15 Jun 2022

Auckland councillor appalled at national cycleway project blowouts

5:49 am on 15 June 2022

An Auckland councillor says she's "appalled" at cycleway project mismanagement by Waka Kotahi fuelling cost blowouts.

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Photo: 123rf.com

This comes as the price tag on the agency's two dozen projects nationwide has risen to almost half a billion dollars, $100m above original estimates.

Cycling advocates are calling for more transparency and for NZTA to stop inflating the budgets with spending that should come out of state highway funds.

Rising costs are forcing the Transport Agency to pick which projects to go with and which to put off until after 2024.

A spreadsheet released under the OIA to RNZ shows eight of its 24 projects have major cost creep, most notably:

  • Bayfair to Baypark link in Tauranga, original estimate $12m; approved funds now $33m
  • Two Gisborne projects $1.5m; $4.7m
  • Dunedin-Port Chalmers $26m; $43m
  • Hamilton-Cambridge $8m; $11m
  • Petone-Melling $17m; $63m
  • Petone-Ngauranga $182m; $192m (under review)

One of the 24 projects dropped in cost significantly; Glenn Innes to Tāmaki Drive fell by a hefty $11m after tenders came in lower than expected.

Rising construction costs and Covid-19 are big factors, though the OIA information reveals other budget-breaking factors are also in play.

Poor planning and execution has bedevilled the Petone-to-Melling project, according to internal reports released to RNZ.

Auckland councillor and chair of its regulatory committee, Linda Cooper worries the funding shortfalls will cut into joint council-NZTA cycle projects. She had her confidence in NZTA rocked "now that I've heard this", she said.

"I was appalled at the poor planning, you know, who signed these off at the board and why were they not asking questions?" Cooper said.

"I mean, some of those figures are gobsmacking.

"I just thought, 'How could anybody, you know, experienced people - planning and project managers - putting a business case together, do such a bad job?'

"One of the worst things about it is that it then feeds into the anti-cycling lobby that are saying, 'It's a waste of money and why are we doing it?'."

The spreadsheet also reveals that at the Gisborne-Wainui path, planners initially left out quality assurance costs, as they had done at Petone-Melling.

At Hamilton to Cambridge, they significantly underestimated the cost of a bridge (now turned into an underpass).

At Bayfair, a complex, busy intersection, NZTA was pressured by local people to put in a costly underpass.

At Dunedin, just in April another $10.5m was put in to cover "reclamation, unforeseen ground conditions, temporary level crossings ... plus KiwiRail costs".

Taxpayers' Union's Josh Van Veen said the golden glow of promise around cycleways had been deflecting proper scrutiny.

"What it is means in practice is that a lot of policymakers, politicians, just haven't done their due diligence.

"We should be holding cycleways to the same standard as any other infrastructure that we pour millions of dollars into," Van Veen said.

The group Doctors for Active, Safe Transport said the country was only just learning how to build cycleways efficiently, and must persevere.

The Petone-Melling blowout showed the pitfalls, said spokesperson, specialist Wellington physician David Tripp said.

"As often happens when you're retrofitting stuff, you dig a small hole and you find you've got to dig a big hole.

"And no one knew that at the time," Tripp said.

"And that's the case with many cycle projects simply because you're trying to retrofit ... existing infrastructure."

Ongoing cost blowouts on road building roads were much worse, he said.

"The cost of doing things other than cycle projects is enormously bigger."

More transparency around the rising costs from NZTA would help waylay unjustified pushback, when the country really had no choice, he said.

Both Tripp and the Green Party said cycleway budgets were being falsely inflated by adding in things that did not belong there.

The party's transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said one example was the seawalls the Petone-to-Ngauranga path will need, even though these primarily protected the rail line and SH2.

"That should be funded from the state highways activity class, which is enormous," Genter said.

She had fought Waka Kotahi on this when she was Associate Transport Minister, but nothing had changed.

"It's outrageous, that walking and cycling projects are being put at risk of not being funded, because some of these projects that are really about state highways are not being funded from state highways activity class."

Cooper said Auckland Transport, which has joint cycle projects with Waka Kotahi, had her confidence - though she aimed to take a closer look at it because public confidence in it was not what it should be.

Waka Kotahi said some cycle and walk paths are paid for from state highways, local roads or safety funding as part of bigger projects. The overall budget for cycling and walking was $910m for 2021-24.

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