’s to say that a project of this magnitude needs to deliver truly transformational benefits – benefits that are going to be felt across the whole of the transport network and the whole of the economy for generations to come.

Time to look at the alternatives

Auckland business is therefore calling for the alignment to be revisited. Alternative alignments have previously been discussed to the west (connecting to Waterview) and the east (connecting to Grafton Gully).

But these haven’t been looked at for at least a decade. The context is now very different, not just in terms of transport and the economy, but also land use and population growth. Tunnel technology has also advanced – it’s now much cheaper and faster.

Under Auckland’s Unitary Plan, by 2030 around a million more Aucklanders are projected in the north (Silverdale and Warkworth), northwest (Kumeu and Whenuapai) and south (Drury and Pukekohe). We now have a much better understanding of what we need to get out of these mega-projects – the Waterview Tunnel has set the benchmark for delivering network-wide benefits and unlocking capacity.

My question is: if these alternative west and east harbour tunnel alignments have been eliminated from the decision-making process, on what grounds?

Also, in a post-Covid world, the accelerating demand for electric vehicles and new fuels such as
pollution-free hydrogen mean that the private
vehicle will continue to be the favoured means of transport for the
foreseeable future.

A pioneering spirit

The information is on hand, and I see no reason why we can’t move immediately. The new Auckland harbour crossing has to be a project for the whole of New Zealand. More than half the nation’s population live in the upper North Island.

Such an induced change can stimulate flow-on benefits – thousands of jobs would be created; a reinvigorated economy and sense of Auckland, finally, delivering modern, resilient infrastructure needed by the population; and business growth across a modern, go-ahead ‘golden economic triangle’ region.

As the post-Covid world dawns, we should not be afraid to dream big again. Let’s adopt a pioneering spirit of wanting to transform Auckland by investing in infrastructure that can match and marry with an economy that fits our unique physical environment.

By Michael Barnett
Michael Barnett is the chief executive of the Auckland Business Chamber, and chairman of the Auckland Business Forum; he can be contacted at mbarnett@chamber.co.nz



 


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