Len Brown is determined to commit Auckland to building a hugely expensive railway tunnel even though no independent and objective economic analysis has been made on the merits of the tunnel and whether or not alternative developments that do not concentrate on the city centre at the expense of other centres, would be better. If this is true, then the Council have neglected their obligation to investigate and evaluate all options before they decide upon a plan for Auckland. Given the enormous amount of expenditure involved, this amounts to a serious dereliction of their duties.
Overseas research on in many urban rail systems reveals that the average cost overrun is 45% and the number of passengers is half the predicted amount. Has the economics of the Auckland tunnel been tested against 45% higher costs and half the passengers? If not, why not?
At best, the railway tunnel will serve only a very small fraction of Auckland’s population and at a huge cost. Right now, ratepayers subsidise 80% of the cost of every train fare. If the tunnel costs USD4.5 million it will need to recover at least $450 million in fares every year for capital repayment and operating expenses. If, as hoped, there are 20 million rail trips every year, it works out at an extra $22.5 per rail trip – whether or not they use the tunnel!
The Council planners are totally unaware of the imminent revolution in personal transport that will be brought about by self-guided cars, taxis and buses. By the time the tunnel is built it will be possible to buy a self-guided car that will allow twice the traffic density on roads and reduce accidents by 50% or more. It will also be possible to call up a driverless taxi or minibus by cellphone to take you where you want to go. These advances will make suburban passenger trains obsolete. For those who think that this is is the stuff of dreams, it is now possible to buy a car that, in a traffic jam, will follow the car ahead.
This technological advance, combined with telecommuting (working from home and using the Internet to communicate) will have a huge effect on commuting and the shape of future cities. The Council should be up to speed with this imminent revolution. I am sure it is not.
To a large degree, the Unitary Plan is based on a blind belief that it is wrong to let the city spread and intensification is the only option. This is simply not true. There are large areas of low value agricultural land to the north, west and south of Auckland and much of it is already allocated for “lifestyle blocks” that contribute nothing to the agricultural economy. So the Council argument that the city must not spread because it would deprive us of valuable agricultural land is nonsense.
The Unitary Plan concentrates development in the central isthmus which is already crowded and includes the volcanic area. The Council has ignored the lesson from Christchurch that you should not keep all your assets in one place. Most of the isthmus is well-established suburbs with perfectly good houses, trees, gardens and lawns that are environmentally friendly and support large populations of birds and bees. The Unitary Plan will demolish most of these houses and gardens and substitute blocks of flats that will increase demand for parking, roads, schools, power and water supply, drainage and the like. Expanding infrastructure in an established suburb is far more expensive and environmentally damaging than building new low cost houses on greenfield developments. Few people realise that, per square metre of floor area, multi-storey buildings cost more than a single story house.
People will demolish good houses only if land values are extremely high and the rates make a single house on a section unaffordable. The council has chosen to ration land and, as a result Auckland houses and the land they stand on costs seven times the average income. In many prosperous and liveable cities overseas, the cost is only three times the average income. Virtually all of the low-cost cities have flexible urban boundaries and town planners whose objective is to help people live how and where they want. This is what we could do.
The Unitary Plan will make personal transport unaffordable for poor people and this will make it extremely difficult for them to take their families to the beach or parks or out into the bush. The social effects will be enormous.
Auckland can pour vast amounts of money into city centre development in the hope of getting enough passengers to justify a railway tunnel, or the city can spread and develop satellite centres so that people can live in affordable houses and work in the same area. If houses are cheap, then it will be easy for people to move in order to be close to the work or the schools they prefer.
Before any action is taken on the Unitary Plan and the tunnel, the ratepayers of Auckland should demand that an independent and objective study is done on the social, environmental and economic benefits of allowing the city to spread compared with intensification. Nothing is more important.