Editorial: Auckland's projects must take back seat

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In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake a debate is developing about the merits of depriving other regions, notably Auckland, of development for the sake of Christchurch's recovery.

In fact, there is no choice. Christchurch is one of the hubs of the national economy and the disruption of its normal activity will reduce economic activity nationwide. Its recovery is imperative and quite properly it will have first call on public investment for a good year or more.

The idea that boosting Auckland's activity might enable the national economy to grow despite the earthquake is fanciful. Auckland's infrastructure programmes are not gold discoveries; at best they are of incremental value to the economy.

Two of them - motorway tunnels under flat land - are very costly indulgences that are beginning to look grossly extravagant beside the needs of Christchurch.

A great deal of worthwhile investment in the South Island's main centre could be lost forever if Christchurch is not quickly given as much help as the country can muster.

It is hard to think of any national project more urgent, including the Government's ultra-fast broadband and rural broadband networks, which would have been built by Telecom if they were economical.

It seems the broadband projects are safe in the wake of the earthquake, as is the Waterview tunnels for Auckland's western ring connection. Waterview is the final link in a network that will give Auckland two complete motorways through the city and provide a nonstop route from the inner city to the airport at long last.

Its economic value is undeniable but national taxpayers can reasonably question whether a 2.4km stretch needs to go underground at a cost of $1.15 billion, especially since the tunnels are threatening to be eyesores in any case with their ventilation towers.

In the wake of the earthquake, it seems clear the Auckland Council will have to forget about an inner-city rail loop if it wants this Government to fund it. That $2 billion proposition was already struggling to convince Transport Minister Steven Joyce that its business case was soundly based.

Members of the Auckland Council may be aggrieved that the centrepiece of their public transport plans may be sacrificed to the needs of Christchurch.

The council was quick to contribute $1.5 million to the southern city's relief last week and resolved to postpone some of its major works if necessary to make expert staff and resources available to help the clean-up and recovery.

The Auckland Council and its subsidiaries Watercare Services and Auckland Transport had already sent south more than 100 engineers, emergency response teams, civil defence staff and building inspectors. Auckland cannot be accused of insensitivity to the plight of the country's second-largest city if it continues to argue for its railway.

But nor can it accuse the Government of favouring roads. A Northern Motorway extension to Warkworth seems likely to be shelved for the time being, as will the Waikato Expressway extension and Wellington's northern corridor.

Rail enthusiasts on the council dismiss the proposed motorway to Warkworth as a "holiday highway", overlooking the fact that the need for it is such that it could be tolled.

If users were similarly prepared to pay the running cost of an urban railway, the project might have a better chance of survival now.

If the Auckland Council dared to levy its own ratepayers for the bulk of the capital cost, its chances might be better still. But if the council continues to plead for national finance, it will find the Government more deaf than ever for a good while. The needs of Christchurch will take precedence over Auckland schemes, and properly so.

- NZ Herald

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