Roads of National Significance

Categories: Engineering and science.

More money than ever before is being spent on the nation’s main roads in the name of economic growth and improved productivity.

The Roads of National Significance programme (RONS) is tangible evidence of the National-led Government’s commitment to upgrading transport infrastructure, particularly where this can remove barriers or accelerate economic growth.

The RONS emerged in 2009 in a government policy statement which made two important changes to the previous Labour-led Government’s policy. One was that economic efficiency would become more important in determining the selection of roading projects. The second was a change in the discount rate used to evaluate infrastructure projects. The discount rate dropped from 10 per cent to eight per cent, a move which would show more projects making a positive contribution to the economy.

The National Government’s policy statement also changed the transport policy objectives. One of Labour’s objectives was that transport should “assist economic development”, and it favoured rail over road transport. National’s policy objectives are explicitly about promoting economic development and efficiency by removing bottlenecks and assisting mobility. Users are free to select their preferred mode of transport.

The Minister of Transport, the Hon. Steven Joyce, says our state highway network – and RONS in particular – are a crucial part of New Zealand’s growth strategy.

“The seven Roads of National Significance are designed to tackle the biggest bottlenecks on these high volume highways for the benefit of the whole country.”

The new state highway classification system (released in June 2011) found that just 714 kilometres of road, making up 6.5 per cent of the state highway network and less than one per cent of the total road network, carry 35 per cent of vehicle kilometres on state highways, and 17 per cent of total kilometres travelled on the whole roading network.

Colin Crampton, NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) Group Manager Highways and Network Operations, says potential RONS were prioritised using three criteria.

The score under each criterion and the total score led to the overall priority order for investment under the NZTA’s Investment and Revenue Strategy.

The “strategic fit” criterion relates to alignment of the project to the Government’s key priorities of economic growth, safer journeys and value for money.

“In the classification of all the country’s state highways the most important in terms of function were classed as national strategic routes and attracted the highest strategic fit score. Remote rural roads have the lowest.

“The second criterion is “effectiveness”, which is about the project’s connections to the regional strategies of the region in question. Projects that are well planned and integrated and support appropriate land use planning are given the highest priority.

“The Tauranga Eastern Link is a good example. It improves connectivity between inland North Island and the Port of Tauranga, and also promotes regional and commercial growth in accordance with the region’s growth strategy.”

The third criterion is “efficiency” – basically the benefit cost ratio. “The higher the better,” Mr Crampton says.

He accepts that a discount rate of eight per cent tends to favour short run projects. However, a reduction from 10 per cent makes a difference as “large infrastructure projects tend to provide significant benefits in the longer term”.

Environmentalists argue that encouraging road transport will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, but Mr Crampton says there are mitigating factors.

“RONS in general eliminate known bottlenecks where cars sit in congestion. Improving the capacity of the highway to get it free-flowing reduces emissions.

 “Overall it is a balance. Increased use of transport grows the economy and puts more vehicles on the roads. We need to increase the work to reduce emissions from the current fleet, and also to welcome new technology to the fleet.”

Mr Crampton says there is a full-time team working on the RONS.

“We rely on the processes we have developed over the years in the NZTA and previous government roading bodies.”

The NZTA resulted from a merger between the old Transit (itself a result of the carve up of the former Ministry of Transport) and the Land Transport Safety Authority. Top public servant Geoff Dangerfield was brought in from the Ministry of Economic Development to head the new body.

“These [RONS] teams are responsible for scoping the projects, setting standards, providing services, working with stakeholders and managing the work to agreed performance targets. The actual design and construction work is outsourced,” Mr Crampton says. “Our policy position is to seek best value for money. We try to be intelligent about the functions we carry out. We decide on the best approach for each project we undertake and then seek to be an efficient procurer of services from the private sector. Working with our suppliers is critical to our success.”

Mr Crampton is very happy with the progress on the RONS over the last three years. “We were challenged by the Government to accelerate our construction work and three years on we have made a start on five of the seven RONS projects with the highlight being the recent awarding of the contract for the Waterview project – worth $1.4 billion.”

The Waterview Connection is the jewel in the RONS crown, delivering a massive increase in the capacity of the Auckland motorway network.

“It fully opens the Western Ring Route connecting key parts of the city more directly and will reduce travel time significantly. It offers an alternative to State Highway 1, providing more resilience and reduced congestion through central Auckland.”

While there have been discussions about how to get funds for roading other than by direct taxation and user charges, direct funding will continue to be the primary and dominant source of funds for the NZTA in the medium-term, Mr Crampton says.

“We use road tolling in a couple of places, but tolling only works where traffic volumes are high and where the new road is much superior to the old road. There will be less money spent outside the RONS over the next 10 years than in the previous 10 years, and this is due to the focus on the RONS. Money earmarked for the RONS cannot be spent elsewhere under government funding rules.

“These are very big projects that were unable to be progressed in the past. They will deliver significant economic growth. Again it is a matter of balance because we need to progress non-RONS projects where network security is involved or where safety reasons apply – for example, the Atiamuri Bridge replacement where wear and tear has meant that it cannot carry fully-laden trucks.”

NZTA currently uses a range of contracting arrangements, and that is expected to continue, Mr Crampton says.

“There are three: construction-only, where NZTA does the design and the contractor does the build. That suits remote and rural New Zealand where the skill sets are generally lower than in the bigger cities.

“There’s design-and-build, where we are contracting out both aspects. We do that where there is the opportunity to innovate, or to design risk out of the project.

“And there’s the alliance approach, which is appropriate where there are special features, or where the project is very complex – the Waterview project for example.

“The special feature here was the need for large-diameter tunnels, the first roading project involving that in New Zealand. We have built a number of tunnels, but not in this size and length, so there was no real local expertise. The length of the tunnels also increased the need for specialised fire and life-safety features. “It was also in a built-up urban area, and there were major traffic issues, and in general it was a sensitive environment. So we felt that an alliance where we work with our suppliers was the best approach.”

Mr Crampton is satisfied with the range and quality of advice he receives from the contracting and consultancy sector. “We are getting the kind of tenders we want. The market in New Zealand and internationally is competitive. Getting enough engineers to keep pace with the work is a long-term problem.

There’s a lot of work on in Australia and at NZTA we are trying to manage in an Australasian environment.

“We want a viable and healthy industry in consultancy and construction, and we try to maintain that. We can’t get that by turning the tap on and off – that simply makes for instability. We also need to attract more New Zealand students to do science and technology at school, so we can continue to grow our professional engineering capacity.”

As for the future, Mr Joyce says the current seven RONS may not be the last.

“As a result of the development of the state highway classification system, four possible future RONS have been highlighted for investigation in due course. These are: Hamilton to Tauranga; Cambridge to Taupo; further developing the Hawke’s Bay Expressway; State Highway 1, north and south of the current Christchurch motorway projects.

“However, with seven Roads of National Significance now underway, I’m confident that we have plenty to go on with in the meantime.”

WRITER John Bishop