Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Auckland Airport

Years ago a chain of American gas stations started promoting its attached convenience stores. "A nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there" went the TV jingle. Many New Zealanders living south of the Bombay Hills think the same way about Auckland, although a large number keep settling in the City of Sails. Not just other Kiwis. With two huge universities in the centre of the city, several satellites of southern universities, and a host of language schools up the side streets, the centre of Auckland sometimes approximates Shanghai at rush hour. Auckland's traffic problems, of course, are legendary. The weird, intractable shape of the isthmus has defied transport planners for a century. Motorists stuck in long, slow-moving lines of cars constantly bemoan the opportunities that were lost to construct a rapid transit system. In reality, given the geography, any such system would never have served more than a fraction of the burgeoning city. Only now is the reality sinking in that there is no single solution to Auckland's traffic woes.

The car is with us to stay and has to be provided for. That's why urgent completion of Highway 20 from the end of the airport motorway to the northwestern motorway makes good sense. It would take pressure off the southern corridor. The eastern motorway championed by John Banks, but canned last week by the new left-wing Auckland City Council, made sense for the same reason. A better train service can give commuters options, too. With a mixture of carrots and sticks rail could help exit much of the heavy traffic groaning up from the harbour and clogging the motorways. The Government's 2003 pre-Christmas mixture of money and a revised regional government structure was a sound beginning that already shows signs of working well. But much more imagination is needed.

Accompanying all the other moves, Aucklanders must be encouraged to think regionally. The development of a full range of services in all corners of the city has progressed over the years. It takes pressure off the inner city. But there is one key impediment to regionalism that the Government should have fixed last week: the need for a second airport. At present about 20,000 people work at, or use, the existing airport daily. It is located in a poorly serviced extremity of the city. They drive back and forth at all hours, especially at peak times, clogging the Mangere Bridge or the Southern Motorway. A week ago Cabinet had before it a proposal to assist securing the old Air Force base at Whenuapai on the other extremity of the city for a commercial airport. With a shorter runway, it can still accommodate smaller domestic and international jets. Ministers ran for cover. With some of the most specious reasoning to grace any 2003 ministerial press comments, the so-called Economic Development minister was reported as saying ministers need to re-think the issue.

The New Zealand Herald, quite rightly, lambasted Jim Anderton. At the weekend the perceptive John Roughan, pointed, amongst other things, to the two-hour airport journeys for North Shore residents. They contribute to traffic congestion on the bridge and motorway when there is a perfectly good airfield nearby at Whenuapai. What Roughan could have added is a word or two about the opportunity costs of allowing the Air Force another decade to shift its operations to Ohakea. Whenuapai is valuable land. It has been an airport since the 1930s. Delaying commercial use of the site will cost taxpayers, and especially Aucklanders, much more than the purported $150 million involved in the Air Force's re-location. In any event, those costs still have to be paid, while existing investment in the ownership of an increasingly derelict airfield eats its head off.

As I understand it, no one seriously expects the government to give Whenuapai away. A fully commercial competitor to Auckland's International Airport is prepared to purchase or lease the property. The new owner could be obliged to contract with the Air Force for emergency defence purposes. Infrastructural, security and private transport needs could then be neatly linked. Ministers should push aside the intense lobbying by Auckland International Airport against Whenuapai. The Mangere monopoly needs competition. A second airport is a missing part of Auckland's transport jigsaw. It won't be as costly to taxpayers as any of the options, including delay. And it could help the city be both a nice place to visit, as well as to live in.