Michael Barnett: Inject common sense to pick up transport pace

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Michael Barnett says we need to prioritise achieving network optimisation of our current transport network. Picture / Natalie Slade
Michael Barnett says we need to prioritise achieving network optimisation of our current transport network. Picture / Natalie Slade

To avoid yet more frustrating delay to Auckland's critical transport infrastructure projects, a dose of common sense and urgency needs to be injected into our thinking and plan of action.

Failure to build momentum so that transport providers will provide a work programme to deliver Auckland's long-promised package of transport projects in a timely way, also raises risks of losing the construction industry capability and jobs built up in recent years.

Insiders tell me that alongside growing uncertainty about Auckland continuing to provide a sustainable programme of new work, there continues to be plenty of construction work in Australia and Asia for skilled Kiwis.

Once lost, as is evident in other areas where Auckland has skill shortages, it will be hard to attract them back.

Coupled with completion of the Western Ring Route - the Waterview Tunnel project - and a third Waitemata Harbour crossing, two major projects dominate Auckland's transport programme - the Central Rail Link and the AMETI and East-West Link.

These projects form a package that planners say will give Auckland the framework for a modern transport infrastructure network capable of serving Auckland's needs well into the century.

But I suggest that will not be good enough! Talk to any Aucklander trying to move predictably and conveniently around our city and you quickly learn that their main frustration is over incidents arising from the existing network not operating efficiently.

There are bottlenecks on the motorway network every day - at Mt Wellington near Sylvia Park and Constellation Drive on the North Shore - where three traffic lanes reduce to two. They need to be fixed immediately.

And in respect of public transport, the hundreds of buses that cram into Auckland's centre every day puts time-cost frustration on other traffic, especially at peak times. This constraint needs to be coupled with Britomart being a dead-end rail station which severely restricts the number of trains that can use it. We end up continuing to brand Auckland to the world as a city with inefficient public transport - both rail and road-based.

A common sense focus on infrastructure to achieve network optimisation to address these weak links seems to me a logical response, and deserving priority alongside if not ahead of the major projects.

Meanwhile, an injection of common sense into the planning for the city rail link route through the inner city is also needed. Studies are continuing on issues raised two years ago concerning whether a bus tunnel would be more efficient and give greater value for money than making Britomart a through station for trains.

Looking at Auckland's long-term population growth, increasing numbers of businesses locating in central Auckland and the fact that a single commuter train can carry far more passengers faster than even 10 buses, making Britomart a through station is common sense. Without this rail link, the rest of the rail network will continue to be sub-optimal. But we need the hard evidence on bus or rail as the better long-term value for money proposition to give Auckland an efficient public transport system.

The longer the study takes to deliver convincing answers, serves only to increase doubts on the viability of giving urgency to complete the rail link project by 2020 as planned.

Regardless, the current proposed route doesn't serve some big traffic it has potential to generate, such as our universities, hospital and where office workers are concentrated. A re-design is needed here too.

If we are going to spend $2 billion-plus to provide an inner city rail link to connect to the existing network, then we need to be very confident we will get the best possible value from the spend.

Similarly with the $2 billion-plus AMETI and East-West Link - its planning needs to be accelerated and put into a commonsense template.

Each working day, around 6000 heavy freight vehicles and considerable other commercial traffic use local streets where the route is proposed. The area is among New Zealand's top-10 traffic congestion points.

New Zealand's third largest container handling facility, MetroPort, which provides road-rail freight transfer for Port of Tauranga and is rapidly gaining patronage, is a key piece of infrastructure needing efficient access from this project.

So are the around 50 large freight companies, including many servicing exporters and daily distribution of inter-regional freight. The difficulties and time-cost wastage generated by the local congestion and inefficient connections to the motorway system are well documented.

As the economy recovers and more focus is put on export-led growth, common sense suggests we should be giving priority to fast-track the AMETI and East-West Link as a freight priority project.

For business, getting certainty that the project is being resourced and prioritised for completion within 10 years akin to a local government equivalent to Government's Roads of National Significance package is of critical interest.

Business is not seeking these many transport projects purely for their own sake or just for the many jobs they create, but for what each contributes to giving Auckland a modern transport network, involving choice for users and reinforcing Auckland's brand as an attractive, modern, well designed and functioning "global city" to live and work in.

Of course, funding continues to be the major constraint to faster progress with all of this.

Again, a dose of common sense needs to be brought to the table, and I intend to do just that. With our $32 billion asset base, sound international credit rating, and strong economic growth prospects, Auckland has the capability to raise the capital it needs to deliver its infrastructure-for-growth agenda.

We have assets that can be capitalised, financial instruments such as infrastructure bonds and international investors we can call on.

With Aucklanders telling me they want a faster pace of investment to build a modern transport network giving better choice, common sense tell me our focus needs to be on funding a transport package that will measurably help this and contribute to Auckland lifting its game, not simply one pet project or another.

Michael Barnett is chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce

- NZ Herald

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