Saturday, February 02, 2008

Auckland's Northern Busway opens, but..

A great hurrah has come about from the opening of the Northern Busway (once called the North Shore Busway, but Transit often changes the names of projects for unclear reasons). Nothing wrong with increasing transport capacity in Auckland no, and it is a far better project than upgrading rail, but still - you wont see any coverage investigating the other side of the busway. Journalism is what I am looking for, but I simply don't see it.
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The Stuff report on it (above) could be a government press release, and the NZ Herald saying "The first stage opened in 2005 and resulted in 500 fewer cars being on the Northern Motorway" doesn't have anyone questioning the evidence. It may be true, but what was the cost of achieving this? Was it worth it? 500 cars over what period? A journalist would ask these questions, instead of parroting government statements as fact.
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One thing I notice is how the cost has gone up, pretty easy to find this out as you just need to look at past issues of the Transfund National Land Transport Programme/National Roading Programmes. The cost of the busway (excluding stations) is now $210 million. Only four years ago the cost was going up from $95 million to $110 million. You might ask how it went up to $210 million (plus the bus stations). The reason being because Labour has been feeding massive road construction inflation, and the contracting industry knows when the government wants something to be built - regardless of cost. You see, upgrading public transport is important to this Labour government - regardless of cost. Think what else could have been built had the government taken a more prudent approach to increasing spending on roads, or if - perhaps - it had not taken a personal interest in the advancement of certain roads. You're seeing it again now with the Waterview extension of SH20 (formerly Avondale), the PM wants it built, it has gone from $700 million to $1.2 billion in four years. Construction wont be starting for several years yet, but it will be over $1.5 billion by then.
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I wont go on about the details of this road, they are mostly here. It's basically an extra couple of lanes parallel to the Northern Motorway, with some flash bus stations.
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Now despite the Stuff release lets be clear, the money paying for it wasn't the warm bosom of the "government", it came from road users, all road users, although the only way all road users will benefit is from the handful of cars and buses that wont be travelling on the Northern Motorway as a result.
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Want to know the economic benefit/cost ratio of the Northern Busway? It's not clear, you see the government doesn't like Transit publishing benefit cost ratios anymore, it shows how many of the roads getting built aren't that good. It was just over 2 last time I knew it, which was around seven years ago. With cost increases and traffic increases, it probably is closer to 1.5 now. Not great, but not bad.
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Finally, the most important point - for all road users to note, especially those driving parallel to the Busway, is that it will be grossly underutilised if it remains only a busway. A corridor that cost over $200 million to build will lie, largely empty. A bus every 3 minutes! Imagine if a car passed along a motorway lane every 3 minutes! It deserves to be better used
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It should become a tollway. As a tollway, it could charge vehicles a premium to bypass congestion, like the 91 express lanes in California. The tolls would be high, and vary according to demand, and would ensure free flow conditions remain. However, the tolls could ultimately pay for the road (except that past road users have already paid for it). An even better option would be to sell it, let bus companies pay for the right to use it, along with other road users. People could hardly moan about there not being an alternative, the government owned "free" motorway beside it would remain available.
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Of course the whole damn thing is limited by the Harbour Bridge, itself a bottleneck, itself needing money to have its life extended and for a second crossing to be considered. So here is another solution.
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Sell the Auckland Harbour Bridge (may as well sell the Northern Motorway from Onewa Road to the Victoria Park Viaduct as well). The new owner can then toll it, without booths, but fully electronic. Then what?
1. The new owner would be able to use revenue from road users to maintain the roads, and build new capacity. You see, the pursuit of a second harbour crossing funded by taxpayers is futile and expensive.
2. Tolls at peak times would be high, and congestion would be lower. After all, the owner would want people to use the road, but not for the road to be unattractive compared to the Upper Harbour crossing, or ferries. Of course higher tolls would make buses even more attractive, and buses could cross in relatively uncongested conditions.
3. Tolls could also help fund the Victoria Park Tunnel/Viaduct widening which has been delayed for years due to dithering, and funding. In fact, this project is probably the most valuable in Auckland, as it would eliminate the worst bottleneck at Spaghetti Junction - lack of capacity to/from the north.
4. The proceeds from selling the bridge could then be used to compensate the folk of the North Shore, in a rather simple way. Half of the proceeds could go to all North Shore City ratepayers could receive a lumpsum from the sale - this would be in recognition of how, as road users, they had contributed towards the road. The remaining half could simply be used to cut central government debt.
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Or do you like queuing?

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