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Keith Rankin: Auckland Traffic Blues

Auckland Traffic Blues

Keith Rankin, 15 November 2001

Auckland has a serious traffic problem. Not congestion. Strangulation. Spaghetti Junction and its tentacles already surround over 200 degrees of the central business district (CBD). This motorway interchange primarily serves to get traffic past the CBD, rather than to it.

In order to ease the congestion, we (in Auckland) are about to aggravate the strangulation. The motorways will soon become an even greater barrier between Auckland and Aucklanders; between the CBD and the suburbs. The CBD will soon be surrounded 360 degrees either by motorway or harbour.

There are plans to widen the viaduct over Victoria Park, and to make it even easier for through traffic to link from one motorway to another. All this will do is attract more through traffic, making the CBD even less accessible. The result will be, predictably, that fewer people will want to go to the CBD, that people will increasingly work outside the CBD, that Aucklanders' journeying will become even more complex, and that the increasing complexity of our journeys means increasing dependence on the car.

Sure, congestion within the CBD will ease. The centre of Auckland is already becoming a theme park, increasingly irrelevant to the daily lives of Aucklanders. Congestion on the suburban motorway entry points - the real congestion problem - will just get worse.

The first part of the Spaghetti extensions is Grafton Gully, which links the port with Spaghetti Junction. It is due to start "by Christmas". Auckland needs its port, and I accept that the port cannot readily be sited away from the CBD, as it is in most other large cities. But this $51m road "improvement" is going to place further pressures on the suburb of Grafton which is the home of Auckland's hospital and medical school. Greenlane and National Women's Hospital are actually in the process of being relocated to Grafton. The new hospital complex is set to become a traffic nightmare.

One irony is that the new Mayor, John Banks ("Banksie"), wants to sink millions - probably billions - of dollars into the construction of a new Eastern motorway, under (rather than through) Auckland's eastern suburbs. What is the point of such a tunnelway? The only real rationale for it is to divert port traffic away from Spaghetti Junction. But what then would be the point of Grafton Gully?

To pay for his tunnel, Banksie wants Auckland City to sell its 25% shareholding in Auckland International Airport. He must realise that, if sold, the lost airport revenue stream will have to be made up by future rate increases or in reduced services. (Christchurch has low rates precisely because it did not sell its revenue-generating assets.)

Banksie must also be aware of the problems we already have with truck safety. Such problems will escalate when we get the really big trucks (which will be making a bee-line for the port). We only need to reflect on last month's St Gotthard tunnel inferno - the result of two trucks colliding - to appreciate what will probably happen sooner rather than later if his tunnel is built.

We should be deciding between the alternatives. It is a nonsense to have both the Grafton Gully tentacle and the eastern suburbs tunnelway. Actually we can manage with neither, while still improving traffic flows to and from the port.

The trick is to make much better use of Auckland's existing infrastructure. We have wasted the old Post Office. It should have been functioning as a commuter rail terminus since about 1991. Yes, we need the Brittomart transport interchange, but it should have been designed to be built around a railway that was already bringing trains into the "Post Office Station".

We have wasted the three suburban rail corridors. While planning for light rail, we failed to make use of the rail corridors that we already have.

Of the three rail corridors, the one that is least likely to generate substantial commuter traffic is the Eastern corridor, also known as the "main trunk" railway. It follows almost exactly the route that Banksie wants his tunnel to follow.

The simple solution is to convert the present railway from Otahuhu to the port via Panmure and Orakei into a "portway". All it requires is a single rail track and two lanes (one each direction) of roading. The portway would be used exclusively by trucks, buses and trains (freight and commuter).

Yes we already have the infrastructure to get port traffic running smoothly and profitably (by road and rail) without extending Spaghetti Junction and without building a grandiose and totally unnecessary Eastern Motorway. We just need the will to use what we have.

For the bigger picture, Auckland's challenge is to get the through traffic away from the CBD. People who choose to live on the North Shore and work south of the CBD are a large part of the problem. So are parents who drive their children through Spaghetti Junction to attend "good schools" in Remuera and Epsom. These two groups of people impose social costs on Aucklanders. The textbook solution is to tax these "negative externalities". If we were serious about solving our traffic problem, we would impose a Singapore-style commuter tax on all traffic between, say, 7 and 9 am that travels southbound along the north-south link within Spaghetti Junction. It may not raise much revenue, but would act as a strong signal that certain patterns of commuting are damaging for Auckland as a whole.

Aucklanders should be acting to reduce the amount of traffic that uses Spaghetti Junction. Instead we are about to do the very opposite.

The one road that Auckland is in desperate need of is the south-western motorway that will eventually link Manukau City and the Airport with Waitakere and North Shore Cities without going anywhere near Auckland's CBD. Nothing will work properly in Auckland until that road is complete. That's the only new road Auckland needs. Everything else is there already.

Central Auckland has been suffering a slow death by strangulation for some time now. More of the same is no solution.

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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