What happens next? Beyond roads in Christchurch.

This article first appeared at blog and is republished with permission.

Beyond RoNS

One of the key reasons the previous government established the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) programme was to stimulate New Zealand’s economy by providing a programme of large scale infrastructure projects that would provide employment during construction and, reduce congestion and journey times for people and freight once completed.

Now, if you’ve read a few of my previous blog posts you will know I’m not a big fan of the RoNS. Sure, I will concede that having large scale infrastructure projects on the go isn’t necessarily a bad idea. My problem has always been with the execution; i.e. only building roads, building them with questionable economic cases, and questionable contributions to reducing congestion, emissions, changing transport behaviours, and so forth. I’d have preferred to see well thought out transport infrastructure projects that have far better outcomes, economically and socially.

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch each received a chunk of spending through the RoNS programme, and most of those projects are in their final phases (in the case of Wellington, some aspects of its RoNS – i.e. Terrace Tunnel duplication-  are unlikely to be finished in the form proposed, now subsumed by other projects through Let’s Get Wellington Moving). Christchurch’s RoNS projects included the duplication and extension of the Western Corridor, and the extension of the Southern Motorway and Northern Motorways, and the duplication of QEII drive as part of the latter. During 2020, the final stages of this entire package will be completed (with – unbelievably – the potential for things to actually get worse in terms of traffic congestion). So the pertinent question is, ‘what’s next?’ Are there further transport infrastructure projects that could be packaged as a successor to keep the city’s economy pumping (and can we do it better than just building roads?).

LR2W
Wellington has a (controversial) plan – Christchurch needs one too

Auckland and Wellington both have a list of transport infrastructure projects lined up for the coming years and decades. Auckland has the City Rail Link still under construction, a new bus rapid transit that has just kicked off, and is in the business case stages for light rail. Auckland’s long term vision for rapid transit alone ensures a steady stream of projects, and there is still the issue of what to replace the east-west link with, a process that is currently underway. In Wellington, the Government recently launched LGWM, including rapid transit, cycleways, and road improvements, a plan which will continue into the next two decades as it is rolled out. Christchurch… yeah, well, that particular file is a little empty. And that is definitely not a good thing, especially given the city’s transport expenditure is impacting on the local economy’s competitiveness, are according to a recent PWC report.

The “pipeline problem”

Christchurch currently has a pretty strong economy, and enjoys strong population growth, currently adding about 10,000 people per year to the wider metropolitan area. The problem is that, very soon, major projects are likely to dry up – and do so very quickly. Not only are the RoNS projects due to be completed by the end of 2020, other major projects are also nearing completion (think Metro Sports Centre, Convention Centre etc) and the list of projects coming up is not getting added to. This is a concern, because if there is no work in the city, that puts the strong economy at risk. Not only will people look to other cities like Wellington or Auckland, or Australian centres, for work, but businesses will start looking elsewhere too if the city isn’t progressing the right supporting infrastructure. The post-earthquake rebuild boost cant be relied upon to continue to bolster the economy, plans need to be put in place to kick-off a programme of projects that support its health into the future. Transport infrastructure is pivotal for a healthy, growing city, and I would add that Christchurch, having seen a huge investment in roads, really needs to knuckle down on ensuring it has a balanced and sustainable transport network that is fit-for-purpose for the twenty-first century.

While I have previously explored a rapid transit plan for greater Christchurch, I wanted to take a more holistic look at how a wider transport package, which might include such a plan, is put together. So I want to make it clear that this is not a “congestion free” style plan, but a view on what a wider array of multi-modal transport infrastructure projects for the greater Christchurch area could look like.

What transport projects would be critical for Christchurch going forward?

So let’s look at what could be on the table. First, we have the issue with the soon-to-be-completed Northern Motorway, which will see some 40,000 plus vehicles dumped on the doorstep of the inner-city suburb of St Albans. Thankfully, there has been a bit of a turnaround in regard to local government action on this, and improving mass transit options seems to be a key part of the solution to effectively managing this situation. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and investment in bus/park and ride stations along the motorway have been mooted, and it seems as though new express bus services of some sort will eventuate. Rail too has been talked about by councillors.

NZTA are currently investigating solutions for the east-west connections in the south of the city, principally the area around Brougham Street and Moorhouse Avenue (I believe an update on this is due soon). While I worry what might eventuate could be a roading monstrosity, consultation work to-date has indicated a preference has been for a holistic solution, including supporting better public transport services to take the pressure off the roading network. My hope is that this kind of investment will drive the approach, with some more minor road improvements that reduce traffic conflicts. This situation is not unlike that with the Northern Motorway ending in St Albans; the completion of the Southern Motorway will bring State Highway One (SH1) traffic from the south and dump it on the already congested Brougham Street route (yet another mess the RoNS didn’t seem to factor in to its strategic planning). Of note, the Government has promised $100 million for commuter rail between Christchurch and Rolleston, but so far there has been little movement from local government to address this offer. It could undoubtedly be part of the solution, particularly as Rolleston’s population growth continues unabated.

I’ve previously proposed what I consider might be a good rapid transit start-up network (see below) and I think adopting an official rapid transit vision for greater Christchurch is well overdue (also see Brendon Harre’s well thought out “Hand Plan” proposal). With a metropolitan population approaching half a million, Christchurch is well behind the eight ball compared to similar sized cities like Wellington (electrified commuter rail and proposed light rail/BRT line), Newcastle (regional commuter rail and light rail) and Canberra (light rail).

MapChch1

But isn’t the answer “more roads!”?

Recently there has been a lot of media conversation about the so-called “cancelled” motorway projects that the current government have deferred in favour of light rail in Auckland – or so the story goes. The truth is that this isn’t quite what happened. In the case of Christchurch, there were two particular motorway projects that the National Party promised to fund. One was the Woodend Bypass, and the other one was four-laning of SH1 from Rolleston to Ashburton. In reality, there was no funding for either, they were merely election promises from a party that did not get back into government. The Woodend Bypass has been on the books for a while, and the route designated (I think) but it was never formally brought forward. The four-laning of SH1 to Ashburton is literally nothing; there is no business case, and such a project would cost a colossal amount of money for very little economic benefit.

Still, it remains, sadly, that a lot of people in Christchurch – and New Zealand – expect to see tax payer money spent on roads, and some roading expenditure is certainly justified on safety, environmental (of the ambiance kind), and economic grounds – but I would argue only as part of a holistic, mode neutral package. Indeed, LGWM incorporates quite a few roading projects for Wellington, despite the focus being overwhelmingly on people, and active and public transport modes, and it is increasingly likely a regional package, which incorporates a similar mix, will eventually see the light of day.

I am going to put my “political hat” on here (I am a policy adviser by trade after all), and that means I have to conclude that if Christchurch was to put a similar package together (let’s call it “An Accessible City 2.0”) it would undoubtedly include some roading elements. The question is which ones would it include? Well, forget about four-laning between Rolleston and Ashburton; although I would not be opposed to more targeted safety upgrades (see this post for my thoughts on that “project” from Hell). The Woodend Bypass is something more akin to a safety-first approach rather than a “let’s solve congestion” one, particularly with the population growth the area is receiving. Could a case be made to bite the bullet on that one rather than tinker around the edges like NZTA are currently doing? Would it unlock the political capital required to invest in other, sustainable transport infrastructure projects, and get over the hump people seem to have over the make-believe rejected highway to Ashburton? (yes, I still have my political hat on here).

An Accessible City 2.0

Putting all this together, what might a package of transport infrastructure works look like for Christchurch? Well, I’ve given it a go as follows:

  • Expanded and intensified bus network – With more high frequency routes and bus priority measures (as per current Regional Public Transport Plan)
    • Paid for by local authorities and the Government
  • North-south rapid transit spine – I’ve provided my own example above of an initial phase, but this could incorporate whatever mode/s are deemed suitable. This could tie in with major intensive housing and commercial projects along the spine and be integrated with the bus and cycleway networks. It would be the anchor for a significant step-change for the city’s form and function
    • Initial cost (estimated at $400-600m) split between local authorities and the Government
  • Woodend Bypass – Extends the northern motorway to the north of Woodend and Pegasus, improving safety along the current stretch of SH1 through the township and opening that space up to people friendly developments.
    • Government funded
  • Upgraded east-west connection – Targeted improvements along Brougham Street and in surrounding areas, with a focus on limiting access, avoiding rat runs, eradicating major traffic conflicts, and prioritising public and active transport
    • Government and local authority funding
  • Extended cycleway network – Meeting gaps in the current network and ensuring it connects well with public transport hubs
    • Paid for 50/50 local authorities and Government

That’s just an initial high level analysis and a starter-for-ten stab at it. There may be some projects I’ve forgotten about or overlooked, and I’m sure some pretty good arguments could be made against some of these inclusions. There are some measures I have not included, because they get into deeper policy considerations (i.e. road pricing, congestion charging, parking charges etc). Nevertheless, these sorts of policies can be part of the underlying foundation of the investment programme. Yes, there is a bit of give and take here, and I’ve done that purposely without (hopefully) detracting from the overall intent. Perhaps I have gone too far; is a Woodend Bypass needed? Perhaps a metro-wide programme of targeted investments in critical roads to improve safety and flow (like NZTA’s current overarching focus on improvements along SH1 from Tram Rd to Saltwater Creek)?

Regardless, people would have a hard time calling the above “anti-car” as it prioritises road improvements in addition to public and active transport. Yet, it is undeniably based on asserting a vision for a sustainable transport network, something greater Christchurch currently lacks.

Outstanding issues to make this work

There are a couple of barriers to implementing a programme such as this. One that comes up in particular is the way public transport responsibilities are split across the local authorities. This has caused problems in Wellington too, and continues to be the shaky foundation of LGWM, especially post local body elections. Serious consideration should be given to the future of public transport, and indeed all transport, administration. Will the current Joint Committee approach be enough, or is a new semi-independent transport body needed?

Another barrier, which I have hinted at above, relates to the underlying set of policy levers that might be required to give the outcomes sought full effect. This includes policies relating to car parking (including pricing), road speeds, vehicle access to the CBD and suburban hubs, road and congestion pricing, the price of public transport and so on. These things are necessary to underpin investments and ensure that mode change occurs (a carrot and stick approach). Understanding what measures are required is essential and should be part of any package, as it is with LGWM and in Auckland. I think this was something that was seriously lacking from the original Accessible City plan, and undermined arguments for serious public transport investment, and prohibited desired changes in behaviour, entrenching car dominance across the metropolitan area.

Summary

Christchurch has a problem. In the next 2-3 years its current list of transport infrastructure projects will dry up, and the growing city, if it hasn’t sorted and started on a plan for rapid transit, as well as a package of other key transport projects, by then, will well and truly be on the back foot.  This is compounded by the winding down of the end of the rebuild of the commercial centre of the city – key projects over the next few years will become fewer, and the construction sector will suffer, leading to loss of work, people and business to other centres. Underpinning an economic strategy should be a strategic package of mode-neutral transport investments; a partnership between local and central government.

There are outstanding problems that need to be addressed too. Where should responsibility for public transport rest in greater Christchurch? ECan? CCC? Something else? What kind of city does Christchurch want to be? Where do the key public transport and rapid transit routes go? Where does housing go and what type? This is a much bigger project that simply building a few roads to hopefully spur on the economy, this is much more nuanced and long-term. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary, and time is running out. This is my take on a prospective package, making assumption about some of these issues outlined immediately above. I may be wrong, but it’s a start, and I’ve tried to keep it politically realistic, while still hopeful. What do you think?

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