The railway tunnel will serve only a very small fraction of Auckland's population and at a huge cost. Mayor Len Brown is determined to commit Auckland to building a hugely expensive railway tunnel even though no comprehensive independent and objective economic analysis has been made on the merits of the tunnel and whether or not letting the city spread and developing satellite centres would be better.
Auckland Council has neglected its obligation to investigate and evaluate all options. Given the enormous amount of expenditure involved, this amounts to a serious dereliction of duty.
Overseas research on 44 urban rail systems revealed that the average cost overrun was 45 per cent and the number of passengers was half the predicted number. Have the economics of the Auckland tunnel been tested against 45 per cent higher costs and half the passengers? If not, why not?
The railway tunnel will serve only a very small fraction of Auckland's population and at a huge cost. Right now, ratepayers subsidise 80 per cent of the cost of every train fare. If the tunnel costs blow out by 50 per cent it will need to recover at least $450 million in fares every year for capital repayment and operating expenses. If, as hoped, there are 20 million rail trips every year, they will need to recover $22.50 per rail trip. Most of this will be imposed on the ratepayers.
The council planners seem to be totally unaware of the imminent revolution in personal transport that will be brought about by self-guided cars, modern taxi systems, ride sharing and buses. By the time the tunnel is in operation self-guided cars that will allow twice the traffic density on roads and reduce accidents by 50 per cent or more will be available. Not long after it will be possible to call up a driverless taxi or minibus by cellphone to take you where you want to go. For those who think that this is the stuff of dreams, it is now possible to buy a car that, in a traffic jam, will follow the car ahead and every major car manufacturer is developing self-guided cars.
These technological advances, combined with telecommuting (working from home and using the internet to communicate) and smartphone-assisted car pooling will have a huge effect on commuting and the shape of future cities. The council should take its head out of the sand and get up to speed with this revolution.
The Unitary Plan is based on a blind belief that it is wrong to let the city spread and intensification is the only option. This is simply not true. There are large areas of low-value agricultural land to the north, west and south of Auckland and much of it is already allocated for "lifestyle blocks" that contribute nothing to the agricultural economy. So the council argument that the city must not spread because it would deprive us of valuable agricultural land is nonsense.
The Unitary Plan concentrates development in the central isthmus, which is already crowded and includes the volcanic area. The council has ignored the lesson from Christchurch that you should not keep all your assets in one place.
Most of the isthmus has well-established high-density suburbs with good houses, trees, gardens and lawns that are environmentally friendly and support large populations of birds and bees. The Unitary Plan will demolish these suburbs and substitute blocks of flats that will increase demand for parking, roads, schools, power, water supply, drainage and the like. There will be serious environmental and social impacts. Expanding infrastructure in an established suburb is far more expensive and environmentally damaging than building new low-cost houses on greenfield developments.
The council's objective is to ration land and artificially inflate land values so as to force people to demolish good houses and force them to build apartment buildings to spread the rates burden. Auckland houses and the land they stand on now cost seven times the average income. In many prosperous and liveable cities overseas, the cost is only three times the average income. Virtually all of the low-cost cities have flexible urban boundaries and town planners whose objective is to help people live how and where they want. The objective of the council planners seems to be to dictate where and how people should live.
The Unitary Plan will make personal transport unaffordable for low-income people and this will make it extremely difficult for them to take their families to the beach or parks or out into the bush.
Auckland can pour vast amounts of money into city centre development in the hope of getting enough passengers to justify a railway tunnel, or it can allow the city to spread and develop satellite centres so that people can live in affordable houses and work in the same area.
Before any action is taken on the Unitary Plan and the tunnel, ratepayers should demand that an independent and objective study is done on the social, environmental and economic benefits of allowing the city to spread, compared with intensification. Nothing is more important.
Bryan Leyland is a New Zealand engineer with extensive overseas experience.
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