Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Transmission Gully - The Real Story - Part 2

In Part 1 I gave some basic history about the highway and the funding framework for roads in New Zealand, right up to the point when Transit in the mid 1990s had to decide what to do about worsening congestion and safety issues at Paremata. This part proceeds from that point to 2004, when Transit had commissioned a detailed investigation of the cost of Transmission Gully.

Commitment to Transmission Gully 1996-2004

Transit was stuck. As funding had shifted completely from itself to Transfund in 1996, it could no longer be accused of determining its own funding. If any projects were to proceed, it had to bid to Transfund for them and it knew all too well that there was little point punting up projects that fell well below the anticipated benefit/cost ratio cutoff. Even as that cutoff dropped as funding became available, there was an enormous backlog of projects across the country that had not progressed - all projects with far better returns to the country than Transmission Gully. In Wellington, projects like the Newlands interchange, the Kaitoke Hill realignment north of Upper Hutt, the Inner City Bypass and the Mackays Crossing flyover all had a higher priority, along with countless small projects to remove blackspots and the need for many more passing lanes on busy stretches of highway. Transit could either sit back for an unknown period of time and do nothing about Paremata-Kapiti (which many local residents supported, figuring if it got bad enough, the Gully would be funded), or do something fundable now to ease the problem. The problem with do nothing was that, at the time, for Transmission Gully to proceed, it would have meant that delays on the highway would have to have been about an hour each way, every weekday (that is an additional HOUR to travel from Kapiti to Porirua before the project would have been worthwhile). With delays comprising typically 10-20 minutes already, Transit saw that leaving the congestion to grow progressively worse over 10-15 years as being intolerable. It had to act, but it also had to send a signal about the longer term, so the Transit board made a strategic decision that would guide its funding applications to Transfund for several years.

Transit decided that the long term strategic corridor for State Highway 1 north of Wellington was along, a slightly amended (starting at Linden not the current Tawa interchange) Transmission Gully. This meant Transit would pursue a designation under the Resource Management Act for the route to be a motorway with the relevant local authorities, and would seek funding for the initial stages of the project (investigation, property purchases and any pre-construction work).

At the time, this seemed sensible, as the project had a positive benefit/cost ratio (although quite low), was not thought of at the time as being any cheaper than upgrading the current route. The estimates carried out in the 1990s tended to support this. This approach was supported by the Kapiti Coast District Council, Porirua City Council and Wellington Regional Council.

In hindsight, Transit may have been better to commission a detailed investigation of the options at that point, but that is history. The mistake was that the cost estimate at the time was superficial.

At the same time, the then National government's roading policy was to commercialise the management of the state highway network, and allow toll roads to be built. Although investigations showed that tolls would, at best, recover one-third of the cost of Transmission Gully, the idea got some momentum. The regional council in particular saw tolling the route as providing some demand management to restrict the growth in car commuting from Kapiti.

With Transit's strategic decision on Transmission Gully, based partly on an expectation that funding for road construction would not significantly increase in the foreseeable future, Transit proceeded with a strategy of interim improvements to the highway.

However, local residents associations in Plimmerton and Mana opposed all of them. They argued that any work on the existing road would reduce the net benefits of Transmission Gully, and delay that project. Of course there was some truth to that, although the difference between 15 years and 20 years delay for a project seems academic to daily users of the road. However, that strategy had consequences that the Plimmerton Residents' Association probably did not fully understand.

Plimmerton-Pukerua Bay

The highest priority project proposed by Transit was the 4-laning and realignment between the Plimmerton weigh station and Pukerua Bay to address the average 2 fatalities per year from head on collisions (and many more injury accidents).

This section of highway was the most dangerous stretch in the Wellington region. With bends not designed for 100km/h traffic, a camber (surface angle) that often led to vehicles being driven off the road or into each other, and no median barrier, this road needed attention. Transit's analysis showed that it would be a fundable project (a cost/benefit ratio between 4 and 6) and it was a priority, so it applied for resource consents to ease the sharp curves, widen the road to 4-lanes and install a median barrier.

However, the Plimmerton Residents' Association opposed the resource consent, and was prepared to take the case to the Environment Court, which threatened to delay the project by 12-18 months. The Association said the money should go to Transmission Gully. Of course this was nonsense. Funding is prioritised nationally, and the next priority project for funding was hardly going to be Transmission Gully, but probably some other realignment in another region (as it should be) that narrowly missed out on funding that year (but would get it the following year). There was no scope for Transfund to direct Transit to spend around $10 million on Transmission Gully. This wouldn't even have paid for starting construction on the road (property purchase, detailed design and geotechnical surveys are needed first).

The upgrade was delayed for a year, and yes, there was a fatal accident on the highway, which could have been prevented by the project, because the Plimmerton Residents' Association delayed the work. That stretch of highway is far safer today, although an underpass at Airlie Road would be a welcome next step to make that wide intersection safer (although it is far safer than it was before). Had that work not proceeded, perhaps around twelve more people would have been killed on accidents on that highway - even if Transmission Gully had miraculously been started at the time. Even if it was approved today, another 18 would die before the Gully was opened and on average 1 a year after it was opened.

Paremata congestion

After dealing with the most serious safety issue on the highway (Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki had NOT yet become the blackspot it would later be, although Transit undertook some minor works to improve safety there in 2001 including clearer lane and side fence/wall markers and the centre rumble strip), congestion at Paremata/Mana.

The result is the upgrade from Paremata roundabout to the Plimmerton weigh station which is about to be completed. The main congestion problem at Mana is the merge at the bridge (not the roundabout). However, it is also important to note the difficulty of access to and from the highway by local traffic and the effect of the highway traffic on the local community. Transit decided it was less risky to undertake some interim improvements in Mana/Plimmerton now than to do nothing. So it designed an upgrade to make better use of the existing road and improve access. The project was appealed by both the Paremata Residents' Association and Porirua City Council (with later withdrew its opposition) which delayed its progress for around 2 years. However, once the Environment Court dealt with the project, Transfund funded it (it had a benefit/cost ratio over 5:1, but by then Transfund was no longer solely considering benefit/cost ratios).

The upgrade provides a second bridge, a widened and upgraded roundabout at Paremata, 4-lanes from the weigh station to Mana, five sets of traffic lights to improve access to and from Mana/Plimmerton side streets and peak time clearways (not for single occupancy cars) along Mana Esplanade. Transit agreed that when Transmission Gully was fundable, it would remove the old bridge and the clearways.

This project cost around $24 million and will ease congestion, and significantly improve access in the community. However, it is, at best, a 10 year interim solution that makes best use of what already exists. Some would say it is a waste of money, but in 10 years it is estimated that the time, fuel, vehicle maintenance and safety benefits are worth double the cost.

Further progress

Having committed to Transmission Gully in the long term, Transit proceeded to do what was necessary to plan for Transmission Gully - it sought and gained land designation on the route, and started buying properties.

The designation was appealed by several groups, including some local landowners, but eventually was confirmed (one of the major issues was the connection at Linden with the existing motorway). The Wellington Regional Council did impose conditions for the route, including the need for seven years of planting to prevent runoff into the environmentally sensitive Pauatahunui Inlet. Transfund has funded tree planting along the route to meet that condition, although the conclusion of the Environment Court case against the designation saw that condition removed - as is appropriate. The runoff issue needs to be managed by planting, but as the Resource Management Act is effects based, Transit should be able to demonstrate in that it has adequately mitigated the risk rather than simply plant trees for seven years, as it could be done sooner. A report in the Dominion Post that the requirement for seven years planting has gone - as of 2002 - is true, but the requirement to mitigate the runoff from the proposed motorway has not.
Transit started buying properties along the route as they came onto the market. No compulsory purchases have been undertaken, largely because there has been no urgency (as there is no construction funding). It now owns perhaps half of the properties needed for the route, although it is unclear how much of the land area of the route is Transit Transit. Transit's priority has been to acquire the properties needed to undertake pre-construction work.

Transfund has every year funded Transit by several hundred thousand dollars to undertake the pre-construction work for the project, particularly the environmental planting along the route. This planting has now been underway for around three years - about another four years was needed before construction could start on Transmission Gully, even if funding was available immediately.

As a distraction, Peter Dunne in 2001 introduced a private members Bill into Parliament which was purely about building Transmission Gully. It would not have granted funding, or accelerated resource consents, but would appoint a commissioner to progress the project. National, ACT and NZ First all supported it, as opposition parties do, but Labour, the Alliance and the Greens opposed it (correctly) as single Bills to build roads that only create a bureaucratic position are worthless. Several politicians tried to milk this project, despite in almost all cases having voted in Parliament to oppose political interference in road funding decisions. However, with funding still relatively tight, progress on the Gully project was seen as still longer term.

In 2002, Labour introduced a 4.2c/l increase in petrol tax (and 30% increase in road user charges for lighter vehicles) to provide a boost to land transport funding. In effect, that ensured funding in real terms remained at levels similar to 1999/2000, primarily because of inflation and ongoing erosion of fuel tax revenue (because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency). That increased revenue allowed some progress on Wellington projects, particularly the Inner City Bypass, Kaitoke realignment and Mackays Crossing Overbridge, while funding for ongoing property purchases, tree planting and investigation work on Transmission Gully continued.

As part of its prudent management of the project, Transit recognised that there had not been a detailed investigation of the Transmission Gully project which would be a reliable costing for any future funding application. Given that the Labour government had decided to introduce the Land Transport Management Bill (allowing tolling for new roads and private/public partnerships for road financing), the possibility that tolling, private investment and some public investment could progress Transmission Gully was mooted. Political interest was strong, particularly following the 2002 election when United Future pledged Labour confidence and supply (Peter Dunne believed that the Land Transport Management Act would enable Transmission Gully to proceed - when it actually only allowed viable toll roads to proceed).
Transit knew it had to get a better handle on the scope and scale of the project if it was going to be progressed in the medium term. No projects anywhere near the cost of Transmission Gully had been commissioned by Transit before, certainly nothing of that scale had been built since the 1970s, so Transit commissioned consultants to undertake a detailed investigation of the project. This included some actual groundwork to check geological conditions along the route. Given Transmission Gully is a faultline, involves steep gradients and a large viaduct near the top of the route, it was critical to have greater certainty on costs.
However, the results of this study blew the cost of Transmission Gully out of the water. Transmission Gully was not around $250-270 million, nor $300-350 million, not $400 million - it would cost $830 million - and that was a midrange estimate. This changed the situation radically.
Tomorrow: What was the reaction to the blowout in costs? What options were available? How did the funding situation change?


Steve said...

I don't think the government should get involved in this. The market will sort it out. ;-)

Actually, if private enterprise and citizens want it so bad, they should front the cash.

Why the fuck should I contribute to it via my taxes.

If Peter Dunne had his way he'd lay 4 lanes of asphalt from Kaitaia to Bluff, at least that was Baldocks (United Future) policy "vision" prior to the election.

More of a cockeyed view than vision to me.

libertyscott said...

Yes it is nuts, and they would say the Greens are crazy if they advocated electrifying the whole of the rail line from Bluff to Whangarei.

There are parts of State Highway 2 in Waikato/Bay of Plenty crying out for widening, but United Future has become the new road building nutters. However, when your only other policies are tinkering with tax and creating new bureaucracies for family - and saying the word family a lot.. (yawn) bored with Dunne again.