Former Air New Zealand CEO and new National MP Christopher Luxon drew a prickly response from the Government’s “Mr Fixit”, Sir Brian Roche, yesterday when he accused him of “band-aiding and number eight wiring solutions” to Auckland’s Harbour Bridge problems.
Luxon’s clash with Roche came at a Select Committee as National’s former leader Simon Bridges was himself clashing with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in another Committee room.
Bridges is widely believed within the National caucus to be backing Luxon to replace Judith Collins as National Leader.
Bridges has attacked Coster, calling him a “wokester” but asked yesterday about Leader Judith Collins’ objection to the term said he only got tellings off from one person, and that was his wife.
It was a not very subtle putdown of Collins.
Meanwhile, Luxon was pushing Roche, who is Waka Kotahi (New Zealand Transport Agency) chair, over Auckland’s Harbour Bridge, an issue bound to win support from core National Party members in the city.
He established that trucks are likely to be restricted on the bridge over the next 20 years because the limit to strengthening it has now been reached.
But work has hardly begun on designing a second harbour crossing which would take some load off it, and there is no date for a new crossing’s construction.
Instead, the only alternative to the bridge will be the western ring road round the Upper Harbour.
This emerged at a meeting of Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee yesterday.
Luxon told Roche that his answers to his questions about the bridge sounded like “band-aiding and number eight wiring solutions.”
“And we haven’t had enough strategic thinking to get onto the important and the long term in a proper planned way that you might say and Singapore or Denmark,” he said.
Roche responded with a prickly “look, that is a view you might hold.”
“I think we would say that we’ve got a very, very productive asset in the form of the bridge,” he said.
“We’ve built in recent years and enhanced currently the major roading alternative.
“We are in no form of denial that we need to find the next big strategic piece of infrastructure, which is going to be the crossing that’s been kicked around by successive governments.
“It’s something that actually we really are committed to because a decision deferred is not a good decision. Not at all.”
Luxon began the debate by asking Roche about advice given in November to the Transport Minister, saying further strengthening of the bridge was no longer possible and that the structural integrity would likely require some restrictions.
“Are we really saying that we’re going to be banning trucks on the bridge over the next 20 years since we have no plans for a second harbour crossing?” he asked.
Brett Glidden, General Manager Transport Services, NZTA, said what that meant was that the bridge has gone through a couple of rounds of strengthening.
“And the reason why no further strengthening can happen is that the dead load of putting more steel into the bridge is too much,” he said.
“And that takes out the ability to have a live load, which is vehicles running on it.
“So we believe with the strengthened as much as we possibly can, we can not add more steel.
“In the end, it won’t help us; it just is counterproductive.
“We will have to manage live loads, which are vehicles on the bridge, into the future, whether that results in restrictions to heavy vehicles, that that’s one option.
“But there could be other options around how you manage that; times of day that heavy vehicles are more common than at other times of the day.
“So it will just need active managing.
“We haven’t made any decisions, and it’s not about to happen in the next 12 or 18 months.”
Luxon replied that we didn’t have a cost or timing plan for a second harbour crossing.
“We are talking about a world-class city supposedly being shut down because some guy crashed a truck into a bridge, and everyone’s told for two weeks don’t worry just work from home come over on the ferries or whatever.
“It’s all a bit Mickey Mouse.
“So what is the plan?
“You talk about Plan B, Plan C, but it all feels a bit hokey.”
Glidden said it was important to remember that NZTA had just spent $2 billion building the western ring road, which was intended as an alternative to the bridge.
But it has its problems.
“What we saw when the Harbour Bridge was down even with the Western Ring Road in place, which gave us a viable alternate route for heavy vehicles, was that it put the network in Auckland under stress,” he said.
“We had a few issues on the Western Ring Road, and we knew that we’d lost capacity.
“But if we hadn’t had the Western Ring Road, we would have been in a lot worse situation than what we were.
“So managing the bridge and maintaining it so that we can continue to use it indefinitely is the first thing having the Western Ring Road in place. And then planning work for the additional harbour crossing is the second.
“So we’re doing a lot.”
But that planning has barely begun.
Luxon asked how much a second crossing might cost.
“Several billion,” said Glidden.
It would likely be the country’s most expensive ever infrastructure project, more costly than Auckland’s Central Rail Link or the proposed Auckland light rail.
Roche said that it hadn’t even been decided what transport modes would be accommodated by a second crossing.
“A whole lot of work has confirmed that one of the key parts of this second harbour crossing is going to be public transport,” said Glidden.
“We have got to do further work on what form of public transport that will be.
And then what supporting network on the North Shore is needed to support that crossing.
“So that work is going to happen this year.
“And then there’s going to be some decisions on form timing and financing of that.”
ACT MP James McDowall said the last time he was in Hong Kong; he had a look at the bridge and tunnel network between Hong Kong and Macao.
“Now that took eight years to build fifty-five kilometres of bridges and tunnels crossing it,” he said.
“How long do you think you can have a crossing constructed in Auckland?”
Roche said that would be whatever amount of time allowed the project to be executed safely.
“But I think we haven’t agreed to do one yet,” he said.
“Will we be quicker than in Hong Kong? That would be an objective.”
“It’s a smaller distance,” said Glidden.
“For a project like that, we will use international expertise.
“We won’t just be building this with New Zealanders; it will require people who have done this round the world.”
One of Collins’ first policies after becoming leader last July was to begin work on a second harbour crossing within the decade.
She didn’t define what “begin work” might mean, but her putative leadership challenger, Christopher Luxon, has obviously decided this is an issue that he can gain political capital on.