11 Feb 2018

Tunnel vision on bridge to nowhere

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 11 February 2018

No-one has seriously proposed a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel for more than a century - and no expert says one is feasible now. So why was it suddenly front page news this week?​

An inter-island link suddenly surges onto the front page of the capital's daily.

An inter-island link suddenly surges onto the front page of the capital's daily. Photo: screenshot

The UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson hit the headlines in Europe last month when he suddenly suggested a bridge to link England and France.

The English channel already has underground rail tunnels, but The Daily Telegraph (for which Boris himself was once deputy editor) applauded the idea.

“The Foreign Secretary said it was ridiculous that two of the world’s biggest economies are linked by a single railway,” said the Telegraph in a front page lead story which neglected to mention the comprehensive air and sea services operating round the clock too.

Boris Johnson has form for rashly backing major building projects which come to nothing, and the British media quoted all sorts of experts knocking down the ‘Boris Bridge’ idea.

How the 'Boris Bridge' excited the Telegraph last month.

How the 'Boris Bridge' excited the Telegraph last month. Photo: screenshot

The Times in London even cited Cook Strait as one reason it would not work.

“The Cook Strait separating the North and South Islands is surrounded by mountains that create a river of wind that tears through 'Windy Wellington', said to be the windiest city in the world,” said The Times.   

But this week, some media here enthusiastically ran with the idea of a bridge or tunnel across Cook Strait even though the story that got the ball rolling was little more than an idea.

"A Cook Strait bridge? Really? - asked The Dominion Post on Wednesday.   

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said fault lines under the sea would probably rule it out.   

"Wow, this is a hugely ambitious and audacious idea," his opposition counterpart Judith Collins told Stuff.

"Where would be the fun of a Cook Strait pie in the middle of a howling gale though?"

But a University of Canterbury engineering professor said bluntly a bridge was not possible.

Stuff's Julian Lee then went on to explore the possibility of a tunnel.  

He estimated one would cost $38 billion based on the cost of Auckland’s Waterview tunnel, though that was not under the sea and an NZTA spokesman told him using the Waterview budget was probably not helpful.

After asking Treasury, Julian Lee concluded half the country's capital allowances for transport over the next four years might not even get a tunnel from Wellington into the water - let alone across it.

The engineering professor said a submerged floating tunnel in the sea could work in principle, but no-one had ever built one that big before.  

"To the best of our knowledge there's never been a serious feasibility study of a Cook Strait tunnel - nor has there been a need for it," the unnamed NZTA spokesman went on to tell Stuff

In other words, that bold attention-grabbing headline above the fold in the Dominion Post really could have read:  

"A Cook Strait bridge - or tunnel? Not really, no . . ."

The right time? Infrastructure NZ's Stephen Sellwood on TVNZ's 'Breakfast' says: "No"

The right time? Infrastructure NZ's Stephen Sellwood on TVNZ's 'Breakfast' says: "No" Photo: screenshot / TVNZ

But even though no expert says the idea is feasible let alone affordable, and no politician has mentioned it since 'King Dick' Seddon in 1904, Stuff’s Julian Lee certainly succeeded in getting it on the media’s radar.

On Newstalk ZB on Wednesday afternoon, Larry Williams talked to Grant McLachlan, a planning specialist who said a tunnel could be built for a guesstimate of $15 billion.

The Project on Three followed up with an interview with Stuff's Julian Lee and the following morning, Infrastructure NZ chief Stephen Sellwood told TVNZ’s Breakfast there is no business case for a tunnel or a bridge.

Julian Lee’s story for Stuff claimed “untold billions could be saved in shipping and flying costs” and there would also be “an immense increase in traffic between the two islands.”

And 'traffic' might just explain his story’s prominence.

It was one of Stuff.co.nz’s most shared stories last Wednesday, and it generated hundreds of back-and-forth online comments - though some were from those who felt it wasn't really news at all.

"I just wasted around 20 minutes reading this article and the comments associated with it... Now I wish I'd just re-watched the episode of the Simpsons where a developer convinces them it’s a good idea to build a monorail, " wrote Norman Hopswitch.

"Julian. Why are you wasting your time thinking about this?" asked The Project's guest host Mark Richardson, pouring cold Cook Strait water on the idea. 

He could have asked the same question of the Project, Stuff, Newstalk ZB and TVNZ's Breakfast.