BOOMTOWN BRATS INVESTIGATE: AUG 03
Tthe rest of new zealand is paying for auckland’s new transport network through petrol taxes, but now aucklanders are getting uppity about paying their share of a rates increase. HAMISH CARNACHAN asks whether aucklanders are becoming BILLION DOLLAR BOOMTOWN BRATS…
It’s the fresh face of the new metropolis – shiny, colourful, and clean – a showpiece, of sorts, for where Auckland is heading, and also where it has been. Af-ter a long and difficult gestation, the Britomart is open for busi-ness after more than $200 mil-lion dollars, and the derailing of at least one mayoralty.
And this is just the start of grand plans that are afoot for Auckland. Plans, the authorities tell us, that are needed “to meet the changing face of the city”, but plans that are likely to come at a cost to the entire country and are already causing widespread dissent.
The opening of Britomart is only the first completion in a concerted campaign of infrastructure development that will see massive amounts of money being spent in the nation’s largest city over the next 10 years. So what are these projects and where is the city heading? And as local body bureaucrats butt heads over where they want to take Auckland, is the much talked about ‘integrated transport network’ ever likely to leave the station?
To answer these questions we need to descend into the depths of Auckland’s new transport hub, to a place one enthusiastic commentator termed – “the genesis of the city’s future”.
It certainly is a futuristic space. A stainless steel lattice sparkles floor to ceiling, reflecting a delicate array of pastel lighting flanking the tracks that snake their way into the underground enclosure. From the main platform you can see the light at the end of the tunnel linking the trains in the depot with the outside world and their ultimate destinations. But the end to Auckland’s transport woes, which Britomart was sold to the public as, is still a long way out of sight.
The trains have been revamped but these metallic pythons have merely shed their skin. They are almost 50 years old and outdated when it comes to meeting modern crash safety standards. The new depot looks impeccable, but at the end of the day it is just that, a depot – a glorified railway yard.
Presently, the place seems to be more congested with sightseers and the curious than true commuters. It’s little wonder either. Digital displays flash and blink, but only herald false promises – the trains still run exceptionally late. And beyond the clean confines of the space-aged station the rail network is a shambles of line faults and graffiti covered shacks.
But, as Auckland City mayor John Banks hastily points out, Britomart, the largest transport and heritage project ever undertaken by a local authority in the history of New Zealand, “is not the end – it is only the beginning.”
Quite a turnaround from a man who was once an outspoken critic of the project, calling it that “temple at the bottom of Queen Street” and slating the council for signing it off days before he was elected. Now, he sees it working in with his campaign promise of decisive action on Auckland’s congested roads – something the Ferrari-driver says Aucklanders identify as their number one concern.
The greater Auckland area is New Zealand’s fastest growing region, with a population set to reach 1.65 million by 2021, an in-crease of almost half a million people. Auckland City’s own population is set to reach 530,000 by 2021. Another significant increase given that the latest Census figures put the number of people residing in Auckland at 388,000.
Banks says to compete with major regional hubs like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Auckland must focus on the pressures associated with such growth and that means developing a modern transport network.
“With enormous population pressures comes the need for substantial infrastructure development in the areas of roading, public transport, wastewater and sewage,” says Banks in crusading manner. “This represents $9 billion over the next 10 years. For this city the biggest investment with the greatest urgency and best return is transport.”
And by his own admission, transport is exactly what Banks has built his mayoralty around: “A simple vision of completing the region’s integrated transport network by 2010.”
Lines drawn on paper in planning committees might look “simple”, but ratepayer scrutiny and funding shortfalls may threaten the certainty of the schemes.
Almost $300 million will be spent on the notorious Spaghetti Junction and Grafton Gully motorway logjam and, despite vocal opposition from environmentalists and residents, plans for the promised Eastern Corridor motorway are “moving forward” according to Banks. State Highway 20 – the Western Corridor through Mount Roskill which forms a “critical part of the triple bypass” – is also moving ahead. And that is just a start.
“But it’s not just about building roads,” says Banks. “It is about giving Auckland a modern, integrated transport network, which embraces the triple bypass with affordable public transport.”
Indeed, Banks’ council is working with other agencies on an array of plans optimistically expected to be functional within 10 years. These include:
· New and refurbished trains by 2006
· Investigating a rapid transit corridor through the central city, from Britomart to Newmarket, for completion by 2006 – $700 million.
· Creating a North Shore bus way from the Harbour Bridge to Albany at a cost of $200 million.
· Upgrading ferry terminals and suburban railway stations and double tracking of the western line by 2008.
Most Aucklanders would argue that it is long overdue, but when it comes to footing the bill it seems few are prepared to fork out for the proposals, which come with a hefty price tag. It is estimated that $2.5 billion will be needed over the 10-year period.
Some ratepayer groups from within the wider Auckland region have made headlines after urging residents to drip-feed rates payments while they mount a legal challenge against the latest hike. The new Auckland Regional Council (ARC) rates have smacked some residents with rises of over 600 percent to recover the costs of the region’s transport upgrades.
Only time will tell if the rating furore means the ARC will be scrutinised more closely in terms of the value for money it provides on transport and other services, but Transit New Zealand’s latest agenda of national roading projects may throw another spanner in the works. The draft schedule released in January listed Auckland as having 18 of the 20 most urgently listed projects. In a recently revised list only three have survived, some suggest because of the angry reception from the rest of country over a perceived inequity.
Even Transit’s first schedule would have left a massive funding shortfall for Auckland so the region’s mayors are lobbying central government for a national 10c-per-litre petrol tax. Although the proposed tax would be distributed regionally (by population) this scheme has not gone down well with the rest of the country either.
But fair or not, Auckland’s traffic congestion is imparting a huge toll on both the regional and national economy – to the tune of around $1 billion a year is the general consensus. It is a cost the Government is clearly concerned about. Finance Minister Michael Cullen has said a range of funding options are being considered to get the city moving and the Government is investigating burrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to help solve the region’s transport woes.
Banks can understand that any national levy will not be popular, but according to him the cost to the economy is reason enough for the rest of the country to help fix the problem.
“Auckland is responsible for a third of the country’s economic wealth,” he says. “As the nation’s engine-room Auckland needs to do better if this country is to achieve our potential on the world stage. At the heart of the problem is the fact that Auckland’s economic infrastructure has been left unattended to for far too long. “When we complete the region’s motorway network the wins will be significant.”
And yet Banks admits that there is “not a hope” of completing the network proposals without adequate finance, so where does the vision of an integrated and modern system stand in light of funding troubles – derailed or still on track? “The region’s mayors are collectively committed to completing our transport network and the Government is committed to giving us the tools to finance the $2.4 billion funding shortfall.
“We are working with the Government on specifics and we are working on timeframes. It is my commitment to have all the money bolted down by the end of the third quarter of this year. We are quietly confident the Government will deliver what we need to fix Auckland’s problems.”
Will local government deliver though? No amount of money will fix the local-body bickering that some critics, Banks included, say continues to stall the transport system upgrades and has plagued the Britomart project since its inception.
While the Auckland Regional Transport Network Limited [ARTNL] provides public transport infrastructure like stations and railway lines, the ARC provides the transport services. Local councils have no authority to do anything about the graffiti covered stations or the abysmal scheduling. Banks and Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey say the set-up is simply dysfunctional.
“The more the nightmare goes on with transport and rail the more people will realise it’s not working,” says Harvey. “It’s not working because of the infrastructure around us [the region’s mayors]. We’re not getting the delivery because ARTNL and the ARC cannot agree to agree.”
Banks says all the mayors want ARTNL to take control and run the rail network in and out of Britomart but key players in the ARC pursuing “their own agendas” refuse to relinquish control.
An international consulting company has delivered the region an ambitious draft, aiming to increase train patronage in Auckland from the present 2.24 million journeys a year to 25 million by 2015. Banks says the ARC has yet to approve the plan.
“We have confidence that they [ARTNL] can run it to a world-class standard, but I don’t have any confidence in the long-term transport in Auckland run by the ARC,” says Banks. “I have no confidence that they can deliver and they need one hell of a shake-up – they’ve performed hopelessly.”
Banks adds that, “fortunately”, ARTNL has recently received $22 million of funding from Infrastructure Auckland. That money is to go towards improving signature stations throughout the greater Auckland area, yet it seems that much sorting out lies ahead if passenger rail is to transform the face of transport in and around the region.
That’s what has got residents so riled – as with Britomart there is a massive amount of spending but at the moment it all appears to be superficial. Furthermore, North Shore and Rodney District ratepayers say they are paying for a rail network that doesn’t even service their area. The ARC’s response is that the residents benefit from other public transport projects.
But Harvey was similarly unimpressed, albeit for slightly different reasons, after his first jaunt into the “super station”. In the Herald he wrote of the experience: “I wanted more than what was delivered. I am bitterly unhappy that a great opportunity for a city as dazzling and stylish as Auckland has been lost…” In line with Waitakere’s “eco-city” mandate, he has been an outspoken advocate of light rail.
A spokesman from Harvey’s office says the decision to pursue heavy rail was a “major setback” for Waitakere because diesel-engine trains create excessive noise and particle pollution, in addition to other shortcomings.
“Light rail also offers a safer capacity to run trains on lighter rail through town centres – to shopping complexes and entertainment venues,” says the spokesman.
Having lost the vote on light rail as an option for the region, Waitakere City Council is lobbying ARTNL for electrification and double tracking of the northwest line to improve the speed and reliability of the service.
Banks’ predecessor was also in favour of light rail but the mayor mocks that proposal as having “about as much support as Christine Fletcher had on election-day”.
“Not only was it going to be very expensive but it was also slightly wacky,” says Banks. “A $1.8 billion light rail network across the grid-locked streets of Auckland would have brought the city traffic to a standstill. We have committed to heavy rail, electrification and extending services.”
They may not see eye to eye on the rail network, but Banks and Harvey have a shared consensus on the future of the Whenuapai Airbase when the Air Force moves to Ohakea sometime within the next five years. After the Government announced the closure of the military air facility, Harvey and his counterparts at North Shore (George Wood) and Rodney (John Law) collectively put the hand up to say they wanted the land to establish a second commercial airport. The Auckland City mayor sees merit in the proposal too.
“I am totally committed to maintaining the open space at Whenuapai for future public use, including an airport,” says Banks. “I don’t want to see it carved up into state housing – I don’t want to see a fine open space like that transformed into an urban ghetto. Not that I’m against state housing, but we have so little open space left in this city we need to preserve what we’ve got.”
The Whenuapai Airbase was Auckland’s main airport from 1954 to 1965, before the international airport opened in Mangere. While the runway at the site would not be able to handle anything much larger than a Boeing 737, Harvey and his associates say most of the infrastructure is already in place to cater for domestic and smaller transtasman and Pacific flights.
The standing joke in the city is that it can take longer to drive to Auckland Airport from the North Shore than it takes to fly to Wellington. Harvey is not laughing though, he’s deadly serious.
“Many Aucklanders have had the frustration of having to leave home for any flight from Mangere hours and hours before the actual departure time, simply because there is so much traffic congestion on the road slowing us all up.”
He says a second airport at Whenuapai will offer travellers a faster alternative. Which makes sense if funding can be found for roading plans in the area – new motorway construction proposals, from the northwest of Harvey’s city to the North Shore, run right past the site.
But cutting down commuting time is not the only benefit supporters envisage for a second airport. Late last year Harvey informed a Waitakere City Development Committee of the significance of the airbase as a “strategic asset”. He said its current military operations contribute approximately $60 million to the local and sub-regional economies of the northwest of the greater Auckland area.
Housing Minister Steve Maharey has said the Housing Corporation is negotiating to buy some of the land at the now defunct Hobsonville airbase – waterfront property that locals say is “prime real estate” – for state housing. It’s little wonder then that the mayors are so keen to get their hands on the land at Whenuapai rather than see it similarly carved up into lots by Housing New Zealand as is proposed for the site across the road.
Harvey says the region, as a whole, cannot afford to lose tens of millions of dollars generated by the airbase without it being replaced.
“While the eventual departure of the air force is a significant loss to the economy, it also represents a great opportunity to bring new life into the area,” he says. “The development of a commercial airport at Whenuapai makes sense at so many levels, and Waitakere City looks forward to pursuing this option with both regional and central government support.”
However, shortly after the mayors announced their plan, Michael Cullen said it was unlikely such dreams would get off the ground. Cullen even found an unlikely ally in National Party Helensville MP and Associate Spokesman for Transport and Commerce John Key.
Key published a statement on his website which says: “Living close to an airport sounds like a good idea – unless you are one of the unfortunate homeowners on the flight path, or the project ends up a financial lemon, in which case it could leave a sour taste in ratepayers’ mouths.”
He goes on to suggest that “perhaps Whenuapai Airbase can – and will – be converted into Auckland’s second airport”, but he warns ratepayers of the potential price.
According to Key’s figures, it will cost around $30 million to patch the “worn-out cement slab” runway at Whenuapai – Auckland Airport intends to spend $70 million on its second runway, which is due to be completed in 2006.
“Don’t forget to factor in the other requirements for a modern, commercial airport – efficient terminals, fuel storage, car parks and shops,” adds Key.
Auckland Airport’s 2002 financial figures show its gross income for 2001 was $201 million. A little over a quarter of that was generated by 71,000 plane landings, with the balance made up of parking fees and terminal and commercial property leases.
Key believes that at one-fifth the size of Auckland Airport, Whenuapai is unlikely to be able to reap the same handsome rewards.
“These space constraints will dictate smaller airlines and charter flights, resulting in lower landing fees and fewer passengers for its shops. That spells out a greatly reduced income.
“Whenuapai, as a commercial airport, would create some jobs but not many unless it can challenge Auckland Airport head on and that is unlikely.
“Whenuapai is worth preserving but only as a military airfield, not some second-rate, loss-making commercial folly destined to bleed dry the local ratepayers.”
Any commercial airport at Whenuapai would also need new resource consents for noise, aesthetic and emission pollution, and would likely face strong opposition from neighbouring residents. Although Auckland Airport is situated in an area classified as ‘industrial’, work on the northern runway faced significant delays while submissions were worked through.
Investigate offered Harvey a chance to discuss Key’s claims but the mayor said he was running late for a meeting and could only offer the following brief statement: “John Key believes that the airport is absolutely essential. He’s double dealing here. He is terrified of being fired by his electorate because some people are concerned about the proposal.”
Harvey is confident his hopes haven’t been dashed yet. “It’s very much alive and well, the process has just been slowed somewhat.” A spokesman for the mayor is able to confirm that budget airline Virgin Blue is interested in using Whenuapai as its centre of operations and Infratil, a commercial operator, has a written agreement with Waitakere City Council to run the airport if the Government does approve the venture.
Harvey’s office says the Beehive was expected to announce what will happen to the airbase at the end of July but, because of the debate generated, the decision has been stalled. The outcome is not anticipated until the end of August now.
Whether the region requires another airport or not is clearly a contentious issue, but the result of putting the brakes on Auckland’s infrastructure needs is more clear-cut. One only needs to look to Los Angeles as an example of where we might be headed. The Auckland skyline is crowded with cranes and the region is still experiencing a construction boom. More investment, more jobs, more progress all indicate greater demand is going to be placed on resources already under immense strain.
Auckland already has the second greatest urban sprawl (per capita) in the world, next to LA, and the population of the region continues to expand rapidly. In 20 years’ time the number of cars in Auckland is expected to double – commuting times only seem set to increase.
Residents can gripe about increased rates and in the end the majority will decide if the mayors’ vision for the city is 20/20. But perhaps Aucklanders have to come to terms with the fact that there is a cost associated with living in a large cosmopolitan city because, as Banks suggests, “Doing nothing is no longer an option.”
If fixing Auckland’s economic infrastructure is really the key to unlocking the city’s potential and delivering benefits to the nation, New Zealanders can either embrace the new city and support its development or gamble that the purveyors of gloom have got it wrong.
The first strokes of the surgeon’s scalpel have touched the face of Auckland but anyone who has ever been caught in a clogged arterial jam understands it will take a lot more than a cosmetic makeover to get the city moving again.