The costs are staggering – $1.4 billion for the Waterview tunnel, and, if it goes ahead, $1.8b for the east-west link. Sorting out Auckland’s congestion issues is thorny, fraught, and can only get more difficult from here. The Auckland Council’s chief economist says all the easy jobs have been done.

David Norman says we need to get smarter about transport, with NZTA estimating road congestion is costing Aucklanders between $250 million and $1.25 billion a year. 

Norman’s views align with transport experts who got together last month to toss ideas around. Get Aucklanders to get on a bus or a train and fund more public transport; more T3 lanes; work flexibility to stagger rush hours; get businesses to think outside the city boundaries when looking at locations; increase city parking charges. The council is investing heavily in tackling the problem through the Auckland Smarter Transport Pricing Project. But one measure Norman personally doesn’t want to see more of is extra lanes on existing roads. 

All that does, he says, is create the space for more cars. “Induced demand” involved with adding capacity means that not only would drivers continue to take their cars, some would even start using their cars because the trip becomes easier. 

In Auckland there are physical challenges with this approach too. “Geography makes it increasingly difficult and costly to add motorway capacity. Land availability constraints mean that engineering costs are escalating as most ‘easy’ roading projects have already been completed. And because roads are funded by both the taxpayer and the ratepayer, we are subject to competing demands for roading in other parts of the country as well,” Norman says in his latest commentary on the Auckland economy

So why are we bothering with massive projects, which in the case of the east-west link is causing huge angst over its scope, cost, and the effect it will have on Onehunga’s revitalised amenities?

Norman tells Newsroom that’s a different case, and he thinks the project is needed. Both Waterview and the east-west link are strategic, he says; the east-west link aimed at freight movement rather than cars. Yes, they are both massively expensive, and any other such large-scale projects are likely to be even more so. But he asks: “Is there anything strategic left to do? Costs are spiralling.

“If it was easy and cheap we would have done it already.”

One of the key factors for Norman in the NZTA’s east-west plan is that it allows for light rail to the airport in the future. 

Norman says this is not a veiled threat that extra highway lanes are off the council’s agenda. “My views are not necessarily those of the Auckland Council. My job is to provide objective, even-handed contestable advice … to think of things from an economist’s perspective.

“I’m not saying that no roads should be built but in my view, simply adding more lanes endlessly is not smart. It’s counter to what we are trying to achieve.” 

Incentivising drivers to get off the road is also tricky, and can’t be done without providing the good public transport to step into once you step out of your vehicle – a chicken and egg situation.

“We could place T3 lanes on every road and make it so unbelievably difficult for commuters to get around, but that would be horrific,” he says. The good news is that passenger numbers in Auckland have tripled over the last decade, but “we need Aucklanders to take a leap of faith”, he says. 

“We are putting that money in but you need to help us out.” Fares form just a small proportion of revenue. 

The net deficit on public transport operations for the 2016 -17 year is expected to be $323 million, or $200 per Aucklander. 

“The more support Aucklanders show for public transport use, the more we will be able to deliver in future,” he says. 

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