Why is the Government burning all the harbour bridges?

Official advice ignored. Cheap, easy and effective options discarded. Ballooning costs. And now the Government has signalled a rethink of both the proposed cycling bridge across the Waitematā harbour and the timetable for digging tunnels. Why is it so hard to make good decisions about all this?

Finance Minister Grant Robertson dropped a bombshell about Auckland harbour crossings this week. In fact, he dropped two of them.

First, he revealed the Government is likely to scrap its proposed new $685 million “Northern Pathway” bridge for walking and cycling, a mere two months after it was announced.

Second, he said he wants to “bring forward” the schedule for a new tunnel crossing.

The official estimate for those tunnels is now $15 billion. That’s a 50 per cent rise on the last estimate, of $10b.

No one has announced this, but Robertson knows it. The revelation is contained in a report to him and Transport Minister Michael Wood, released to the Herald under the Official Information Act.

Dated May 11, it’s the briefing paper that led the two ministers to recommend the Northern Pathway bridge to Cabinet. Among its other revelations:

• The Ministry of Transport and Treasury both advised Government against the new bridge.

• A dedicated ferry or bus service for bikes could be run for over 100 years before it cost as much as the $685m bridge.

When Robertson discussed the Northern Pathway with reporters this week, he whipped out a smile and said: “The plan is to build it.”

It was a statement of fact, but clearly not one of intent. Plans can change, and he pointedly declined to comment on the future of this one.

As for the tunnels, he said, “work is underway”, and added: “I believe it is something that if we can bring forward, we should.”

Robertson knows the new cost of those tunnels, but did he also know the business case analysis for them? As revealed by the transport agency Waka Kotahi in November 2020, it’s 0.2.

For every dollar they spend, the value we get back is 20 cents.

And yet tunnels, rather than a new bridge, have “preferred” status for what is officially known as the AWHC: Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing. A date for construction has not been announced, although it’s not scheduled for this decade.

Robertson pointed out that cars, trucks and public transport are not included in the Northern Pathway. “What I’m saying is, it’s a transport network. We need to make sure that all modes get a fair go.”

That negates one of the main arguments for the dedicated pathway, which is that cycling and walking are the modes not getting any kind of go from existing harbour crossings.

But cars are. It’s not widely appreciated that the number of vehicles on the bridges today, at about 170,000, is almost exactly the same as it was in 2006. Massive population growth has been swallowed up by buses.

The Government Policy Statement on land transport, which addresses the twin demands of congestion and the climate crisis, points to the same thing. The focus is squarely on public transport, especially rapid transit with trains and dedicated busways. Freight to rail and better networks for cycling and walking are also important.

This is not “ideological”. Even Waka Kotahi, which likes to build roads, accepted in a September 2018 briefing paper to new transport minister Michael Wood, that the best way to address congestion on the bridge is not to build more roadway. It’s more rapid transit, combined with “road pricing” in the central city.

But set all this aside for a moment. Why are we agonising over $700m bike bridges and $15b tunnels? There are several good, reliable and far cheaper options for meeting the needs of all transport users wanting to cross the harbour.

And yet neither the Government nor the agency seem capable of taking any of them seriously. How did it come to this?

Waka Kotahi vs MoT and Treasury

When Waka Kotahi proposed the new cycling and walking bridge, it said it was the best available option.

That was a big change from January 2020, when the agency flatly rejected the idea. In a report that considered 12 options, Waka Kotahi said then that a new standalone bridge needed coastal resource consents that would “likely be very hard to secure”.

Those 12 options included SkyPath, the shared pathway hanging from the clip-ons that had been developed by lobbyists over 15 years and was consented. They also included pathways that ran under the main structure, elevating it above the roadway or shared the roadway.

All were all discarded, usually for reasons of practicality. The preferred option at the time was one of the most expensive: a $250m pathway sitting directly on the piers. But that has now also been rejected.

In its May 11 ministerial briefing paper, called “Northern Pathway Options Summary”, the agency revealed it now favoured the new bridge option, at almost triple the price.

But the Ministry of Transport and Treasury, both co-authors of the report, disagreed. They warned of “increased costs relative to benefits” that would result in “significant opportunity costs”. Other investments, they said, “may result in higher value mode-shift outcomes”.

The Act Party backed that up last week: it released Waka Kotahi data showing other Auckland cycleways deliver up to 10 times the value expected from the new bridge.

That’s a massive opportunity cost. To put it in context, in the 2020 financial year transport agencies nationwide spent $45m on cycling and walking projects. At that rate, the bridge would gobble up 15 years’ worth of the entire country’s cycling budget.

MoT and Treasury advised Robertson and Wood to seek “a better understanding of why this proposed investment is necessary”.

The ministers, they said, should look for “an enduring solution that represents value for money”.

That’s very blunt.

Even Waka Kotahi was not fully in favour: it declined to comment on whether the project was “good” relative to other investment options, or whether it should be prioritised.

So what “enduring solutions” are there? And because it will take years or possibly decades before anything substantial can be built, what about interim solutions?

It’s worth remembering the existing bridge is not falling down. Waka Kotahi believes, “Our programme of ongoing monitoring, maintenance, upgrades and load management means the bridge is able to operate indefinitely as a key strategic asset in the Auckland network.”

The task is to provide for all modes of harbour crossing and manage growth in the future. Not solve a crisis now.

Interim and enduring: here are several options for both.

Shared path on both clip-ons

How about this. A harbour crossing for bikes and walking, still with eight lanes for cars, that will not need new resource consents, could be built right now and will cost no more than $20m.

It sounds like the genius option. But is it true?

The idea is for the vehicle lanes on both clip-ons to be narrowed slightly, so that a cycling and walking lane can be installed outside them.

Waka Kotahi says it’s not safe for vehicles to share the roadway on the bridge with cyclists and walkers, even with a barrier between them. But the same thing is done on many big bridges around the world.

The plan was developed by Will McKenzie and Arvind Dali, who were behind the double-decker bridge promoted by John Tamihere in his 2019 mayoral campaign. (That proposal is still alive: see below.)

The clip-ons are 9.6 metres wide, each with two vehicle lanes 4.57m wide. McKenzie and Dali want to reduce the lanes to 3.5m each, to make room on both clip-ons for a 2.4m path for cycling and walking.

Those new vehicle lanes would still be wider than the bridge’s existing centre lanes, which are 3.05m wide.

The external steel barriers on the clip-ons would be moved in, to separate active users from vehicles. A new, streamlined external barrier and anti-jump screens would be installed on the outer perimeters.

It’s not ideal. At 2.4m, the active lanes would be 0.2m narrower than the minimum standard. That’s the width of the overbridge connecting Eden Terrace to Arch Hill, by Newton School, but only half the width of the Wynyard Crossing bridge.

McKenzie stresses this is an “interim” solution. He suggests each lane should allow for both cyclists and walkers, but moving in opposite directions: they’d be “contra directional”. This would allow cyclists and walkers to see each other coming.

It would cost about $20m to build, he says, and just a few million a year to maintain. And because it’s a rearrangement of space on an existing structure, a new resource consent will not be required.

Is it worth a trial, at least?

Nicolas Reid, at urban planning firm MRCagney, supports the plan. He suggests the 2.6m wide standard could be met by bracketing the new external barrier 300mm outside the existing edge of each clip on.

McKenzie and Dali have taken their proposal to Auckland Council’s planning committee. McKenzie has presented it to “about a dozen officials” from the Ministry of Transport, Waka Kotahi, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and Treasury, in an online meeting arranged by the ministry, and he’s also discussed it with a Waka Kotahi board member.

The agency says it is “aware of the proposal”.

Bike ferries, buses and gondolas

Waka Kotahi CEO Nicole Rosie told Bike Auckland by letter on May 6 that, “At this stage we are not looking at interim options for walking and cycling over the AHB [Auckland Harbour Bridge].”

But the May 11 report to ministers appears to contradict that. It canvases several interim solutions, including ferries, buses and even gondolas. Waka Kotahi advised against all of them.

“These options require a transfer for users … and would therefore be less attractive, offer less benefits (including health related benefits) and also have operational complexities due to capacity constraints at transfer points.”

Apparently, it’s a problem that cyclists would have to get off their bikes and wouldn’t get any exercise during the crossing.

As for “operational complexities”, Amsterdam has roll-on roll-off ferries where you ride in one end and ride out the other. People on foot and on motor scooters use them too.

Ferries would run every 15 minutes, says the report, buses every 10, and both would operate 6am to midnight. But that would mean, says the report, “Option not available 24/7, impacting user experience.”

That’s the agency saying the lack of a ferry or bus at 3am is a reason not to introduce the service at all.

The ferries would run from Northcote Point to Wynyard and take two years to set up. The bus would run from Stafford St in Northcote to Westhaven and could be ready in one year.

The report notes these options would provide more choice, help with mode shift out of cars “on the busiest section of the NZ transport system” and help reduce carbon emissions. These are all priority goals for the agency.

But that wasn’t good enough, because “there are carbon emissions required to achieve these [goals]”. Using electric ferries or buses isn’t mentioned.

Barb Cuthbert of Bike Auckland is not a big fan. She says the ferries using Northcote Point now can be uncertain because of the weather. Still, would it be a better-than-nothing option?

Gondolas were also considered, but rejected because they would cost about as much as the new bridge.

Ferries were costed at $58m for “terminal upgrades and ferries” with operating expenses adding another $6m a year.

On those figures, you could run a dedicated bike ferry service for 104 years before it chewed up the $685m cost of the new bridge.

A bike bus would be even cheaper. At Waka Kotahi’s estimated $30m setup costs and $6m annual running costs, the money for the bridge would run a bike-bus service for 109 years.

The report reveals ferries and buses were another point of disagreement between the agency and the Ministry of Transport and Treasury.

The latter two advised the ministers to consider if “the demand in the short to medium term [can] be resolved by a bus or ferry option that provides an interim service, while a more enduring solution is investigated”.

Cabinet preferred Waka Kotahi’s advice.

Last week, however, the agency’s multimodal and innovation manager Deborah Hume said they were once more “looking at a number of [interim] solutions including bike ferries and bike buses”.

A summer trial

What would happen if a vehicle lane or two on the existing bridge were converted for cycling and walking? Waka Kotahi believes there is no capacity to do that, but former SkyPath champion Bevan Woodward, now at the road safety group Movement, believes the agency is working with a false premise.

He says it has “assumed no one would get out of their cars to walk, scooter or cycle. NZTA has rejected the international evidence that road capacity reduction results in less traffic.”

Would that happen on the Auckland Harbour Bridge? If less vehicle capacity and an active pathway on the bridge were backed by better public transport and growing work-at-home options, what would happen to the number of cars?

Nobody knows.

Waka Kotahi believes that in 2026 when its new bridge opens, there will be 4500 cyclists and walkers on it per day. But nobody knows if that’s true either.

That’s why Bike Auckland and the GetAcross Coalition have called for a three-month summer trial, during which a traffic lane or lanes are allocated to cycling and walking.

In a report to her board, Waka Kotahi’s urban mobility manager, Kathryn King, suggested it wouldn’t cost much. Even a “permanent barrier system” to keep cyclists and walkers safe from cars and trucks, she said, would cost only about $2.5m.

But Nicole Rosie told Bike Auckland in her letter of May 6 that Waka Kotahi did not think it will work and “will not be progressing with a three-month trail”.

After the May 30 rally when cyclists rode the bridge, however, that changed. Executive Brett Gliddon told RNZ’s Checkpoint they had been looking at the idea, but “can’t say it would be possible this summer”.

Five days later, when Michael Wood announced the new bridge, he also said: “In the meantime, Waka Kotahi will continue to work on how to provide safe temporary trials of using lanes on the existing harbour bridge for cyclists and pedestrians.”

He said he had given them “weeks, not months” and, “I’ve told them I want to see options on my desk.”

Three weeks later, he said it again. “I’m still keen to see if temporary trials of using lanes on the existing harbour bridge for cyclists and pedestrians can be done safely. I expect Waka Kotahi to report back to me very shortly.”

Has the agency got the message? Hume says they are now looking at all “short-term” options “including using lanes”.

Nine weeks after the announcement, it seems Wood is still waiting.

A Sunday Ciclovia

Every Sunday in the Colombian city of Bogota, from 7am to 2pm, 120km of roads are closed to cars. The citizens take to the streets on foot and on scooters, skateboards and bicycles. It’s called a Ciclovia.

Bogota is notorious for bad traffic, but on Sundays it goes away. The Ciclovia has survived for nearly 50 years and been copied widely around the world, including in 50 cities in North America.

Could we do that on the harbour bridge?

Kathryn King’s report contains vehicle data by time of day. It shows that on Sunday mornings with two lanes closed to cars, the bridge would function without any disruption at all, provided the remaining six lanes were allocated three each way.

“A morning event,” she said, “would therefore be recommended.” She costed a Ciclovia at $150,000-$600,000, depending on frequency. Bevan Woodward thinks it should happen all day every Sunday.

King’s report was received by the Waka Kotahi board but no action was taken.

The Left Field bridge

All the above are interim solutions: proposals that could be adopted now, or soon, to provide new harbour crossings for cyclists and walkers. But there are new bridge proposals too. All of them offer long-term solutions for all transport modes.

Garth Falconer, formerly the design leader with SkyPath, has suggested a new bridge instead. He calls it Left Field. It would loop westwards from Westhaven and then back to Northcote Point, where a tunnel under the point would allow vehicles to merge with motorway traffic.

“The idea started from thinking what would be the most beautiful way to cross the Waitematā,” says Falconer. “And it was a simple line following a curve echoing the bay form of the coastline and reaching out into the upper harbour, giving space to the [harbour bridge], revealing views with just a slim horizontal profile form.”

The new bridge would carry northbound traffic, while southbound would remain on the existing bridge. Buses, which might transition to light rail, would have dedicated lanes on both bridges.

The existing bridge’s eastern clip-on would be transformed for walking and cycling, with viewing platforms.

“This would make it a public park,” Falconer says. “A high-amenity feature pathway with planting, shelter, lookouts and seating like New York’s High Line.”

This “parkway” would be 7 metres wide, compared with the 5m allocation on Waka Kotahi’s new bridge.

Better transit, better roadways, better walking and cycling. Falconer has worked on the plan with “an experienced bridge design engineer” and believes the total cost would be about $2b. He says it would take 5-7 years including design.

New bridge on the old piers

In the 2019 mayoral election, candidate John Tamihere proposed a radical rethink of the existing bridge. He got laughed at for it, perhaps because the idea seemed sillier than it really is.

Will McKenzie and Arvind Dali dreamed it up and they’re still advocating for it.

The plan calls for a new structure with two traffic levels, to be built on temporary piers next to the existing bridge. Then, the old structure would be moved off its piers and the new one slid over in its place. The technology is not new and has been used successfully, on long bridges, in the US and elsewhere.

The lower level of the new bridge would carry general traffic on 10 lanes and the upper level would have four lanes for rapid transit (buses and/or trams), two lanes for cycling and two more for walking. It would be “the same height and shape as the 1959 original and the same width as the bridge with the 1969 clip-ons”.

Like Falconer, he reckons his bridge would cost $2b. He says it will be straightforward to consent and could be built this decade.

As with his other proposal, McKenzie has presented this bridge to officials from government and council agencies and discussed it with a Waka Kotahi board member. He’s also written to Robertson and Wood, asking them to have it assessed by the engineering departments at the universities of Auckland and Canterbury.

The Dreamway bridge

Devonport artist Neil Coleman thinks “a second crossing is about as possible as a Second Coming. The only crossing is the harbour bridge. We need to think along the lines of upgrading, modifying, strengthening it.”

He says he’s been unhappy with the look of the existing bridge since the day it opened, when he walked over it as a 6-year-old. Now, he says, Auckland has “an opportunity to create a beautiful world-class structure”.

So he’s sketched what that might be. “I am not an engineer, but would describe my design as an enhancement and full restructuring of the existing bridge.”

Coleman’s bridge features two new curved structures that hold up the middle of the bridge in a cable-stayed arrangement, with walking and cycling on raised pathways that curve above the road. He calls it Dreamway.

Buses on the new bridge

Instead of scrapping the proposed Northern Pathway bridge, why don’t they put buses or light rail on it?

Waka Kotahi is against that too. In its briefing note it said, “This solution does not include a public transport lane due to the significant additional investment that would be required on either side of the proposed structure to allow for the appropriate connections.”

But the agency puts the extra cost at only another $700m on the bridge and $1b for the approaches at each end.

Add that to the existing $685m proposal and, by Waka Kotahi’s own numbers, we could have it all for a total of $2.4b. Matt Lowry at Greater Auckland calls it “an absolute bargain” that would fix the harbour-crossing dilemma “for at least three decades”.

Of course, that’s another way to say that we don’t need tunnels anytime soon. And, as Lowry says, if there really is $15b looking for a good home in Auckland transport, it could be used to build 150km of light rail lines. On the Shore, out west and out east and in the south too.

Why build tunnels?

With all these bridge options available, exactly why are the Government, the National Party and Waka Kotahi so keen on tunnels?

There’s no good business case, despite Robertson’s assurance officials are working on it.

Gareth Falconer points out that tunnels are expensive to operate and maintain. In that same 2020 report Waka Kotahi tagged the cost at $500m a year.

Will McKenzie says that under the Resource Management Act, it’s not legal to significantly damage the environment – as tunnels would do to the seabed – when credible alternatives exist.

For that reason, he wonders if resource approval for tunnels could ever be gained.

And they’re vastly more difficult and expensive than any other option. Why choose them? McKenzie’s theory is that many officials naturally lean towards massive projects costing billions, because they will look good on their CVs.

He says he ran his theory past a Treasury official and the guy said “I guessed right”.

Doesn’t explain why politicians fall for it, though.

All eyes on Wood, now, as he awaits that new report on “interim” and “trial” crossing options. And on Robertson, who’s just thrown everything up in the air.

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