The busiest month of Auckland's traffic calendar is set to collide with the closure of yet another major city intersection, as university students rouse themselves on Monday to roadworks-charged March traffic madness.
The beginning of university semester is notoriously the worst time on Auckland's roads, as the injection of student commuters to city centre campuses is compounded by a post-summer travelling lull.
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Monday officially marks the first day of semester for 2020, and it comes the day after construction on the City Rail Link (CRL) will close the major city intersection of Wellesley St West and Albert St.
This intersection closure is nothing new for Aucklanders in 2020, who are in the thick of 63 separate road work disruptions to CBD streets this year.
Wellesley St West, in particular, acts as the dividing border between Auckland University and AUT University in the city, and the 30 bus routes travelling the east-west route have been diverted several CBD blocks around.
The works are for Aotea Station - one of three new stations for the CRL along with Karangahape and Mt Eden stations.
Access to Mayoral Drive at the intersection will remain closed for five years until CRL is completed in 2024.
But Wellesley St West will re-open to through traffic on March 1, 2021.
Temporary footpaths will keep the Wellesley intersection construction area clear, enabling people to access shops, businesses and homes by foot.
Automobile Association principal adviser Barney Irvine said since they started gathering data on Auckland congestion since 2017 "the city-wide trend is for March to get a little madder each year".
"Things in the CBD usually follow the same sort of pattern. For the last couple of years, we've seen congestion jump by about 6 per cent on the routes we monitor between February and March in the CBD," Irvine said.
"Though, because the travel times are short, the actual increase is pretty small.
"There's no doubt the closure of the Albert-Wellesley intersection is going to have an impact – it's just not clear how big.
"The question in the CBD, though, is: where do you re-route to? With all the work going on, the back-up options are getting scarcer and scarcer."
Deputy project director Dale Burtenshaw of the Link Alliance - which is a consortium of seven companies looking after the CRL project - insisted AT, Auckland Council and City Rail Link Limited all "worked closely together to plan the [Wellesley St] intersection closure".
When questioned if it might have been better to delay by a few weeks the closure of a major CBD intersection servicing two universities to avoid March madness, Burtenshaw said the March 1 start date was "critical to construction of the Aotea Station beginning on time".
"Although disruption is unavoidable, the sooner we start and finish the first stages of our station work, the sooner we can re-open part of the intersection," Burtenshaw said.
"While the intersection is closed, we encourage people to continue to use it on foot and if they can, to consider an alternative to driving their car into the city.
AT was less definitive on the level of consultation it received. A spokesperson said the Herald should direct questions to the CRL on the matter.
Auckland Transport's efforts to mitigate March madness
AT has been well aware of a unique traffic meltdown brewing in 2020.
A memorandum the Herald has obtained presented to the AT board on February 12 outlines that AT has "worked with bus operators to revise bus sizes and add an additional 8 per cent peak capacity across the network between March 2019 and November 2019".
This equates to about 5000 seats in both the morning and afternoon peak commutes.
The increase in bus seat capacity was publicised by AT in a February 24, 2020, press release as a response to "the busiest time of the year as Aucklanders head back to work and study" - aka March madness.
It is not clear in the release that the 5000 extra seats have actually been available on Auckland's network since November 2019.
Nevertheless, AT also says there will be a "few additional buses to help out over the next few weeks" during March madness.
The extra 5000 bus seats are being distributed to the 15 busiest routes including Onewa and Dominion roads and the 70 service which runs from Botany to Britomart.
The first of Auckland's four scheduled new trains from Spain will also be rolled out next week, and some extra train cars will be added on to the existing fleet.
This will add 1200 more train seats in both morning and afternoon peak times.
The NX2 bus service from the AUT University city campus to Albany will also be extended, with nine services each weekday morning and eight return services in the afternoon peak.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck has also revealed AT has closely monitored the traffic flow in the CBD this past week to gauge overall traffic flow and test how the already diverted bus routes around Wellesley St/Albert St intersection are moving.
"It will test the quality of planning and public transport capacity. We expect it to work and if it doesn't work it will be fixed very quickly," Beck said.
She said some pinch points needed to be addressed, including the top and bottom end of Queen St.
Beck said it was a challenging time for businesses in the central city, with a power outage, the convention centre fire, coronavirus and the level of construction.
The Herald trials the new diverted CBD bus routes
On Thursday, the Herald trialled the new bus route in the morning rush hour for the Outer Link service, one of 30 bus services diverted from February 23 because of the closure of the Wellesley St intersection tomorrow.
The Outer Link normally crosses town on Wellesley St from Victoria Park to Albert Park. The diverted route ran up Victoria St to Hobson St and onto Mayoral Drive and down Queen St to re-join Wellesley St.
The dog leg is longer, but in light traffic just after 8am the journey the week before March Madness was a breeze, taking eight minutes from Victoria Park to re-join Wellesley St.
City of chaos
The heightened AT traffic scrutiny comes amid a construction boom in the city, hastened by a desire by Auckland Council to have numerous large streetscape projects ready by the end of 2020 - just in time for the America's Cup in January 2021.
The traffic cone minefield is founded on the two major projects of the CRL along the length of Albert St - lasting until 2024 - and the plethora of downtown street and marina upgrades for the America's Cup.
However, more than 50 other roadwork and public space projects have been scheduled by AT across city streets in 2020.
This is not to mention the private developments which make up 30 to 70 per cent of CBD construction projects approved for resource consent by Auckland Council.
Right now there are at least 30 public roadworks projects disrupting CBD streets and public spaces.
In February, the Herald reported there are about one million road cones dotted around the country with annual sales worth about $4 million.
Politicians step in
Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye on January 25 scheduled a crisis meeting with AT calling for a review of the consent planning for government and private developments that had led to the city log-jam.
"Better co-ordination and sequencing of AT, City Rail Link Limited [CRLL] and private development works is needed to deliver a more efficient way of dealing with congestion and impacts of roadworks," Kaye said in January.
Yesterday, Kaye confirmed she had scheduled a meeting with Auckland Mayor Phil Goff for March 9 to talk through how to reduce congestion and improve works across Auckland.
Kaye said additional night works to speed up projects were being considered.
"Auckland Transport has given me an update that they are progressing conversations about further night works where appropriate in the city. It is important that these are works with minimal noise," Kaye told the Herald.
"I am raising other issues of individual works raised by constituents."
Goff told the Herald the level of development in Auckland at the moment was "unprecedented", with $16 billion invested in the CBD over the next five years by Auckland Council and the Government.
"The reality is we can't afford to sit on our hands. Auckland added a city the size of Hamilton to its population between 2013 and 2018 and by the end of this decade more than two million people will call Auckland home," Goff said.
"Closing the intersection at Wellesley St and Albert St is critical to the delivery of the CRL and any delay would jeopardise the ability to begin construction of the Aotea Station on time, with possible implications for delivering the project on time and on budget.
"Without it, the disruption caused by congestion will be permanent, not temporary."
Outside the city
Beyond the CBD, March 1 will also be the start date for the NZ Transport's Agency's resurfacing of State Highway 16 through Kumeu to West Auckland.
NZTA's Northland System Manager Jacqui Hori-Hoult described the works as "biggest maintenance programme the Transport Agency has undertaken for the last decade"
The resurfacing work will last from March 1 to 12, and then begin again between March 16 and 27 .
Water transport into the city may also be affected during March madness.
On Tuesday this week some ferry passengers were left behind on the 7.50am Hobsonville Point service, but there were no issues later in the week, AT spokesman Mark Hannan said.
AT's Stacey van der Putten told AT board members on February 12 that capacity on the Hobsonville Point service was expected to be constrained during March madness, "with potential for some customers to be left behind".
Commuters get ready
The level of overall vehicle congestion on Auckland roads is most likely to reach its peak this week based on statistics from 2019.
International traffic congestion site TomTom judged March 8 as the worst day for traffic congestion on Auckland roads in 2019 - which was the Friday of last year's first week of March madness.
In their 2019 Annual Report on traffic congestion, the AA estimated the average Auckland motorway commuter wasted three days and 13 hours annually in traffic congestion.
However, the overall trend for Auckland is at least moving in a positive direction compared to other cities around the world.
In 2019, TomTom determined Auckland to be the 105th worst city in the world for traffic congestion.
This ranking has been improving steadily since 2014 when Auckland was ranked as high as 22nd worst.
Tips for travellers
• AT has a real time journey planner for commuters online at: at.govt.nz/bus-train-ferry/journey-planner
• NZTA has a similar route planning service for NZ wide at: https://www.journeys.nzta.govt.nz/
• Recently launched progressAKL.co.nz – a website collating all of the projects in the city centre and information about what they are, when they start and end, which agency is delivering the project and who to contact with any questions about the project.
• Statistically the worst congestion times over the last week on Auckland roads are 8am and 5pm. In afternoon peak it's pretty dire either side of 5pm, but in the morning travelling an hour earlier at 7am will speed up the time of an average trip by more than 20 per cent.