Let’s not get pwned by the RoNSter

Save the Basin and Save Kapiti are organising a “Rail Against the Road/Expressway” rally at Parliament on Wednesday July 6th. Save Kapiti’s objectives are:

to deliver a petition to John Key in support of a local two-lane road, an upgrade of SH1 and an upgrade of the rail as opposed to the bulldozing of the ‘Sand Hills’ Road of National Significance (RoNS) through the heart of our district.

While most of us in the Centre might not have strong opinions one way or the other on the proposed Kapiti ‘Sandhills’ scheme (?), the issue is nevertheless an important one for a number of reasons. First of all, being played out here is the age-old conflict between nationally identified objectives against local community interests (or destruction thereof). This, of course, has much resonance with our members. The “Transportation Improvements around the Basin Reserve” project is a central government imposed solution that has massive impact on local communities in Wellington, and as part of the same larger Wellington Northern Corridor project as the Kapiti Expressway, is plagued by the same range of issues, hence the joint rally.

There is much material made available at the websites of both Save the Basin and Save Kapiti, so this post is just an overview of some of the issues with the RoNS phenomenon from our own point of view…

What are RoNS?

RoNS is a delightful acronym for Roads of National Significance – seven Government identified:

…essential state highways that are linked to New Zealand’s economic prosperity. Called the roads of national significance, or RoNS for short, NZTA is charged with delivering these highway projects within the next 10 years.

The basic premise is that roading projects, under previous funding models, were evaluated as one-off projects, adding up to a nation-wide network in only a piecemeal fashion in the absence of an overall strategy. The RoNS project is set up to help balance that by providing a framework to identify and address issues at a national strategic level.

What makes these roads nationally significant? “These are seven of our most essential routes as a country, that require work to reduce congestion, improve safety and support economic growth,” says Transport Minister Steven Joyce.”The purpose of listing roads as “nationally significant” is to allow the government to have input into the development of the land transport programme and the National Infrastructure Plan from a nationwide perspective.”These roads are already very important in their respective regions. We want to signal to the NZ Transport Agency through the Government Policy Statement their significance to the country as a whole.”All seven are the most urgent projects within, or adjacent to, our five largest population centres.

So far so good…

RoNS – Wellington Northern corridor SH1

The RoNS that is the subject of both Save the Basin (StB) and Save Kapiti ire, is the Wellington Northern Corridor (Wellington to Levin). The aim is to develop the whole 110kms of this portion of SH1 to a four lane expressway, in order to:

…unlock economic growth potential regionally and nationally, and deliver a range of benefits including:

  • Support for a growing population: the regional population is expected to increase by 65,000 over the next 20 years, mainly in Wellington City and Kapiti
  • Support for increasing freight volumes in the region: there will be a 50% increase between 2007 and 2017, with the vast majority of movements by truck
  • Improved access to Wellington’s port, CBD, airport and hospital
  • Relief from severe congestion on the state highways and local road networks
  • Improved safety
  • Improved journey time reliability

The corridor is divided into 8 stretches, each section with its own subgroup of projects:

Issues with RoNS – Identification/evaluation

In a nutshell, and as reported by Campaign for Better Transport, the RoNS were identified as strategic infrastructure projects without any studies of economic (or other) benefits prior to their identification. A considerable amount of post-identification rationalisation has occurred since then however, but as both Save the Basin (StB), and Save Kapiti (SK) have pointed out in their respective lists of issues on their websites (here and here), these evaluations are fraught with misconception and error (whether mischievous or otherwise is for others to judge). Chief among these from our point of view, when funding for private transport is played off against public modes of transport, is the higher weighting that is accorded to the value of a motorists travel time against other commuters (40% higher than bus passengers for example). Similarly, NZTA calculations are based on rising traffic volumes in the central Wellington area, when in actual fact, a plateau of total traffic volumes growth has been experienced locally for the past 5 or so years. The list of oversights such as this, not factored into RoNS economic costs and benefits, is alarmingly long for projects that are supposedly of national significance “linked to New Zealand’s economic prosperity”…

The NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development questions the broader RoNs project as well. They note:

Subsequent to approval, the RONS portfolio has been evaluated and is expected to provide benefits in excess of those required to deliver an 8% benchmark rate of return on the basis of revised assumptions including the Wider Economic Benefits such as agglomeration. That analysis did not, however, answer the question of how the individual RONS projects compared with other investment opportunities available.

Their report on Future Freight Solutions (from which the above quote is drawn), complains of parochial and mode-based decision making that does not address issues of transport networks at a holistic level – indicating that this hinders the efficiency of nationwide freight movements, and by extension, NZ business productivity. They also question the variety of different benefit evaluation methodologies that are used to cost the transport projects across the various modes.

The RoNS cost/benefit evaluation is a case in point, where a new methodology of Wider Economic Benefits (WEB) has been utilised, which considerably increases the value/benefits of the selected project by, in some cases 60% over conventional evaluation methods. This makes many of the RoNS much less marginal than they may otherwise have been – yet there is no consistency in applying the WEB methodology to alternatives (which in this case are not even considered) or other projects. I’m reluctant to suggest that this is a cynical method of painting the projects in the best economic light, as it appears that the WEB evaluation methods are based on international best practice – but I for one am no judge on that matter. (It should also be noted that the consultants who prepared that particular evaluation review noted that they were working with some pretty dubious NZTA data…).

Issues with RoNS – Consultation for the Basin Reserve project

In Wellington, the proposal for the Transport improvements around the Basin Reserve project has been the subject of much consideration by NZTA, and their consultants – OPUS – all of it behind closed doors. A technical document was prepared in 2007 by NZTA/OPUS and presented to the Greater Wellington Regional Council during the development of the Ngauranga to Airport transport corridor strategy. This outlines 5 options for dealing with the Basin Reserve, from which the solutions about to be presented in a few days time will be drawn. The GWRC selected the flyover option and presented this to the public for consultation at around the same time. The public, i.e. us, did not get to consult on the unselected options, and nor did we even know that the flyover option was originally selected from more than 10 other options in an even earlier report prepared by Meritec/Maunsell in 2001. (The consultation document shows that submissions were more than 2:1 against the Basin flyover proposal btw).

The RoNS proposal is an elegant way of moving SH1 traffic from the Mt Vic Tunnel to Buckle Street – but only when examined solely from that perspective. The separation of this traffic from north-south local traffic is also, by and large, a positive move for traffic efficiency (and flow on effects for reduced commuter times, reduced emissions, etc). But there are bigger issues that need to come to the fore in the upcoming consultation – if you can call it that when we are presented with a careful selection of 2 schemes from a much bigger range that we do not know the full details of. This is a nationally imposed ‘solution’ to a problem that may not even exist (given that congestion is not a problem yet, and that highway and general car usage in the city have plateaued – i.e. the Basin is not yet at ‘capacity’ and on current trends will not be in the foreseeable future). So those and other ‘benefits’ need to be weighed up against much more important things in the local context: issues of elevated road traffic noise; visual impacts; community severance, which is also linked to public health, and is of vital importance at this site given the number of schools local in the immediate vicinity; overshadowing; environmental sustainability; integration of walking, cycling, and public transport networks; and not to mention the status of the Basin Reserve itself as a special area. The list is much longer than this of course.

We will be presented with 2 relatively well-developed ‘solutions’, for which consultation will be too late to make substantial changes to – the consultation will therefore be analysed in terms of which is the most popular option (I’m guessing) – both of which are flyovers, of course. That is somewhat of a Clayton’s choice if you ask me, given the plethora of options already withdrawn before comment can be made. It is patronising to say the least, and at worst, antidemocratic.

Which brings me back, finally, to the Rail against the Road rally at Parliament next week. I can imagine that its organisers are hoping to raise awareness of these, and other associated issues, by getting media coverage at the rally. This is important, because we need as many people to make submissions during the Basin consultation period (beginning this Saturday), as possible – it is, after all, the only chance we’ve had, and the only one we will get to have our say.

And remember too, it is an election year. While RoNS do address a need for national strategic thinking (although it should be TNoNS – transportation networks of national significance, if you ask me), they can only be an epic fail if they do not acknowledge local conditions at the individual/specific project level. Four lanes from Levin to Wellington is a wonderful sound-bite, an ‘achievement’ that Steven Joyce may be able to point to in the future as having made his mark on the country (especially in election years I guess) – but exactly what form that ‘mark’ makes on local communities is also of great importance, and must be balanced alongside of national strategic interests.

It may not garner as many votes, but an undesirable urban fabric is a mark of much longer permanence than this or that politician.


10 responses to “Let’s not get pwned by the RoNSter”

  1. Addendum:
    The Meritec/Maunsell proposal, which presented 10 or so options as early as 2001 (of which only a select few were presented to the public), is now available online here:
    http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/basin-reserve/publications.html (see from ch.7)…

    There were also other options explored in a Design by Workshop session, also now available online here: http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/basin-reserve/docs/basin-reserve-options-report.pdf

    We have to give NZTA some credit for making this available, even if we haven’t been given the opportunity to comment on these options…

    There are a whole bunch more reports on the basin proposal here: http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/basin-reserve/publications.html

  2. Thanks m-d : a veritable treasure trove of info.
    And thanks also to the NZTA for making this stuff available.
    Some excellent info – a lot of bed-time reading…

  3. […] issues have been well summarised by the Architectural Centre: Being played out here is the age-old conflict between nationally identified objectives against […]

  4. Crikey – not only are the projects wildly ‘unprofitable’ according to old-school BCR analysis, but we simply can’t afford them:

    Joyce wants to further increase our fuel taxes to raise money for this monstous boondoggle, at a time when the govt. is urging fiscal restraint upon us all…

  5. Stephen Avatar

    Have you been to auckland recently?

    Any money spent on roads in Wellington is small change compared to the development up there.

    You might say would you want to live in Auckland? Well when the only jobs are up there, we wont have a choice.

  6. At least a higher proportion is being earmarked for for public transport for a change…

  7. “Fuel tax and road-user charges are set to rise as the Government looks for more cash to iron out kinks in commuter rail networks and to fund a “tide” of new highway projects. … Transport Minister Steven Joyce yesterday released the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport Funding 2012 which details plans to invest about $36 billion over the next 10 years in state highways, local roads, public transport road policing and road safety promotion. But the new plan increases spending over the initial three years, beginning in July next year. Money available for public transport services rises by $140 million to help support the upgrade and expansion of the metro rail systems in Auckland and Wellington. Funding for new and improved state highways increases by $125 million to further support the state highway improvement programme including the seven Roads of National Significance such as the Puhoi to Wellsford highway.

    The Ministry of Transport said that to fund the investment plan, the Government would likely have to increase fuel tax and road-user charges.”


  8. Wish I’d seen this when I wrote this post, as it delivers the evidence (and then some more), of the issues of which I could only speculate. Rod Oram is a pretty respectable commentator on economic matters too.

    Very worthwhile reading to understand why this government isn’t as serious (or competent perhaps?), about our fiscal situation as they might appear to be in public debates…

  9. I don’t know why people always have problem with everything. They always complain. You go right – wrong. You turn left is even worst….Cannot understand.
    Anyway – thank you for good content. Lot of reading. Wainintg for more.

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