Friday, November 04, 2005

Transmission Gully - The Real Story - Part 5

Having summarised the history up till now and the debate, this is my final post on the Transmission Gully story. The situation today is that 4500 submissions have been sent to the Greater Wellington Regional Council on the draft Western Corridor plan - I bet most are asking for money that hasn't been confiscated from people yet - to be spent on Transmission Gully. That is the flipside from the consultation on the Wellington Inner City Bypass, when plenty all wanted a road not to be built - even though the money from road users was there and it is a worthwhile project. Following that consultation, Transit and the Greater Wellington Regional Council will produce a final Western Corridor Plan, for endorsement or revision by the Transit New Zealand Board and the Wellington Regional Land Transport Committee - good luck to them both! There is a report back to Cabinet on whether there is an agreed Corridor Plan in order to access the $405 million additional funding I have mentioned in this posting - it requires agreement on a plan and agreement on how to pursue consenting for any upgrade on the current highway. The big issue is whether Cullen throws more general tax money at Wellington for Transmission Gully, whether Wellington can agree on a plan and what Transit's board thinks. This final major posting attempts to show why Transmission Gully is a lousy idea - not because I'm a Green, I like roads, but because it is a waste of money.

What should happen?

If Transmission Gully was around the same cost as the coastal upgrade, I would argue for my Option 3 in my previous post. However, the study and the peer review indicate that the difference in cost between the coastal option and Transmission Gully is around $250 million - $300 million. That is money I’d like to see going to other things.

The Transmission Gully advocates say it must be built regardless of cost – which Fulton Hogan and other construction contractors must be thrilled about, along with property owners. Why not pay all property owners $1 million minimum? Why not pay for all construction workers for the road to have annual first class holidays around the world and new Ferraris? After all – “bugger the cost”. Those examples seem extreme, but what IS the difference? What if that $250 million or so went on hospitals, or schools instead of a more expensive road to do the same job as a cheaper one?

The environmental arguments are somewhat specious once you get rid of the NIMBY syndrome. In my view, people who live on Mana Esplanade bought into their environment – they chose to live on State Highway 1 and now want to have their suburb exempt from that – which of course would not happen anyway, as 40% of the traffic would remain on the current route.

None of these areas have endangered species along them nor have any great natural significance – you’ll notice that the Greens or other environmental groups are on the side of the Gullites.

The first priorities for the part of the corridor between Paremata and Mackays Crossing (I take for granted that the other ends have higher needs) should be:

1. Build the median barrier from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki: I believe Transit is pursuing this as fast as it can. I believe it is at the design stage and will be seeking consents to widen the road sufficiently for this to happen, at a relatively modest $16 million. This will significantly improve safety and reliability along the route.

2. Construct some sort of flyover/interchange at Paekakariki: Access to and from Paekakariki is far from safe, and something akin to a flyover over the current intersection for north-south traffic would help. The claims that Paekakariki Hill Rd would need $400 million spent on it as a result are nonsense, as Porirua City Council only needs to maintain it and manage it, not upgrade it to a 100 km/h highway!

3. Bypass Pukerua Bay: This is easy and should be built either to 2-lanes or 4-lanes, it will relieve that community, ease the queuing going north (as there is some loss of traffic at Pukerua Bay) and leave the most difficult bit till last.

4. Start pursuing options for routes for a Mana Bypass: Although the Mana upgrade that is now open seems to be working well and ensuring traffic flows reasonably smoothly – in the longer term Mana should be bypassed, which means some land around the Ngatitoa Domain would need to be used. The process for sorting this out will be lengthy, so should start as soon as it can.

Transmission Gully as a route can be retained as a long term option, but there is no need for 6-lanes between Wellington and Kapiti – 4-lanes is enough. Transmission Gully will make it 6-lanes, until Tawa when it becomes 4-lanes again!

The coastal 4-laning can be sought and eventually built, but is hardly the top priority. What has come over far too many people is a hysteria about congestion and road closures that nobody would say is worth spend $1.1 billion to fix. That is over $7000 for every Wellington household.

Government funding offer

As the final part of this saga up to now, Cabinet agreed earlier this year to two Crown contributions to a solution on the Western Corridor over the next ten to twelve years. These are:

1. $225 million to fund public transport and roading improvements along the entire Western Corridor (this can include Petone-Grenada, additional stages of the Kapiti Western Link Road, essential upgrades of the current route, and the modest rail upgrade plan). This funding is unconditional, and is to fund the highest priority parts of the Corridor.

2. $405 million to fund a solution for the access and congestion issues on State Highway 1 between Linden and Mackays Crossing. This is a contribution towards either the coastal route or Transmission Gully. It will not fully fund either – the only catch is that parts of the coastal route could be built (and benefits from them arise) and it is likely that other parts could be liable to get standard National Land Transport Fund funding anyway in the future.

A total of $885 million of taxpayers money for Wellington transport on top of the dedicated funding from road user charges and petrol tax - better than Auckland on a per capita basis!

Conclusion

The case for Transmission Gully does not stack up because:

1. It costs too much : At $1.1 billion it is a staggering amount of money, equivalent to all of the other conceivable roading projects that could be built in Wellington combined – it is worth more than all of the petrol tax collected in Wellington in 7 years, including all of the money spent on road maintenance and all other projects. Assuming the coastal route was not built, the next most expensive project proposed in the next ten or so years is the Petone-Grenada link road at $180 million – even a second Mt Victoria Tunnel and 4-lanes out to the airport would be around $250 million – the cost difference between Transmission Gully and the coastal route.

2. To build it would mean a subsidy to road users: To fund Transmission Gully would mean non-road users paying for a road – this should offend all supporters of user pays and the free market, as much as it should offend the Greens. The government has pledged to grant Wellington $885 million of taxpayers money for land transport in the next ten years. This is more than equal to all of the petrol tax paid in the Wellington region to the Crown Account – so essentially matches the National policy (for Wellington at least) for road funding. As Transmission Gully cannot be funded by tolls (only pays for less than 10%) and all the funding from petrol tax wont fund it either, then either general taxpayers have to fund a road to the capital or ratepayers do. Since the loudest councils on this (Porirua and Kapiti) are very silent when they are asked to ask their ratepayers for a contribution, the calls for Transmission Gully are piggies at the trough – Peter Dunne is seeking a porkbarrel, as is Porirua and Kapiti. This nonsense was supposed to have gone with Muldoon – it should remain in the past. The people living in Mana/Plimmerton who want others to pay for it are no surprise, but why should other people be made to pay for their prospective property value increases?

3. Transmission Gully is a bad investment: It doesn’t stack up on economic efficiency grounds. It has a benefit cost ratio of, at best 0.5:1, so it is like putting $1.1 billion in the bank and coming back 25 years later and finding only $550 million left – like Think Big. Not only would non-road users have to pay for it, but it wouldn’t even generate net economic benefits for the nation. It doesn’t even pay its costs. ACT and National, which rightly condemn poor investment in rail projects that are just as bad, can’t see a bad road when it stares them in the face. Losing $550 million in national wealth is an outrage, when there are hundreds of millions of dollars of roading projects elsewhere in New Zealand that generate positive returns. Simple measures like eliminating all traffic lights on Highway 2 from Wellington to Upper Hutt could save time and accidents, a second Mt Victoria Tunnel would all be positive investments. Anyone advocating a negative investment is simply plain stupid – why doesn’t everyone pay for some road users and property owners to benefit to half the extent of the cost.

4. The problems of the current route can be solved by other cheaper means: The reasons Transmission Gully is advocated are:
- Accidents along the coastal highway (not fixed just reduced in number by the Gully- largely fixed by a median barrier);
- Congestion at Mana (fixed, for now, by the now open upgrade – can be fixed longer term by a bypass at Mana for 20% of the cost of the Gully);
- Occasional road closures (usually due to accidents, largely fixed above. The very rare slip is hardly a reason to spend $250 million on insurance – and 4-laning the current road should enable it to remain open with at least one lane I each direction, even if part of the lanes are blocked.

Other congestion is less serious than many other locations in Wellington (e.g. Ngauranga, Mt Victoria Tunnel). For $220 million Mana can eventually be bypassed, and Pukerua Bay bypassed for $70 million. The coastal section does not need 4-laning for some years as congestion will not be severe enough to justify it, but the 4-laning of it will provide a far more reliable route than Transmission Gully – the second route mantra comes at a $250-$300 million premium. Why do something for quarter of a billion more than you need to?

5. The coastal route can be upgraded in stages: Transmission Gully is only worth building as one route, which would take five years construction and around four years pre-construction. It requires an enormous amount of funding and enormous construction effort for one project, once, with all the costs that the equipment would present for just one project (it would sit around largely useless for years after that or need to be moved to multiple locations to get used on smaller contracts). The coastal upgrade can be built in stages and the benefits realised progressively. The so-called disruption is what happens with all road projects – Transmission Gully would disrupt the motorway south of Porirua and the highway north of Paekakariki, the inner city bypass disrupts central Wellington. Auckland’s central motorway junction (spaghetti junction) is having several new ramps and lanes installed – on the busiest part of the roading network, and this is managed to avoid worsening peak congestion, and undertaking much work at night. Within 10 years, there could be a Pukerua Bay Bypass and the coastal 4-laning would be finished in year 11 along with a Paekakariki flyover. All that is left is a bypass at Mana. Transmission Gully would not be finished for 15 years.

6. An alternative route is unnecessary: The Hutt Valley has no realistic alternative route to Wellington if the Hutt motorway is closed. Auckland’s North Shore does not have one to Auckland if the Auckland Harbour Bridge is closed, the Wairarapa does not if the Rimutaka Hill Road is closed. New Zealand cannot afford to build parallel routes for the sake of it. Paekakariki Hill Road is a viable light vehicle alternative, and 4-laning (with a median barrier on) the coastal route will not only avoid most accidents which cause closures, but provide ample room for diverting traffic around incidents (which are unlikely to block 4-lanes with shoulders).
In addition, in the longer term there is likely to be some sort of road pricing to replace petrol tax - differentiating by time of day and location, which means congested roads cost more to use. Demand management, such as airlines, hotels and phone companies use to get people to use networks at off peak times and charge a premium at busiest times, will be the norm. Under that environment, people may think very carefully indeed before using scarce road space at peak times to commute to work. That is when very large expensive roads start to look rather redundant and you concentrate road investment on making what you have safer and more efficient (e.g. removing traffic light controlled intersections, additional lanes, realignments). That is a far more efficient approach.
The Transit New Zealand Board and the Wellington Regional Land Transport Committee should drop Transmission Gully for the reasons I have outlined above. ACT and National MPs should come to their senses with economic rationalism, and stop advocating a mindless Think Big Roading project, and advocate user pays - the pork barrelling they are pursuing should be above them. Peter Dunne should give it a rest and stop advocating for a road that will do nothing for his local constituents (when Petone-Grenada will), and Dr Cullen should stay out of it.
Transmission Gully is a bad project which needs consigning to the proverbial dustbin of history, someone needs the courage to put it to sleep.

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