Transport is hitting the accelerator pedal
Despite many challenges ahead, the pace to address Auckland's transport infrastructure gaps can be expected to increase markedly over the next three years.
Auckland's population continues to increase rapidly. Contrary to some reports, the 2013 Census results show only a slight dip in the rate of population increase over the past six years.
Auckland has achieved 85 per cent of its expected population growth during a period of economic uncertainty (the Global Financial Crisis or GFC). With commentators picking the economy to fire on all cylinders in the period ahead, there is no reason to change the expectation that Auckland will continue to grow at almost twice the rate of the rest of New Zealand, and at a level that keeps it in the top 10 fastest growing cities in the OECD. The Census result also confirms around 53 per cent of New Zealanders now live in the Upper North Island.
There is nothing new from the Census findings to seriously put in doubt the projection that Auckland will have around 2.5 million people by 2041 - about 70 per cent of New Zealand's total population growth over the 30-year period.
For transport providers, Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency especially, the message is very clear. The demand for accelerated investment and work to deliver the long-promised one-system, seamless transport network offering realistic choices and efficient, reliable services will only increase.
This investment by the Auckland Transport-NZTA partnership into Auckland each year accounts for many thousands of jobs and a significant proportion of Auckland's GDP, and underpins our economic competitiveness and general prosperity.
"Any way you look at it, increasing the level of investment in transport infrastructure - and doing so willingly and with a sense of urgency - will be critical to the way we live in the future," says Auckland Business Forum chairman Michael Barnett.
"It provides opportunities, creates certainty and facilitates productivity and innovation.
"There is a resurgence of business confidence and investment gaining ground in Auckland. This has partly been fuelled by the global economy moving beyond the GFC but also reflects the Government's recent announcement to kick-start the next generation of major transport projects," says Barnett.
He points to Prime Minister John Key's recent "Backing Auckland" Speech signalling the next generation of Auckland transport projects. "The Government's direction is clear - we want to accelerate vitally-needed projects and get on with the job. There is no doubt Auckland is going to continue to grow, and we have to be ahead of the growth curve in addressing the city's crucial infrastructure needs."
For a city with a vision to be the world's most liveable, we obviously have some catching up to do. To get our transport system ahead of the cities we like to compare ourselves to, like Melbourne and Sydney, focused planning and investment will be needed.
All cities have congestion but there is a clear message for Project Auckland; worsening congestion in Auckland will inflict significant economic and social costs and weaken international competitiveness.
Another challenge for Auckland transport planners is to ensure infrastructure and services are aligned to where people work and live.
Auckland's two main employment growth areas are the City Centre and the industrial suburbs on the northern side of the Manukau Harbour between Onehunga and East Tamaki. Both areas are targeted in the Auckland Plan to receive major transport investment aimed at improving access; the combined City Rail Link (CRL) and bus improvements to service the City Centre and the East-West Link to improve freight access efficiency to the industrial suburban precincts.
There are also emerging business precincts near Auckland Airport, Henderson, Westgate and Papakura. Significant employment growth is projected in the medium term in areas such as Pukekohe. A key challenge will be to align and sequence transport infrastructure to support these growth patterns.
Auckland is a major contributor to New Zealand's economic development, accounting for 35 per cent of national GDP while 46 per cent of the country's exports/imports (by value) pass through Auckland Airport and Ports of Auckland. The City has become a major distribution hub for New Zealand which increasingly involves links with economic development activity in neighbour cities Hamilton and Tauranga.
The three upper North Island Ports - Ports of Auckland, Port of Tauranga and Northport - are all projected to experience strong growth over the next 30 years. There is also an increasing trend towards trans-shipment of cargo through inland ports such as Wiri and Metroport in Auckland which involves moving freight by both road and rail.
As a result of this activity a number of roads in Auckland's industrial suburbs, like Neilson St, Mt Wellington Highway and Pakuranga Bridge carry more freight vehicles than any other New Zealand roads. Growth in heavy vehicle traffic adds significant maintenance and renewals costs to roading budgets.
It is critical to ensure the intermodal connections between the road, rail, sea and airports in Auckland are well connected and efficient.
Other trends creating new challenges for transport providers:
* As Auckland becomes a more outward-looking international city, people expect to be able to move about the city using reliable and connected public transport services - bus, rail and ferry. For younger people, owning a car is less important, especially if they know the train, bus or ferry is going to run on time and there is not too much time waiting for connecting services.
* A paradox is that as Auckland becomes a more service-based, knowledge-focused economy, there is increasing demand for just-in-time freight delivery services - goods ordered on the internet, distribution to warehouses, or supermarkets and then on to customers.
National Road Carrier CEO David Aitken points to projections that road freight trips around Auckland will double over the next 10 years.
He notes that in the mid-1990s it was estimated the equivalent of a tonne of freight was delivered annually to every Auckland household. With 100,000 new dwellings expected in the next 10 years, and a further 300,000 over the following 20 years, he sees challenges ahead for road freight services as they will be expected to cater for increased freight demand on the already existing core roading network.
"Responding to these changes and challenges in transport demand, service expectations and network resilience will require careful choices and trade-offs."
What matters for Auckland is that the city works and meets the needs of its citizens. Boosting investment in transport solutions is key.
In its first three years of a single governance model, the focus of Auckland Council and Auckland Transport was necessarily on progressing legacy projects inherited from the former councils. But in the past 12 months major new work programmes have emerged and are being delivered, many of which would not have happened without the focus of a single organisation responsible for transport, and able to work collaboratively with NZTA.
Noticeable among these has been the rapid progress of the $30 million upgrade of Tiverton and Wolverton Streets which traverses the former Waitakere and Auckland cities and would have been two projects under the old arrangements. Among other far reaching initiatives that have gathered speed this year are the preparations for the fleet of 57 electric trains - the first of which arrived in August - lodging of the Notice of Requirement for the City Rail Link route, a proposed new public transport network in South Auckland that will see buses running at 10-minute frequencies on main routes, and the Waterview tunnels - NZ's biggest infrastructure project ever.
With NZTA, an Integrated Transport Programme (ITP) has been developed and is now being fine-tuned
Its purpose: to provide a consolidated transport investment programme across the transport system over the next 30 years.
The programme covers highways and local roads, railways, buses, ferries, footpaths, cycleways, intermodal transport facilities and supporting facilities such as parking and park-and-ride.
All the above reinforce that 2014 will be a pivotal year for Project Auckland, for Auckland Transport, for NZTA - for Auckland.
Tony Garnier is an Auckland-based business commentator and consultant