Tunnel Vision

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
11 August, 2023

Another week, another transport policy announcement.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and freshly-minted Transport Minister David Parker released the Government’s preferred option for a second Auckland harbour crossing. 

Their “bold plan for Auckland’s future” comprises two three-lane road tunnels under the Waitematā, and a separate 21km light rail tunnel linking the project to the existing Auckland Light Rail corridor. 

Waka Kotahi calculates that the plan would cost between $35 and $45 billion, which would make it the most expensive infrastructure project ever undertaken in New Zealand. Construction is slated for 2029, or so we are told.

While the Government’s plan for Auckland is undoubtedly aspirational, it is also deeply flawed – and it raises fundamental questions about how New Zealand approaches megaprojects.

The lack of detail is troubling. For example, we still do not know how Government intends to fund and finance the project, nor do we have a clear explanation for why the most expensive option was selected. In fact, it is not even clear that Auckland needs a second crossing – that has simply been assumed. 

Astonishingly, Minister Parker has said that Waka Kotahi will report back to Cabinet next year with specifics.

That is unacceptable. After all, this is a multi-decade transport plan for New Zealand’s largest city that comes with an enormous price tag. It is not unreasonable to expect a business case before an announcement of such magnitude.

The Government has promised the world yet offered little in the way of substance.

Take the light rail component of the Government’s plan. At $27 billion for 21km of tunnel – nearly $1.3 million per meter – you would want to be darn sure that the benefit-cost-ratio was greater than 1. Yet, we currently have no way of assessing how it stacks up. That’s quite the leap of faith.

Just as concerning is the misguided belief that New Zealand can simply build its way out its infrastructure dilemma.

A better approach would emphasise how we can extract greater value from our existing network. That might mean congesting charging, for example. If charging helps to clear traffic, then that second crossing suddenly does not seem so necessary.

It is perhaps wishful thinking to expect sensible solutions to Auckland’s transport woes in election year. That said, the cynicism and puffery of the Government’s latest offering is something to behold. Aucklanders, and indeed New Zealand as a whole, deserve better.

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