Trains, cars and bikes - the parties' big plans

By Mathew Dearnaley

Party promises reflect tension between regions as well as modes of transport.

Elaine Ben and Derek Judge outside the Ranui Train Station. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Elaine Ben and Derek Judge outside the Ranui Train Station. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Less than a fortnight before the 2011 election, traffic started chugging along the first of the Government's seven Roads of National Significance - through Auckland's $406 million Victoria Park motorway tunnel.

Fast-forward three years, and there's another flagship transport project for the Super City on an election eve. This time it's an $11 million cycling "super-highway" through Auckland's motorway junction and Grafton Gully, which the Transport Agency is readying for next week.

Call it a sign of the times, amid a bidding contest in which National has just announced $100 million over four years for new urban cycleways, as Labour and the Greens promise to eclipse that investment.

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Although the spend-up pales against $4.8 billion the Government is earmarking for more new highways over that period - and $14 billion over 10 years - cycling advocates are delighted it is "finally" acknowledging the health benefits of pedalling, as well as its potential for easing urban road congestion.

That enthusiasm is shared by the Automobile Association, representing over a million Kiwi motorists, which applauds safe cycling paths.

The Government's roads-first focus to stoke economic development is meanwhile continuing apace. A giant boring machine will pop out of the ground at Waterview in Auckland in early October, when it finishes digging the first of two tunnels connecting the Southwestern and Northwestern motorways along the city's Western Ring Route.

Although even the Road Transport Forum representing freight haulers acknowledges the 1999-2008 Labour-led Government's efforts in ramping up highways spending, and ending an old practice of siphoning off large dollops of fuel tax into a general Crown fund, it praises National for surpassing all previous investment.

That has been accompanied by a range of road safety improvements - including the ban on hand-held phones at the wheel and tougher driving licence tests - and the lowest death rate from crashes in 63 years.

However, the Government has been slow to respond to public opinion by delaying until December a reduction in blood and breath-alcohol limits for adult drivers, and some opposition parties are calling for more median barriers.

Other big roading projects at the height of construction include bypasses of Cambridge and Rangiriri on the Waikato Expressway, and Tauranga's Eastern Link toll road, due to be followed before the end of the year by a $1 billion motorway through Transmission Gully north of Wellington after strong lobbying from Government support party United Future.

But a battle line is being drawn over a loan for that long-debated alternative escape route from the capital, through a public-private partnership which Labour and the Greens say will end up costing the country $3 billion to repay over 25 years.

Although Labour supports the project in principle, it is recoiling at the terms of the loan, which it promises to review if elected as well as seeking cost savings from a design rethink of the proposed Kapiti Expressway - another big part of Wellington's $2 billion-plus Northern Corridor.

It has also reaffirmed its intention to postpone a $1.7 billion extension of the Auckland motorway to Wellsford indefinitely, despite a plea from its only Northland MP, Kelvin Davis.

A Labour-Greens coalition would limit spending to $320 million for safety upgrades of the existing route and a bypass of Warkworth, kicking a large slice of the savings into an "immediate" start on Auckland's $2.2 billion underground railway.

Although the Government has agreed to share the bill - having also paid for most of Auckland's $1.14 billion rail electrification - it will not do so until 2020 unless new targets for passenger trips and job creation are met beforehand.

But Labour has stopped short of backing the Greens in their opposition to bypasses of Hamilton and Huntly, costing more than $1 billion, and their plan to shift $10 billion to public transport over 10 years.

The Government argues such a tectonic funding shift would defy the reality of most passenger trips and freight movements being on roads, but the Greens say concentrating so much spending on just a handful of mega-motorway projects leaves people with little choice.

Labour recognises the Waikato Expressway as an important economic link in a golden triangle of productivity between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty, but the Greens say Hamilton already has enough tarmac and want to just maintain existing roads and put a passenger rail service along the route. That will leave more road space for trucks sharing a growing freight task with rail, according to their prescription for a future less dependent on oil.

A suggestion the Greens could hold the transport portfolio in a Labour-led Government evoked nervous laughter from truckers in Auckland last month for the Road Transport Forum's annual conference. But there is likely to be greater danger of speed bumps for the roads lobby if New Zealand First emerges again as king-maker.

Tapping into provincial unease about the level of spending in main centres - a concern shared even by the Conservatives - NZ First is proposing a diversion of $300 million into a 10-year Railways of National Importance (RONI) programme.

National had hoped an allocation of $212 million from asset sale proceeds rather than from fuel taxes to a selection of regional roading projects would go some way towards placating the provinces. But even the road forum has accused it of reverting to pork-barrel politics.

Couple mix and match on commute from out west

Elaine Ben and Derek Judge are a multi-mode couple when getting about Auckland - using cars, trains, a ute and a motorcycle to survive the Super City's temperamental traffic.

Although neither expects transport policies to tip the scales of their decision-making on September 20, they have a strong preference for balanced spending, and share concerns about high costs of both roading and rail projects.

Ms Ben used to drive to work as an office manager in Kingsland from their home on the rural fringe between Swanson and Ranui before becoming thoroughly sick of stewing for up to 40 minutes in dense morning traffic inching towards Henderson's Lincoln Rd motorway on-ramp.

Seemingly endless roadworks made the railway passing their house more and more alluring, especially when she found it could get her to work much faster - in just over half an hour - and with far less stress than by car.

Although Mr Judge drops her at Ranui Station by car, that takes only minutes, and her workplace is right next to the Western Line.

One drawback of that is when the roar of passing diesel locomotives drowns out phone conversations, so she "can't wait" for electric trains to replace them next year. She usually arrives at work far fresher than when she faced the maul of traffic, although she and her fellow passengers dread being occasionally packed into one of the older diesel trains, nicknamed "the Calcutta Express".

Ms Ben supports rail tunnels but baulks at their $2.2 billion-plus cost, which "just seems a horrendous amount of money".

Even so, she prefers transport funds to be invested in rail, as "widening the motorways everywhere will just get more and more cars on the road".

Mr Judge works from home as a science software content designer, but usually rides his 1200cc motorbike into Auckland three times a week for television voice-over duties.

It takes him there far faster than in his car, allowing him to get to the head of traffic queues quickly, but he resorts to driving on rainy days when he becomes aggravated by an "internal commentary" running in his head - an occupational hazard of long years spent narrating TV2's Motorway Patrol series.

Mr Judge has a beef with the $760 million cost of the proposed 18km motorway extension to Warkworth. His solution is to invest on upgrading the northern rail link.

"Would you rather have 100 trucks or one train?"

- NZ Herald

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