Monday, June 25, 2012

Are Engineers & NZTA collaborating to 'gold-plate' roading projects?

Today a constituent complained to me about the $4.5M cost of removing a roundabout in front to Hamilton's 'The Base' and replacing it with a full traffic-signalled intersection. His complaint is quite justified, and I replied....
   In this case, both myself and one or two other Councillors suggested 'ramp metering' on the current roundabout, rather than the full, expensive signalised intersection. However, our traffic engineers, in their wisdom, have agreed with    NZTA's traffic engineers (who have masses of experience and never cock anything up) that the only solution is the gold-plated one.
   Interestingly, a number of people, including Councillors, raised the need for a signalised intersection here right back near the start of The Base – however the collected wisdom of the traffic engineers said this was not necessary at the time (when it would have been both cheaper and more affordable). 
   On our Council, with its current structures (including the disbanding the Transport & Infrastructure Committees), we do not usually have the expertise or focus to convince the majority of Councillors that the engineers are not necessarily right. An added complication is that on a number of occasions, NZTA has said to us – so our staff report – that their subsidy for roading works (I was going to say 'transport works' but remembered roads are the only part of transport NZTA funds nowdays) is only available if HCC agrees to go with the gold-plated solution. The general line from NZTA is "Have we got a deal for you!" or something similar.
   Needless to say, Councillors who are not so familiar with transport issues (which is most of us now, under the current structure) feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and end up agreeing to go with NZTA and our traffic engineers, with what they consider to be the only deal on the table.
   You might be interested to know that it is not just The Base intersection where we are contemplating spending megabucks to achieve a gold-plated roading solution, when something lesser would do, at least for some time:
  • Extension of Wairere Drive south from Ruakura Rd to Cobham Drive – 3 or more years ahead of schedule: for 12 years Council has had a policy that we don't support completing the ring road (this is the last section) until the Hamilton Bypass on the Expressway is completed – because we don't want Wairere Drive, an internal city road designed for city traffic – to be used as a de factor state highway for through traffic (like Avalon Drive was for many years). Our staff tell us that NZTA is refusing to guarantee the normal subsidy for this stretch of the road unless we start it immediately the section through to Ruakura Rd is completed (next year) - this is at least 3 years ahead of schedule.
  • 4-laning of Wairere Drive from River Rd to Resolution Drive – this may become necessary when Resolution Drive is hooked up to the Expressway via exit and entry ramps near Horsham Downs (and a significant increase in traffic entering the city from the north happens). But this work (which Council may have to pay towards) is not in our 10 year plan for construction at all, yet staff are planning to expand Wairere Drive in this area next year, and have told me that NZTA have agreed to provide their subsidy for other parts of Wairere Drive only on the basis that this work is part of the deal. With the new traffic lights being installed at River Rd/Wairere Dr intersection, it is not necessary at this stage to expand the road east of there.

But then who am I to question the engineers?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why your elected reps NEED to be in the kitchen!

Wairere Dr soon to look like
this, say HCC engineers
   The latest demonstration of the need for elected Hamilton City Councilllors to get involved in the details of important projects occurred last week, when engineering staff told us that they not only disagreed with using the new lanes on Wairere Drive/Pukete Rd, during peak times, as bus or 'transit' lanes (where users must have at least 2 people in the vehicle), but that they had NEVER raised this with NZTA, who are subsidising the work.
   Councillors had asked management for over 2 years to ensure they had a timely discussion on this matter – well before the contract was even let for the current work, but are now being told by HCC engineers that the job has nearly finished and the road is about to open, with no work being done of the bus or transit lane proposal.

   The irony is that HCC has a transport strategy - Access Hamilton - that previous Councils consulted heavily over, and that NZTA claims is 'best practice' in NZ - that calls for more bus priority measures on our roads - and generally a better deal for public and active transport.
   HCC management continues to assure us that engineers are not determining Council policies, and that elected members really do have the chance to make decisions on key transport issues – but their response inevitably calls into question who is actually running the show.
   Without the Transport Committee, that most larger Councils have (and HCC used to have) overseeing the implementation of our policies, including high-level designs for this particular project, the engineers and their NZTA funders are indulging in a road-building orgy that works against Council's own transport strategy, and will help doom the city to worse congestion in the future. 
   I have no issue with Council democratically deciding on a course of action that may not be what I personally think should happen – however I have a massive problem with staff not putting a key issue before the elected wing – when it has been asked to do so.

   I also have a massive problem with staff implying, as they have done this time, that matters are already decided and cannot be unwound – being presented with fait accomplis does not lead to good governance.
   Its time to get back into the kitchen!