Newsletter #24 - 2 March 2017
We have to admit; our head is in a spin. We have spent the week trying to figure out fact from fiction, spin from substance. A lot of time has been spent tracking changing positions, benchmarking changing projections, and genetically modifying lemons so that apples can be compared with apples. Trust us, the fudged figures aren’t digestible.
ONE SMALL STEP
Several of our team drove along the Mansel Drive stage of the Western Collector when it was temporarily opened to relieve the 13-hour congestion on Waitangi Day. The official opening was delayed until yesterday, however, so that the Minister of Transport, Auckland Mayor, and other officials could cut the ribbon.
The tone of the speeches was telling. The Minister and Mayor know how bad the problem is at the Hill Street intersection and they admitted that the Mansel Drive stage was only one small step towards reducing congestion.
Fortunately, the senior NZTA and Auckland Transport officials were there. We briefed them about our group, our expertise, our experience, and our contacts. We clarified our position and offered to help them push through with a solution. They want to be kept in the loop and vice versa.
It’s great that all the key officials were in one place at the same time and they experienced how bad the Hill Street intersection was at 6pm on a Friday evening.
ONE SIDE STEP
We’ve been comparing the language used at different stages of different projects. It seems that there is a pattern of talking up the benefits to get a budget for a project, talking down the drawbacks to get a resource consent, talking up the benefits during construction disruption, and talking down the benefits when it is finally completed.
Make no mistake, public relations are an important element of even minor projects. Auckland Transport will organize a powhiri and VIP ribbon-cutting event for the opening of an envelope. With all the consultants, peer reviews, project management, and hoopla, what is a couple of thousand dollars extra of ratepayers and taxpayers’ dollars to throw a party to all the people involved, right?
But there is a point where public relations go beyond informing the public of a project’s progress and enters the political realm of fudging data and diverting attention away from an issue of public interest.
The PR industry relies on relationships. The PR managers of Auckland Transport and the NZTA are veteran journalists. They gatekeep information and rely on their relationships with the media to get their message across.
In house “communications” staff are immersed in offices full of experts. Journalists only try to make sense of what they can get.
Take for instance, the Waterview Connection (http://bit.ly/2buDpGK), which is supposed to operate as a western ring road but on a much larger scale than Mansel Drive. On 19 August 2011, the Minister of Transport said that it “will deliver significant time savings of 20 to 30 minutes between West Auckland and the airport at peak time.” (http://bit.ly/2lGAn65)
In the resource consent decision, the NZTA argued that the adverse effects of the connection will be no more than minor and deliver significant benefits. The capacity of the tunnels and connection are 150,000 vehicles per day. (http://bit.ly/2mo4QKe)
During construction (and disruption), the NZTA ran an “Alice the Tunnel-Boring Machine” (http://bit.ly/2mEwJij) and “Dennis the Gantry” (http://bit.ly/2lLgDiP) campaigns, wowed the media with site visits, time lapse photography of progress, and drone footage.
It didn’t take long for someone to do the math. A new three lane each way motorway would merge with an existing motorway that is four lanes each way. In other words, a 150,000-capacity motorway would merge with a 200,000-capacity motorway that is already operating close to capacity at peak times.
Close to the completion, traffic lights were installed to control traffic merging with the existing motorway. In response to concerns about gridlock, NZTA’s Brett Gliddon said such claims were "misleading" (http://bit.ly/2mPNXpF). The deflection offered little explanation.
At the start of “Mad March”, Gliddon said that the Waterview Connection “will definitely make a difference. Don’t estimate the scale of what we’re doing there.” (http://bit.ly/2lJ0x8n)
Within a month of the Waterview Connection opening, Gliddon then tried to lower expectations by saying that the Waterview Connection was “never about fixing congestion. We were always still going to have morning and afternoon peaks.” (http://bit.ly/2lGipAP)
ONE STEP BACK
We only want to fix one intersection. The NZTA and Auckland Transport said that all their other projects will fix it. At the hearings, they said that the effects of the motorway and other projects won’t make the intersection any worse when their traffic projections say the opposite. As each of the projects started, they said that the benefits will be huge. When each project opens, however, they talk down the benefits and said the next project will produce more benefits.
The NZTA have a “Warkworth intersection improvements” project to improve flow. Warkworth started with three sets of traffic lights at Woodcocks Road, Whitaker Road, and Hill Street stopping traffic. By the time they’re finished, they would have built nine more intersections. Check out this diagram: