Gareth Hughes

Holiday highway or a new rail link for Northport?

by Gareth Hughes

I had an awesome trip to Whangarei on Monday. I drove up there for 2 reasons. First, I wanted to look at the part of State Highway 1, from Puhoi to Wellsford, which the government is keen to spend $1.4 billion on upgrading. Second, I was keen to promote the idea of a new rail line out to Northport to the local newspaper, the Northern Advocate.

Puhoi to Wellsford – a waste of money

Keith’s blogged before and I had the Minister of Transport up about it that Puhoi to Wellsford has one of the weakest economic cases of any of the big motorway upgrades the government is funding right now. In fact, it has a Benefit Cost Ratio of 0.8 which means that for every $1 we spend on the project we’ll only get $0.80 cents of economic benefits back. In other words uneconomic.

The main reason Puhoi to Wellsford has such a poor business case is that there really aren’t enough cars using SH1 in this area to justify such a major upgrade. The New Zealand Transport Agency’s data shows only about 9,000 vehicles drive along SH1 past Puhoi per day. The road only gets really congested on long weekends – hence it’s nickname “the holiday highway”.

Big trucks on windy, steep roads

Driving up from Puhoi to Wellsford what I saw agreed with NZTA’s data. At no point was the road seriously congested. The only area where we experienced a slight delay was around Warksworth. However, what I did notice is that parts of this road – like Dome Valley – are very steep and windy. There are a lot of heavy trucks and not many passing lanes so, as a former boy racer, I can understand why people might get frustrated and try to pass in risky places.

SH1 between Puhoi to Wellsford has a poor safety record. But rather than taking 10 years and a billion dollars plus to build an entirely new highway I’d suggest a cheaper, quicker and more effective solution for Northlanders would be to put a small bypass around Warkworth and do some safety upgrades to the rest of the road.

A rail link to North Port would take trucks off the road

Regionally, I believe the most effective project to enhance safety and reduce congestion on SH1 is a new rail line out to the port. The government should prioritize funding to help the Northland Regional Council complete a rail link from Oakleigh, on the Auckland-Northland rail line, out to Northport at Marsden Point.

The dotted black line shows the path of the proposed rail line

As you can see from the map above there is currently no rail line out to the port. Instead any rail freight has to be off-loaded and driven for 15 kms. Building a rail line out to the port would make SH1 safer as it would help take big, heavy freight trucks off the road. Since trucks do a lot of damage to road surfaces it would also probably cut down on the need for road maintenance.

Since Ports of Auckland can’t grow much larger (without taking over Party Central) I think it makes sense to send more of our bulky cargo which isn’t time dependent up to North Port – where they have plenty of space to store it.

This project was costed in 2007 at about $120 million. That includes  doing some much needed maintenance on the existing rail line from Auckland to Northland and lowering train tunnels to fit larger, modern containers onto the track. To me it makes more sense than spending $1.4 billion on a holiday highway. What do you think?

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Gareth Hughes on Wed, May 19th, 2010   

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