Michael Lee: Sins of the fathers - legacy of harbour bridge

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The 50th anniversary of the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge should have been a day of celebration and civic pride, complete with dignitaries, brass bands and applauding happy citizens.

Well there was a celebration of sorts - but it wasn't official and in fact more reminiscent of the Berlin Wall coming down - as some 2000 Aucklanders bypassed police, officials and a hastily built security fence and defiantly poured on to the bridge.

Cycling and walking advocates have been lobbying the Transport Agency for access on the bridge without success for some years.

Late last year the Auckland Regional Council noted peak-hour traffic congestion on the bridge had declined by 8 per cent (almost equivalent to a whole lane of traffic) largely thanks to the North Shore busway.

It called for the opening of one bridge lane on weekends and public holidays for walking and cycling on a trial basis ... again in vain.

The agency's subsequent refusal to open the bridge for a public commemoration of the 50th anniversary meant the events of a week or so ago were probably inevitable.

Although the crowd was festive and good natured, there was a consistent sentiment expressed by many and clearly felt by all that "the bridge belongs to us".

That's understandable amongst a crowd of Aucklanders. After all the bridge has been an iconic symbol of the city from the moment the centre span was hoisted into place in 1959.

This fine example of 20th-century engineering should have been one of Auckland's proudest amenities - but instead it has been dogged from its beginnings by controversy.

The original plan for an elegant bridge designed to also carry rail, pedestrians and cyclists was, on the orders of the Holland National Government, down-sized to four lanes - for cars only. This appallingly short-sighted decision was only partly rectified by the "Nippon clip-ons" added in the late '60s.

But the Government of the day insisted on a cheap bridge, and that's what Auckland got.

This lack of foresight and common sense was compounded by Auckland city fathers led by former Mayor Sir John Allum, chairman of the bridge authority. He lobbied the National Roads Board to reconfigure State Highway 1 from its previous designated route around the city (ironically about where State Highway 20 is being retrofitted now at enormous cost) to a route directly through the centre of suburban and inner-city Auckland (causing great damage) and on to the bridge.

As former National Cabinet minister W.J. (Jack) Scott recalled in May 1999, State Highway 1 was moved because Sir John feared the toll revenue would be insufficient.

Sir John, he said, "had never been associated with a failure. No way was he going to run the bridge at a loss." It was Jack Scott who pointed out that originally the southern and northwestern motorways were meant to be linked as ring road around the city - not slicing through it.

Unfortunately there was at the time (the mid 1950s) a whole suite of poor decisions made without any sense of vision by both central and local government - the results of which we are still struggling with today.

There was the decision taken jointly by the Holland Government and a compliant Auckland City Council to abandon plans to electrify and expand the Auckland rail system, including a city underground loop.

(There is reason to believe Auckland got the bridge only after the council conceded on the electric rail system.)

Then there was the Auckland Transport Board and Auckland City Council decision to dump the popular tram system (light rail) and to rip up 72km of electric tramway - to ensure the decision could never be reversed.

As a result public transport patronage in Auckland virtually collapsed from more than 100 million passenger trips a year down to 57 million - which is around where we are today. And remember the population of Auckland was less than 500,000 in the 1950s.

Auckland was physically restructured from being one of the best public transport-using cities in the world to one of the worst.

Another appalling decision in this period, this time in the face of fierce opposition from the public who could clearly foresee the horrific consequences, was to build a sewage outlet at Browns Island.

Fortunately this was stopped but only by a democratic public revolt led by a visionary Dove Meyer Robinson.

From this perspective it can be seen that the 1950s were arguably the most critical decade in the history of modern Auckland.

Decisions taken then have had a profound, far-reaching and largely negative influence on the urban shape and development and quality of life of the Auckland of today.

It would be reassuring to know that the official mindset of selling Auckland short was now long in the past but, unhappily, I don't think it is.

What we saw personified in the Transport Agency official on the bridge arrogantly booming "no" through a megaphone suggests it is still very much alive and well.

* Michael Lee is chairman of the Auckland Regional Council.

- NZ Herald

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