Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Impossible to get public transport needs past capital's road-builders

Len Brown. Photo / Greg Bowker
Len Brown. Photo / Greg Bowker

Mayor Len Brown's catchphrase "transformational change" is easy to say, but when it comes to transport he's just a lone slogan drowned out by the road-builders and their noisy bulldozers.

Two reports to Wednesday's Auckland Council transport committee meeting highlight how hard it is to knock the road-builders off the perch from which they've ruled policy in this city - and country - for the past 50 years.

The reports also underline that for all the unified planning the new Super City was supposed to bring, the big decisions are still made in Wellington, where "transformational" is certainly not on the Government's agenda.

Last October, Te Atatu MP Phil Twyford appeared before the committee to propose a busway as part of the upgrade work on State Highway 16, the Northwestern Motor-way.

With the council's proposed Auckland Plan envisaging a significant influx of people living and working along this thoroughfare by 2040, particularly on the Te Atatu Peninsula, public transport provision sounds like a no-brainer.

Except to the Wellington road-builders.

The report to councillors reveals that sure, there are plenty of token gestures in place. That the planned upgrades over the next decade will "extend, widen and improve the network of bus shoulder lanes along the motorway, and on various ramps entering and exiting the motorway".

But whoops, there is no provision for rapid bus travel through interchanges such as Lincoln Rd and Te Atatu which are, says the report, "often the most congested parts of the motorway network".

At these bottlenecks, the buses will have to push back into the general traffic and join the general congestion.

Report author and recently appointed principal transport planner Josh Arbury concedes that redesigning the proposed upgrades to accommodate a busway at this stage "would be very challenging".

Indeed it would.

In campaign mode, the mayor might have even called it transformational. The question for the politicians is, are they up for the challenge?

The other report is on the future of rail from Auckland to Northland, the long-neglected and much cheaper iron highway rival to the $1.5 billion "holiday highway" through Puhoi that this Government is busting a gut to build.

With the debate raging over the future expansion plans for the commercial Auckland port, the deepwater port at Marsden Point is regarded by many as a natural partner to share the growing freight load predicted for the congested Auckland site.

But to be a feasible option, it needs funding for a 20km rail line from the port to the main trunk line. All the consents are in place and the land needed is close to being secured. All that's missing is $120 million to construct the line.

Then there's the neglected state of the North Auckland Line from Auckland to Whangarei to rejuvenate.

KiwiRail earns $8 million to $9 million a year from it in its present dilapidated state, which covers the cost of train operations but not the $3 million to $5 million cost of infrastructure maintenance.

In fact, the line is so clapped out it takes five hours for a train to cover the 165km trip. In addition, six of the 13 tunnels provide insufficient clearance for modern containers.

Including tunnel reconstruction, upgrading the line would cost around $100 million. However, KiwiRail and other partners have come up with the design for a low floor wagon that could avoid the need for tunnel reconstruction and reduce the cost significantly.

A fleet of 35 to 40 low floor wagons would cost between $3.5 million and $8 million. As a counterpoint, the report notes that the NZ Transport Agency is spending $51 million on upgrading State Highway 1 through Whangarei and looking at an expensive bypass west of the Brynderwyns, north of Auckland.

The draft Auckland Plan regards the North Auckland Line as an important strategic freight link. Compared with the costs being tossed about for ongoing expansion of the state highway north, it also seems a cheap option.

But, as with Auckland public transport, the politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington who really hold the purse strings are trapped in a non-transformational state of mind.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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