Transport Minister Simon Bridges has told the New Zealand Transport Agency to start work on a precise route for a tunnel to duplicate the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Why he has done so, or why now, is not clear. The project is not a priority, Auckland has more pressing transport needs and the Government has not allocated funds for it.
Mr Bridges says land needs to be designated for the tunnel approaches, which is sensible enough but hardly worth an announcement. The preferred route for a tunnel is from Victoria Park to Northcote Pt. It appears to be an extension of the recently constructed Victoria Park tunnel, continuing under the Wynyard Quarter where development may be about to occur and it would be useful to designate an underground path. But on the north side no land appears to be needed. The drawn road resurfaces at the wide apron where the toll plaza used to be.
It is a plan Aucklanders have been given many times over the past 40 years, usually after a selection exercise in which a tunnel is preferred over a second bridge alongside the existing "coathanger" or a bridge from Meola Reef to Birkenhead, or a tunnel from Britomart to Devonport. The options make a lively talking point but they are of little importance to Auckland's traffic needs.
The truth is, the existing harbour bridge is not a bottleneck. Traffic generally flows over the bridge more smoothly than it does on the motorways north and south. The moveable barrier installed on the bridge some time ago has added a lane for commuter traffic at peak hours, the construction of the northern busway has removed some cars from the road, and the Victoria Park tunnel has doubled the capacity of the motorway at its previous worst choking point. All these developments have taken pressure off the bridge, as will the Waterview tunnel in a year or two.
Meanwhile, the Government remains unconvinced that a rail tunnel under the central city would be worth the cost when compared with the roading projects competing for the funds it is allocating for Auckland transport. A second harbour crossing is not on that funding schedule fortunately. The minister would be hard pressed to justify the $4 billion to $6 billion for a harbour tunnel ahead of $3 billion for the central rail link.
The minister says his harbour tunnel might include provision for rail as one of the public transport options he wants the agency to examine when it compiles a case for a second crossing. Critics have been unimpressed. The Greens' transport spokeswoman, Julie Ann Genter, calls it "sugar coating" a car-focused project. A railway to North Shore does seem fanciful. The busway may be easily converted to a railway but what would be the point? Given an exclusive road, buses are as quick as trains and can range more widely.
Mr Bridges stresses another Waitemata tunnel would have benefits beyond Auckland. It would be part of SH1, as is the bridge. But neither the city nor the country needs another expensive harbour crossing yet. Until funds are committed these plans will not be taken seriously.