Brian Rudman: Hallelujah, talk before bulldozers

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At last, Transit New Zealand, Auckland City and the Auckland Regional Council are going to sit around the table and work out how Transit's proposed harbour tunnel is going to impact on the region's grand plans for the Tank Farm redevelopment.

Hallelujah. The see no evil, hear no evil approach the road builders and the politicians have had to each other's schemes until now has been bizarre.

Now there's to be a love-in where the two sides will endeavour to blend the parallel visions into a blueprint that everyone can live with.

To me, the "early next year" deadline seems impossibly tight, but at least they're agreeing to sit on the same mat and share their crayons.

Transit New Zealand's "preferred option" - as of yesterday afternoon it was still identified as such on its website - to bring the city end of the tunnel up somewhere near the cement silos in the Tank Farm was never really a goer.

Transit insiders admit that no traffic analysis was done at the time of the 2002 study that produced the option, and that because of the already congested nature of this peninsular, north of Fanshawe St, there was little likelihood of it ever getting Environment Court approval.

The traffic implications were too horrendous.

It was more about engineering feasibility, and technically it was buildable. But that was about the best that could be said for it.

Now Transit is talking of the tunnel staying underground until it joins the motorway system at, possibly, Cook St, or, if regional council chairman Mike Lee gets his wish, east of the CBD at Stanley St.

There's also talk of a light rail link around to Britomart Station, with underground stops within the regenerated Tank Farm.

To me, trying to debouch any more cars either into the central city or through the Spaghetti Junction bottleneck is an exercise in futility. It will just choke the system more comprehensively than at present.

Instead of the new tunnel carrying a mix of public transport and general traffic, Transit and the politicians should stop pussy-footing around about their so-called commitment to public transport and design the tunnel solely as a public transit thoroughfare.

Not only would that lower the $3 billion-plus cost, but it would speed up public transit between downtown Auckland and the North Shore so dramatically that the lure to commute by bus - or light rail - would be, if not exactly irresistible, at least a tempting alternative to jumping in a car. It would also remove the need to tunnel through to Cook St. Instead, the public transit tunnel could loop under the Tank Farm and around to the Britomart Transport Station, thus directly linking northern commuters with the rail network to the south and west.

One option would be to run light rail on it. But given the vast amounts already spent on building the northern busway, an alternative would be to run electric buses. Electric buses or light trains would save on the extractor systems required if the tunnel catered for conventionally powered cars and buses, and no doubt cut down on the ugly snorkel towers needed to get rid of diesel and petrol fumes.

Of course there's no show without Punch, and the proposed study had hardly been announced before National's Auckland issues spokesman, Wayne Mapp, was dusting down his Neanderthal thoughts on tolls and public/private partnerships and fast-trackings and the like.

Transit says the tunnel will not be needed until at least 2020, but Dr Mapp is having none of that. Using his magic formula of private capital and tolling, he sees it opening within 10 years "without any effect on Transit's other priorities".

When Dr Mapp was beating this same drum a couple of years back, I awarded him a Victoria Cross for political courage for promising to inflict a $6 return toll on his North Shore constituents.

I recalled how when National promised to do a similar thing before the 1980 East Coast Bays byelection, its candidate, Don Brash, was swept aside by Social Credit.

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