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Confrontation over Eastern Highway costs Auckland

Confrontation over the Eastern Highway costs Auckland dearly

By Francis Reid

In the war of words being fought over the future of transport in Auckland, there is a tendency for politicians, reporters and public pressure groups to divide along simple pro-public transport or pro-road lines. These parochial, simplistic divisions do not go very far towards solving the very real problems that Auckland faces. In fact, they are a major reason why so little progress is being made. Rather than attempting to force through controversial schemes that will only result in legal battles and wasted opportunities, Auckland’s politicians should be looking to build consensus and to make sure that those projects that are unambiguously good for Auckland are pursued.

In the analysis that follows I would like to argue that the Eastern Highway is not an objectively bad thing for Auckland. However, it should be a low priority for Auckland, and the fact that it has had such prominence in the political arena has had a number of undesirable consequences – the most damaging of which is the fact that it has diverted attention away from the pressing needs of such transport projects as the completion of state highway 20, and the electrification and expansion of the rail network. There are many major transport projects in the Auckland area that only the most extreme pro-roaders or public transport advocates object to, and it is these projects that have been derailed by the debate surrounding the Eastern Highway.

For the pro-roaders, the Eastern Highway is heralded as the final solution to Auckland’s transport problems. As John Banks keeps telling us, it is the missing link in the motorway network – once built, it will supply Auckland with a complete roading system that is free-flowing and convenient. For the Green Party, and the Campaign for Better Transport, any road is a bad road and, what’s more, in the long term, new motorways generate more congestion.

The truth is, of course, somewhere in between these two opposing assessments. According to the Eastdor report, that benefit/cost ratio of the Eastern Highway is 1.6. Although this figure will have risen somewhat as a result of the recent decision to opt for a relatively cheap four lane expressway across Hobson Bay, it will still fall well short of Transfund’s traditional cut off for funding of 4.0. In other words, the Eastern Highway would result in many positive outcomes for Auckland. But so would a massively expanded and improved rail system. So would more major roads offering cross-town trips that don’t go via the CBD. So would more frequent and cleaner buses. In short, while the Eastern Highway is objectively not a bad thing, as many of its opponents will try to tell you, it falls well short of being such a positive and beneficial concept that it should actually be prioritised and built.

Although the Eastern Highway is not objectively bad, the concept itself has had, and continues to have, a negative impact upon Auckland. The energy and time being put in to fighting for and against the Highway has diverted attention away from the numerous workable transport projects in Auckland that enjoy wide-ranging support. It is a sobering thought that for approximately the same cost as the proposed Eastern Highway, Auckland could have a fully electrified rail network that could be expanded to include a CBD tunnel from Britomart to Mt Eden, and a line via Onehunga to the airport.

This is not to say that no good has come out of the debate over the Eastern Highway. Greg McKeown, the chairman of the Highway’s steering group, has urged that, in selling the project to the public, a greater emphasis should be placed upon the potential of passenger rail in the Eastern suburbs and throughout Auckland. Greg McKeown is one of the few consensus builders among the right wing politicians in Auckland, but given funding estimates for the Highway don’t include any money for a rail upgrade, and given there are no plans to expand rail lines East from Panmure parallel to the Highway, I think that it is fair to conclude that this new emphasis upon rail has more to do with reducing the costs of the highway by dropping plans for bus lanes than it has to do with a sudden realisation among the Highway’s advocates that rail is an extremely effective and cheap form of mass transit.

Another positive outcome of the debate surrounding the Eastern Highway is the increased realisation that road pricing is an essential part of Auckland’s future. The problem I see with the debate so far is the failure among politicians and their consultants to acknowledge that there are two types of road pricing. One is traditional tolling, which Aucklanders will remember from the Harbour Bridge. The purpose of tolling is to raise funds. This means that a tolling scheme should be judged by how much money it raises. No one who has travelled on the beautiful motorways of Northern Italy can deny that under certain circumstances such schemes can be very effective. The second type of road pricing is congestion charging. The primary function of congestion charging is to reduce the volumes of traffic on the roads – the generation of revenue is only a secondary function. London operates a successful congestion charging system. It is successful because it has dramatically reduced the volumes of traffic travelling through the central city. If it were judged on the amount of revenue it has generated, it would be judged to be a failure – it has in fact generated next to nothing, when the costs of running the scheme are factored out.

It seems clear to me that the amounts of money Sir Barry Curtis anticipates generating from road pricing are severely inflated and unrealistic. I would also argue that Auckland’s public transport network is not sufficiently developed to make the toll cordons he advocates either fair or workable. In any case, in order to be able to judge the effectiveness of road pricing in Auckland, there needs to be greater clarity as to its purpose – is it intended primarily to be a revenue generating measure, or is it intended primarily to reduce congestion.

Auckland has many transport problems, but the situation is not hopeless. However, in order to progress Auckland must avoid the sort of unproductive fighting that surrounds such projects as the Eastern Highway and is worsened by the confrontational style of politics practiced by the likes of John Banks and Sir Barry Curtis. There are many workable transport projects on the table already that enjoy widespread support – let’s just get on with them.


Francis Reid is an Aucklander currently reading towards a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Much of his research relates to the development of transport technologies, and he has an interest in the future development of transport policy in New Zealand. He has travelled extensively throughout Europe, North America and Africa.

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