The transport headlines have been coming thick and fast. And it seems the various plans we’ve had forced on us over the past few years are unravelling.
It’s almost as if the various transport authorities have seen the election outcome as an opportunity to come clean with the bad news they’ve been unwilling, or unable, to talk about.
As a result, there are surprises aplenty for everyone including ratepayers, drivers, cyclists, ferry passengers, and other public transport users.
To be fair, public transport users have become used to surprises. Over the past few months there have been too many cancellations of bus, train and ferry services. Reliability is not a word you would associate with our public transport operations.
But the big announcements of the past few weeks tell us the problems are worse than we think.
We’ve recently learned the City Rail Link (CRL) is blowing budgets on every front. The original $2.7 billion construction budget is long gone and the latest “estimate” is $5.8b.
I’m not sure anyone knows what the final cost will be. The website says it will be finished by November 2025, but the people in charge are refusing to put a finish date on it. My guess is the total cost will end up being more than $6b. Someone, somewhere should be asking how we can run such a major infrastructure project without a target date or a budget.
Also, there was the news that, once completed, the CRL’s net operating costs will start at $220 million a year, after the revenue collected is taken into account. So if it costs $6b to build, $265m a year to operate and annual revenue is projected at $44m, who in their right mind would approve that business case?
We are not talking about a game-changing infrastructure project that is going to fundamentally alter Aucklanders’ lives. We are talking about a train line from Britomart in the CBD to Mt Eden. A distance of 3.4km.
How many of us think Auckland’s traffic problems are going to be solved by a 3.4km railway line from Britomart to Mt Eden? Will the Southern Motorway run more freely? No. Will the Harbour Bridge have less congestion? No. Will Newmarket’s Saturday shopping snarl-ups occur less frequently? Not likely.
And that’s the problem. We are spending billions on a tiny piece of a transport puzzle we will never be able to afford to complete.
Meantime, the capital city’s transport infrastructure isn’t faring too well either. Unlike Auckland, Wellington is a public transport town, with a substantial commuter train service for many years. But post-election, we’ve learned that a lack of funding to maintain the capital’s train network will result in a decrease in services. According to the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), we have a billion-dollar budget shortfall over the next few years.
As a result, the GWRC has released a report on potential cuts to train services, blaming a lack of investment and a maintenance backlog. Services to Johnsonville will be cut from three to one per hour. The former PM’s patch, the Hutt Valley, will have cuts from six services to two. Some lines are being axed altogether.
The Wellington councils are now pleading to the new Government for financial help.
Remember, the people behind these failed projects and failing organisations are the same people who have been forcing us out of our cars. In Auckland, they have taken hundreds of car parks off the streets to make it difficult for us to park. Those car parks have been replaced by oversized pot plants, unused picnic tables and isolated bike stands. Footpaths have been widened and roads narrowed to limit cars.
They’re also making car travel about as uncomfortable as it can be. Take a drive along Sarsfeld St in Herne Bay. It’s 900m long. It has 11 sets of aggressive judder bars. Or as Auckland Transport would have us call them, “traffic calming devices”. I’m told each costs at least $300,000. I have one question: why?
But getting us out of our cars isn’t working, because there is no alternative. For public transport to work, it needs to be affordable, accessible and reliable. It is none of the above.
On the affordability front, Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown is on the right track with his call for a $50 weekly maximum fare. That’s only a couple of days parking in the CBD. If you could ride a reliable bus, one that stops close to your home and your workplace, for $50 a week, you might be tempted.
But the bus has to turn up. We’ve had thousands of journeys cancelled at short notice. Buses, trains and ferries alike. This week, a couple of Devonport ferry trips were cancelled because a cruise ship was leaving town. In Sydney, the ferries are such a critical part of the transport solution, the cruise ship would be told when it could depart, rather than the other way around. And it wouldn’t be leaving town during rush hour.
A few years back, these same transport officials heralded cycling as a new transport solution.
We’ve been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Auckland alone to facilitate the journeys of a few two-wheeled travellers. But we’re not exactly flocking to the bike lanes, for obvious reasons.
First, Auckland is hilly. The new, and very expensive, bike lane between Oteha Valley Rd and Constellation Drive north of Auckland is beautifully built. But it has a couple of decent climbs, one of which is 1km long and reaches a 7 per cent gradient. The average person riding their bike to work can’t ride up that hill.
Second, it rains a lot. Such conditions do not make for pleasant cycling.
Finally, for those romantically dreaming of riding their bikes to work, the great majority of our workplaces do not offer what are now called “end-of-trip facilities”. Yes the CBD’s modern buildings will have bike parking, showers and lockers, but for the majority of us, such luxuries aren’t available. Having thrashed yourself through Auckland’s hills and rain, how on earth do you intend to make yourself presentable for a day at the office?
While we’re on the topic of cycle lanes, the cyclists I speak to all agree: most of the cycle lanes are downright dangerous.
What cyclists really need is space. A nicely paved, 2m-wide shoulder would solve a lot of problems. Instead, we put barriers between the bikes and cars, creating a more hazardous environment. Even though they’ve had a couple of cracks at it, Upper Harbour Highway near Greenhithe is a shambles. The bike lane is too narrow, the barrier is unsafe for cars and bikes, and cyclists are forced to share their lane with rubbish bins, glass and overgrown foliage.
At the other extreme is Market Place in the Viaduct. The entire street is only 200m long. It used to have car parking on both sides adjoining the two-lane road. It was relatively quiet. Now it’s been converted to a one-way street with a two-lane cycleway. Most of the car parks have been taken out. I’m there every week, and I haven’t seen a cyclist yet.
The only good news from our financial dilemmas is that we will be forced to abandon all the stupidity and forget trains and cycleways. To his credit, Mayor Brown seems to have come to this conclusion, saying we will scale back on cycle lanes (thankfully) and judder bars.
As nice as all the feel-good transport solutions may seem, we can’t afford them. We have two types of highway that are already well-developed: the roading network and the water.
It’s the water solution that intrigues me most. Unlike the 3.4km from the city to Mt Eden, our waterways provide a highway to many of our transport trouble spots: the North Shore, West Auckland, Whangaparāoa, the inner Eastern Suburbs, Howick-Pakuranga. It’s an established transport network that we’re hardly using. And you might not know this, but we’re a world leader in the manufacture of electric ferries.
The roads need to be upgraded, but the waterways will largely look after themselves. All we need to do is build some wharves, buy some boats and put a timetable together. You could do a hell of a lot for $1 billion.
It doesn’t sound that difficult really, does it?
Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, and host of the Herald’s new podcast, Leaders Getting Coffee. www.brucecotterill.com