A lack of urgency in beginning many of New Zealand's major infrastructure projects means that by the time they are complete they are "delivering solutions to yesterday's problems", a senior design engineer believes.
Sean Myers, head of rail and transit at engineering and design consultancy WSP, says data shows these projects take an average of 15 years to deliver – a pace that not only acts as an economic handbrake but contributes to a loss of senior skills and talent overseas because "the next project is nowhere to be seen."
Myers, who worked on Auckland's City Rail Link among many transport projects he has been involved with in New Zealand and Australia over 20 years, says most of the delay occurs in the planning stages and is often the result of a fear of coming up with the wrong solution.
"Many large scale city-shaping projects take longer to plan and fund than to design and construct and we believe it's no longer acceptable to take 10 years of planning to lead to five years of construction."
He says these timeframes, which have seen New Zealand ranked at 46 on a list for global competitiveness in infrastructure projects (according to the 2019 World Economic Forum report), makes it harder to attract the right people for future projects.
"New Zealand is competing on the world stage for talent, particularly in transit projects, at a time when there is significant global demand for these skills," he says.
"We lose senior talent and the continuity of skills the moment a major project ends. Our projects are delivered later than anticipated meaning planning for the next major project is stalled while sponsors - central and local government - focus on delivery and measuring benefit-cost ratio ahead of committing to further work."
Myers, whose comments come as Auckland is facing huge infrastructure costs in opening up greenfield land in the face of a housing shortfall, says he believes it is time reduce delivery time on such projects from 15 to under a decade.
This can be done, he believes, by shaving time off pre-construction stages such as policy setting, planning and funding decision making.
"Could we shave 12 months off each stage? We don't need a revolution and while there is still a need to plan and be clear on objectives, there is space to nip and tuck, to take six months off here, six months off there, to pivot quickly.
"The reduction won't be evenly spread across the stages and will likely vary from project to project," he says. "But let's make a start."
Myers says issues such as climate change and the goal of achieving zero carbon emissions means it is no longer possible to countenance lengthy delays.
WSP's technical director transport, Theunis van Schalkwyk, says while the Auckland motorway network took 60 years to complete, the city can't afford to take 60 years to complete the rapid transit network. Auckland grows by about 30,000 a year, and he says taking even a further 20 years will mean the population will have increased by at least another 500,000.
van Schalkwyk, who has 23 years of experience in developing teams to initiate and progress investment proposals for both Auckland's transit network and greenfield programme, believes part of the problem is a lack of clarity around early-stage decision-making, a situation he thinks can be overcome by organisational stream-lining and developing channels of greater accountability.
Both Myers and van Schalkwyk say despite the lengthy timeframes New Zealand is not a country that builds "white elephants" and they believe there are plenty of examples to show it is possible to complete major projects to tighter deadlines.
One is the now completed Kaikoura road and rail project to repair damage following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the town in November 2016 and which, in some places, completely destroyed road and rail links while in Auckland the need to work to a firm date resulted in timely completion of the project to accommodate the Americas Cup regatta.
For more information on WSP visit wsp.com/nz