Monday, October 31, 2005

Transmission Gully- The Real Story - Part 1

There has been an enormous amount of noise about this proposed project. This is primarily of interest to Wellingtonians and most of the noise is ill informed. I have been following this project for some years, and have been closely involved in this issue in the past. Unlike most commentators on this, I have read the mountains of paper done on this, and talked to those involved. It is important to have some background and history to see how we got to where we are. Before I do that, I should make it clear I have no vested interest in any outcome on this – I don’t own property anywhere in the Wellington region, or have any stake in any businesses that would gain or lose from the building of any road along this route.

The first installment is some basic history of the highway north of Wellington, how the Transmission Gully option came about and where things got to in the mid 1990s - then a description of the changes to land transport funding that occurred as part of the reforms of the 1980s/1990s, which Labour and National implemented. For those wanting to read the lot, you will find the rest if you search my blog for the other 5 parts.


The concept for a motorway along the route called Transmission Gully had been mooted for decades before serious discussion on the option started in the late 1980s. State Highway 1 out of Wellington had, up till that point, been developed along the corridor known as the Centennial Highway (as it was opened in the 1930s), from the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge through to Paekakariki. The earthworks for both sections were considerable, until that time, the main highway out of Wellington comprised largely what is now Paekakariki Hill Road. It shouldn’t be forgotten that long before this, a track which developed into a highway, now known as State Highway 2 – Rimutaka Hill Road – had also been developed.

It had been developed over that time including the first motorway in New Zealand, from Johnsonville to Tawa, in the 1950s. By that time, Wellington’s rail electrification project had been extended to Paekakariki, with the main trunk line having been shifted from what is now the Johnsonville line, to the twin tunnels between Wellington and Tawa that now exist. The motorway was extended in the late 1950s to bypass Johnsonville and Tawa, and the highway in Ngauranga Gorge widened to 6-lanes in that time.

In the 1950s/1960s, there were grand projects developed by the then National Roads Board (part of the Ministry of Works) for motorway projects across the country. The Wellington-Foxton motorway was designated, essentially including an extension from Porirua towards Mana, a bypass to the east of Mana (behind what is now Camborne), converting the highway from Plimmerton to Pukerua Bay into a motorway, a motorway bypass of Pukerua Bay, widening centennial highway to 4-lanes, a motorway to the east of Paekakariki following the railway line. This would extend to a motorway bypass of Paraparaumu, Waikanae and eventually Otaki and Levin! The proposed Kapiti Western Link Road will largely follow the route set aside for that motorway.

This plan was the basis for developing SH1 out of Wellington from the 1950s until the mid 1990s. In that time, the main improvements to the route were:

- 4-laning (to motorway standard) between Porirua and Paremata in the 1970s;
- Linking Ngauranga Gorge to the Wellington Urban Motorway with the Ngauranga Interchange (1984);
- Installation of a roundabout at Paremata to significantly ease access to and from the highway at that point (1986);
- Replacing the traffic light controlled intersection at Mungavin Avenue Porirua with an interchange (1987);
- Replacing the old ramp bridge at Porirua and the traffic light controlled intersection with a flyover (1994).

With progress on the highway south of Paremata largely in hand, emphasis started to shift to the increasingly congested corridor from Paremata to Kapiti. Growth in Kapiti, encouraged partly by the extension of the rail electrification to Paraparaumu in 1983, had seen a significant increase in car commuters to Wellington from that district.
Neither safety, nor route closures were a significant issue at that time, but the National Roads Board was aware of congestion at Mackays Crossing and Paremata (essentially where 4-lane sections of highway ended) which needed addressing. The old plans for the Wellington-Foxton motorway were dusted off and reviewed, and significant parts were abandoned, particularly north of Waikanae. However, some of the priorities in the 1980s for the next ten years included what had become the Camborne Bypass and the Pukerua Bay bypass. These were seen as the next logical steps and the National Roads Board starting talking publicly about upgrading the existing State Highway 1. It was then that an old idea, that had not been talked about much for decades was revived.
The appearance of Transmission Gully

In the late 1980s, residents of Mana/Plimmerton and to a lesser extent Pukerua Bay started to get perturbed about the plans for large bypasses of their villages, and wanted a solution that had long been forgotten about – a motorway through Transmission Gully - a quiet rural gully that was named after the national grid electricity lines draped along much of its length. Partly due to the uproar about the proposed bypasses, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) undertook a brief study of the options for more road capacity between Paremata and Kapiti, although PCE has no specific role in making decisions, and came to two conclusions:

1. Before any major investment in roading is undertaken, public transport should be upgraded to reduce growth in commuter traffic and to provide a more environmentally friendly alternative; and
2. Only after those improvements are complete, should a new road be built – and it should be through Transmission Gully.

This started the large scale lobbying to shift planning from the coastal route to Transmission Gully - although most Transmission Gully advocates ignore the public transport recommendation. Some early investigations by Transit NZ in the early 1990s concluded that Transmission Gully was probably cheaper than upgrading the current highway. However, upgrading the current highway had the significant advantage that it could proceed in stages to address the most serious sections progressively. For example, much of Transmission Gully effectively duplicates the highway from Paremata to Tawa, and congestion is worst at Paremata. The big safety issue then were fatalities between Plimmerton and Pukerua Bay, where the death rate was several times the national average (Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki did not have a similar rate of accidents).

During the early-mid 1990s Transit NZ was stuck – as local authorities and local residents kept pushing for Transmission Gully –then estimated at around $250 million (very much a once over estimate as no big motorway projects had been built in New Zealand for many years). Porirua City Council withdrew the land designations for the Pukerua Bay and Mana Bypasses.

As Transmission Gully at that cost only had a benefit/cost ratio of 2.3:1 (compared to the funding threshold of 5:1), it would not proceed for many years. Transit regarded the congestion at Paremata to be unacceptable, and started consulting on options to alleviate it. There were three:

1. A 4-lane bypass following the railway line behind Mana with intersections at either end;
2. A 2-lane bypass similarly;
3. Widening Mana Esplanade to operate with an extra lane in one direction at peak times only, with traffic lights to improve local access.

All options were expected to be fundable, all would ease congestion, although the best option would have been a 4-lane bypass. That would remove traffic from Mana and relieve congestion. Local consultation saw loud opposition to doing anything that was affordable. People didn’t want any of the options – they wanted Transmission Gully – ignorant of where the money would come from, as it wasn’t available. They were told Transmission Gully would be 15-20 years away and that Transit was legally bound to not sit back and do nothing about Paremata/Mana in that time. Residents ignorantly asked for money that would be spent on the proposals be spent on Transmission Gully- with the proposals costing around $15-$25 million, and Transmission Gully (then) looking like it would cost over 10x that much, that would have been wasted money as well. Little point in part building a road – it would be a road to nowhere.
Transit was stuck - it either breaches its statutory requirement to maintain and build a safe and efficient highway network, or builds an option the local residents don't want. The Minister of Transport at the time said that the decisions were not for politicians but for (what was then) Transfund and Transit to sort out, with the available funding.

Change in funding framework

Given a lot of the discussion is around decisions on funding, it is worthwhile understanding what the funding framework is for roading.

Around the late 80s, some major changes to how roads were managed and funded were about to be implemented. Up until 1989, road funding in New Zealand was decided by the National Roads Board, chaired by the Minister of Works (who may or may not have also been the Minister of Transport). Lists of projects were developed by district roads councils, which included local politicians, and decisions as to what would proceed, while informed by some analysis, were often politically driven. For example, Taranaki gained many new projects in the late 70s, early 80s, to complement the Think Big projects. The use of roading to shore up votes in marginal electorates was not unknown.

The Transit New Zealand Act 1989 changed this – as part of the reforms of the fourth Labour government – responsibility for funding, planning and building roads was radically altered. This went through several further stages under the Bolger National government, but in general it saw:

- Funding decisions shift from a Ministerially chaired Board to a statutorily independent board (Transfund, now Land Transport New Zealand);
- Decisions on how to prioritise funding move from political whim to statutory criteria (efficiency and safety under National, now more complicated under Labour);
- Funding determined by annual budget shifted to a dedicated fund from road users (the National Land Transport Fund comprising all road user charges, all motor vehicle registration fee, all LPG and CNG tax and now around 22.5c/l of petrol tax – 18.7c goes to the Crown account);
- Planning and development of state highways determined by Transit New Zealand, local authorities bid for funding from Land Transport New Zealand for local roads and public transport;
- Actual construction and maintenance of roads carried out by contractors, as all work is contracted out by competitive tender (Ministry of Works was privatised).

In that framework, politics was more removed from road building than ever before. Road maintenance and emergency work to fix natural disasters was the priority, the all new road projects were ranked according to a formula of benefit/cost analysis to ensure the projects with the biggest bang for their buck (in terms of reducing delay, fuel/maintenance savings, accidents prevented) got funding priority. At the time, when funding was tight (Labour and then National were both trying to eliminate budget deficits and unwilling to let more petrol tax be dedicated to roading), projects only got funded if they had a benefit/cost ratio of 5:1. This effectively meant, very few big projects got funded. In Wellington, there was, on average, only one major project going on at any one time.

Over time, the funding was loosened. National in 1997 increased petrol tax and matched that with an increase in funds from petrol tax dedicated to the National Land Transport Fund. This meant projects with a benefit/cost ratio of 4:1 could proceed. Labour has since increased petrol tax for land transport twice and started dedicating funding directly from the Crown Account into land transport in particular regions. Auckland has been promised $900 million, Wellington $225 million (plus up to $660 for the Western Corridor), Bay of Plenty $150 million (all over 10 years, the Auckland money started in 2004/05). This is funding that could be said to come from general taxation or from the $660 million p.a. gathered from petrol tax for the Crown Account.

Labour also changed the funding framework with the Land Transport Management Act, but largely kept many of the fundamentals intact. Benefit/cost ratios are no longer the decider of funding, although projects should, at least, be efficient, so have a benefit/cost ratio clearly over 1:1. Most projects have benefit/cost ratios over 2.5:1, so are good projects.

Politicians don’t decide what roads proceed and what ones don’t proceed. Local politicians certainly decide what local road projects get punted up to Land Transport New Zealand for funding, and express priorities for Land Transport New Zealand to consider, but ultimately that Board makes the decisions and the Land Transport Management Act explicitly stops the Minister of Transport directing the Board of Land Transport New Zealand on what to fund or not fund. He can advise on priorities and determine how much money goes on groups of activities (i.e. state highway construction), although that has yet to happen, but he wont decide.
Peter Dunne should know this, he voted for the first legislation that made this law in 1988/1989.
National MPs should know this, National strengthened this in the mid 1990s. This is a good thing – politicians are not best placed to decide how to spend road users money on roads. Some of the least politically sexy projects are quite critical and save lives – for example, ten of millions are spent annually on small projects, like widening intersections, realignments, widening bridges, improved lighting, friction surfacing slippery sections of road – projects that in themselves would never be interesting to politicians, but which are critical to eliminating blackspots and improving safety of the network.

In addition, the Land Transport Management Act allowed toll roads to be built, and private investment in new roads – but the toll road has to stack up on its own merits. So far Cabinet has approved tolling of two new roads – the ALPURT B2 motorway extension north of Orewa and the Tauranga HarbourLink project.
Tomorrow: How did Transit respond to the call for Transmission Gully in the '90s? How did the local residents of Plimmerton/Mana stall upgrades to the current highway that would save lives?


Richard said...

Thanks for this, Scott.

The Camborne Bypass would have been unmitigated environmental vandalism.

As a Mana resident, I'm looking forward especially to Part 2.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this...most interesting.

Libertyscott said...


I agree about the Camborne Bypass, it would have been awful.


darren said...

This is excellent, thanks.
I did not know NZ has had motorways for so long, maybe longer than the UK!
In the UK , there is a newsgroup called SABRE, which is interested in motorway and roading history.
Your piece might be worth posting on it. I am sure they would appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I recall Fletcher s and Downers offering to build T Gulley for free if they could toll it ..