The transport headlines have been coming thick and fast. And it seems that the various plans we’ve had forced on us over the last few years are unravelling.

It’s almost as if the various transport authorities have seen the election outcome as an opportunity to come clean with the bad news they’ve been unwilling, or unable, to talk about.

As a result there are surprises aplenty for everyone including the ratepayers, drivers, cyclists, ferry passengers, and the users of public transport.

To be fair, that latter group have become used to surprises. Over the last few months there have been too many cancellations of bus, train and ferry services due to apparently unforeseen maintenance requirements and a lack of staff. Reliability is not a word you would associate with our public transport operations.

But the big announcements of the last few weeks tell us that the problems are worse than we think.

In Auckland we’ve recently learned that the City Rail Loop is blowing budgets on every front. The original construction budget of $2.7 billion is long gone and the latest “estimate” is $5.8 billion.

In fact, I’m not sure anyone knows what the final cost will be. Although the website says it will be finished by November 2025, the people in charge are refusing to put a finish date on it and my guess is that the total cost will end up being over $6 billion. Someone, somewhere should be asking how we can run a major infrastructure project, with costs in the billions of dollars, without a target date or a budget?

It gets worse. Also in the latest line up of press releases was the news that, once completed, the net operating costs for the Central Rail Loop, will start at $220 million per year in the first year. That’s after the revenue collected is taken into account. So it costs $6 billion to build. It then costs $265 million a year to operate and annual revenues projected of $44m. Who in their right mind would approve that business case?

Remember that we not talking about a game changing infrastructure project that is going to fundamentally change the lives of Aucklanders. We are in fact, talking about a train line from Britomart in the CBD to Mt Eden. A total distance of 3.4kms.

How many of us think that Auckland’s traffic problems are going to be solved by a 3.4 kilometre railway line from Britomart to Mt Eden? Will the Southern Motorway run more freely? No. Will the Harbour Bridge have less congestion? No. Will Newmarket’s Saturday shopping snarl-ups occur less frequently? Not likely.

“Auckland’s Central Rail Loop seems set to cost $6 billion to build. It then costs $265 million a year to operate and annual revenues projected of $44m. Net cost, $220 million per year. Who in their right mind would approve that business case?”

And therein lies the problem. We are spending billions of dollars on a tiny piece of a transport puzzle that we will never be able to afford to complete.

Meantime, the capital city transport infrastructure isn’t faring too well either. Unlike Auckland, Wellington is a public transport town. And they’ve had a substantial commuter train service for many years. But, post-election, we’ve learned that a lack of funding to maintain the capital’s train networks will result in a decrease in services. In fact, according to the Greater Wellington Regional Councils, we have a billion dollar budget shortfall over the next few years.

As a result the GWRC has released a report on potential cuts to train services. They’re blaming a lack of investment resulting in a billion dollar hole and a backlog of maintenance work. The impact will see services to Johnsonville cut from three to one per hour. The former PM’s patch, the Hutt Valley, will see cuts from six services to two. Some lines are being axed altogether.

These same Wellington councils, which haven’t exactly endeared themselves to the members of the new government over recent months, are now pleading to that very same new government for financial help.

Remember that the people behind these failed projects and failing organisations are  the same people who have been forcing us out of our cars. In Auckland they have taken hundreds of carparks out of the city streets to make it difficult for us to park. Those carparks have been replaced by oversized pot plants, unused picnic tables and isolated bike stands. Footpaths have been widened and roads narrowed to limit cars.

At the same time, they’re making car travel about as uncomfortable as it can be. Take a drive along Sarsfeld Street in Herne Bay some time. It’s 900 meters long. It has eleven sets of very aggressively formed judder bars! Or as the new Auckland Transport language would have us call them, “traffic calming devices”. I’m told that each one costs at least $300,000. I only have one question. Why?

But getting us out of our cars isn’t working because there is no alternative. Over recent years, our city officials have talked a good game on public transport. But it’s not working for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, for public transport to work, it needs to be affordable, accessible and reliable. It is none of the above.

On the affordability front, Mayor Brown is on the right track with his call for a $50 per week maximum in fares. If you think about it, it’s only a couple of days parking in the CBD. If you could ride a reliable bus, one that stops close to your home and then your workplace, for $50 per week, you might be tempted.

But the bus has to turn up. We’ve had thousands of journeys cancelled at short notice. Buses, trains and ferries alike. If you can’t rely on something, you tend to go elsewhere. Earlier this week, a couple of trips on the Devonport ferry were cancelled because a cruise ship was leaving town at that time. In Sydney, a city with an almost identical harbour geography to ours, the ferries are such a critical part of the overall transport solution, that the cruise ship would be told when it could depart rather than the other way around. And it wouldn’t be leaving town during rush hour.

A few years back, these same transport officials heralded cycling as a new transport solution.

We’ve been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Auckland alone to facilitate the journeys of a few two wheeled travellers. But we’re not exactly flocking to the bike lanes are we. And the reasons are rather obvious.

“We’re not exactly flocking to the bike lanes, are we.”

  • Firstly, Auckland is hilly. The new, and very expensive, bike lane between Oteha Valley Road and Constellation Drive north of Auckland is beautifully built. But it has a couple of decent climbs, one of which is a kilometre long and reaches a seven percent gradient. The average person riding their bike to work can’t ride up that hill!
  • Secondly, it rains a lot. In Auckland, we live on a narrow piece of land between two oceans with a Harbour at both our eastern and western entrances. As a result we have a lot of rain and wind. Such conditions do not make for pleasant cycling.
  • Finally, for those romantically dreaming of riding their bikes to work, we need to keep in mind that the great majority of our workplaces do not offer what are now called “end of trip facilities”. Yes the modern buildings in the CBD will have bike parking, showers and lockers, but for the majority of us, such luxuries aren’t available. Accordingly, having thrashed yourself through Auckland’s hills and rain, how on earth do you intend to make yourself presentable for a day at the office?

While we’re on the topic of cycle lanes, the cyclists I speak to all agree on one thing. Most of the cycle lanes are downright dangerous.

What cyclists really need is space. A nicely paved and two metre wide shoulder would solve a lot of problems. Instead, we put barriers between the bike and the cars thus creating a more hazardous environment. Even though they’ve had a couple of cracks at it, Upper Harbour highway near Greenhithe is a shambles.  The bike lane is too narrow, the barrier is unsafe for cars and bikes, and cyclists are forced to share their lane with rubbish bins, glass and overgrown foliage from side of the road.

At the other extreme is Market Place in the Viaduct. I don’t think I have ever seen a bigger waste of council money.The entire street is only 200m long. It used to have car-parking on both sides adjoining the two lane road. It was relatively quiet. Now it’s been converted to a one way street, with a two lane cycleway. Most of the car parks been taken out.  I’m there every week. And I haven’t seen a cyclist yet!

The only good news from our current financial dilemmas is that we will be forced to abandon the stupidity and forget trains and cycle ways. To his credit, Mayor Brown seems to have come to this conclusion, saying that we will scale back on cycle lanes (thankfully) and judder bars.

As nice as all the feel good transport solutions may seem, we can’t afford it. We have two types of highway that are already well developed. They are the roading network and the water that surrounds us.

It’s the water solution that intrigues me the most. Unlike the 3.4kms from the city to Mt Eden, our waterways provide a highway to many of our transport trouble spots. The North Shore. West Auckland. Whangaparoa. The inner Eastern Suburbs. Howick-Pakuranga. Apparently some 70% of Auckland homes are within one kilometre of the water. It’s an established transport network that we’re hardly using. And you might not know this, but we’re a world leader in the manufacture of electric ferries. We just sell them overseas.

The roads need to be upgraded and that will be ongoing. The waterways will largely look after themselves. All we need to do is build some wharves, buy some boats and put a timetable together. You could do a hell of a lot for one billion dollars.

It doesn’t sound that difficult really, does it?

An abridged version of this article appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 9th December 2023.