Auckland, and the nation, desperately needs the Government to fast-track the decision on an alternative to the vulnerable Auckland Harbour Bridge.
When an accident damaged the structure in September and four lanes had to be closed for an unknown period, Auckland almost ground to a standstill.
The question must be asked, why has a decision on an additional harbour crossing taken so long?
A second mid-city crossing has been debated for years. As Auckland has grown, so the bridge has become the spinal cord to Auckland's and the country's economy. Many voices have been heard, over many years, pointing out the limits to the bridge's capacity, the dire consequences of a major restriction or blockage, and, almost unanimously, to the need for an alternative.
Regrettably, all of this has remained hot air. A new crossing has become the victim of one of the longest political filibusters in New Zealand's history.
What do we know and what are we being told?
We know that the existing bridge is a critical carrier of commuter, commercial and industrial traffic for the region, as well as power and water services for the north of the city. The approaches are inadequate at rush hour. We know that the city's population is increasing, and will need increasing transport infrastructure within the narrow corridor that is the Auckland isthmus.
Yet we are also being told that the bridge is near its capacity, has no scope for expansion, and that the constant maintenance currently required to keep it safe is unlikely to avoid the need for total or substantial replacement in the future.
So, Nero continues to fiddle while Rome burns. There is a plethora of studies into the need for another crossing, and the means of delivering it. In 2011 the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development (now called Infrastructure New Zealand) noted in a report to the Mayor of Auckland entitled Linking Auckland that a study commissioned by New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and released to the public was the sixth major study into an additional Waitemata Harbour crossing since the 1980s.
What is missing is a decision to implement what the many studies have said, and what the recent disruption caused by one truck has demonstrated, is needed.
What is the current state of the decision-making? There are two key aspects to this question – identifying the decision-maker and assessing the facts information already collected for the decision.
First, the decision-maker. The harbour bridge is an essential part of Auckland City but is also part of the national highway system. The ultimate decision-maker (and funder) is the government of the day, no doubt taking its advice from a number of sources including Auckland City but using NZTA (originally as Transit New Zealand) to assess the needs, challenges, and potential options.
NZTA opted for four tunnels (two road, two rail) from Onewa Rd to Spaghetti Junction. However, there has been no clear government view or instruction to NZTA to get the project underway. A timeframe announced in August 2015 has been shelved.
Secondly, the state of knowledge and advice. It is an unhappy reflection of the project's lengthy history that "the current workstream" (as the NZ Council for Infrastructure Development in 2011 described the operative study) is already several years old. It begins with the Waitemata Harbour Crossing Study 2008: Study Summary Report, April 2008 and takes in the NZTA commissioned study, Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing, Preliminary Business Case (written in draft in 2010 and released for consultation in February 2011).
The 2008 study considered 159 route options before recommending a preferred form and route. The 2011 review (ordered in March 2010 by then Minister of Transport Steven Joyce) reconsidered the relative merits of a tunnel as against a bridge, in terms of cost and benefits, but stopped short of making a further recommendation.
Despite these comprehensive studies, the project seems to be no closer to a firm decision.
After the 2011 study was published there was a flurry of consultation with major stakeholders (such as Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, the Ministry of Transport, KiwiRail and iwi) about the route and the nature of the crossing, and about road and rail requirements for the region. Implementation was deferred as the prospect of a further crossing was built into the Auckland Plan and into Auckland Transport's Regional Land Transport Programme.
There was a hint of light in March 2015 when the Minister of Transport announced that NZTA was recommencing work on the crossing and NZTA published a timeline leading to a start of construction in 2022.
However, except for work being done to protect the favoured route, no practical steps have been taken since. Instead, further stakeholders (the Auckland Transport Alignment Group) have been brought into discussion, other studies have been allowed to complicate the process (Auckland Transport's rapid transit study), and in late 2018 an NZTA briefing paper to the Minister of Transport indicated a political rethink (from a road-only tunnel to a rail-only tunnel).
Changes to any project can be expected as the detail is developed, but the further crossing appears to have become the victim of changing political fortunes and partisan political positions.
Due to its location (at the southern end of the Auckland Harbour Bridge), St Mary's Bay is directly affected by many of the infrastructure issues that arise in central Auckland. The St Mary's Bay Association Inc was formed 45 years ago to give its community a voice in these issues. It has been actively involved in the development of Westhaven, the widening of the motorway approaches to the bridge, the Victoria Park tunnel, and, most recently, the St Mary's Bay/Masefield Beach water improvement project, working closely with the agencies undertaking the projects to raise community concerns and develop efficient and practical solutions.
The St Mary's Bay Association took part in consultations on the 2011 review, advocating strenuously in 2011 and 2012 for a combined road/rail tunnel rather than a bridge, and arguing for the merits of a longer, more easterly route to Britomart. While its views on the route have not been accepted, its concern now is not to re-open the options but rather for a decision to proceed to be made. There is then room to bring community voices to the table in the development of a detailed business case.
Now is the time for bold economic thinking.
It will be a major cost, but it could be the best infrastructure investment in New Zealand now and for the future. It will provide an immediate boost to the economy, at the same time as protecting it from the risks associated with the bridge.
It is accepted wisdom that the bridge by itself cannot meet future needs. A decision to move ahead now is merely bringing forward the inevitable. A tunnel that answers both the mass transit and the freight needs of the city is sound forward planning. And the route that meets those requirements in the most efficient way must be chosen.
It is time for government to re-establish NZTA's mandate to move ahead. And to bring the knowledge and skills in the community into the planning and design process as was done with the Victoria Park underpass. The St Mary's Bay Association worked constructively with NZTA on that project, first by putting forward the suggestion of an underpass, and then by being part of a working group used to bring the project to a timely completion.
The recent accident on the bridge, and the crippling effect of the shutdown needed to complete repairs, have demonstrated how vulnerable Auckland is to any disruption to use of the bridge.
The case has been made for an alternative. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent, and thousands of hours have been expended, in exploring the needs and options. It is time for a decision to be made. And for the community to be brought into the process.
New Zealanders are looking to our new government for action – high on its list of infrastructure priorities should be a tunnel under Auckland harbour.
- David Abbott is the chairman of the St Mary's Bay Association.