Of all the questions I’m asked as Chair of Bike Auckland, top of the list is: ‘When, oh, when will we be able to bike and walk over the Auckland Harbour Bridge?’
This is a hot topic not just for those of us on bikes; it’s a fervent wish of most Aucklanders, and everyone who visits our beautiful city.
Let’s be clear: this has been a glaring gap in our transport network ever since the bridge was constructed without the promised walking and cycling facilities. It’s a massive wrong, decades overdue for being put right. This isn’t just a missing tourism opportunity, it’s a missing link: as each part of our city becomes more bikeable, it becomes increasingly indefensible that we can’t walk and bike the bridge.
The priority to bridge the gap for walking and biking is urgent and compelling.
Is there another major waterside city where it’s impossible to walk or bike across the harbour or river? Auckland finds itself in a vanishing minority of 21st century metropolises on this score. This is a national issue – a path of national significance on a link of national significance.
Everyone’s champing at the bit to be able to enjoy our city from this fresh vantage point, and we can’t wait to take our visitors there too. Surely, too, it will be at the top of the Mayor’s checklist of projects to be up and running before the America’s Cup is held in Auckland.
So we completely understand the widespread jubilation that greeted Friday’s news stories about alternative options for funding SkyPath (click here to jump to links for those stories).
Where did Friday’s announcement come from?
As you know if you’ve been following the story, Bevan Woodward and the SkyPath Trust have been working on a private-public partnership (PPP) with HRL Morrison & Co’s PIP Fund [Private Infrastructure Partners] to deliver the project.
The PPP has been working its way through a lengthy process, along the way gaining Auckland Council’s pledge of support, and receiving a resource consent which was confirmed last year by the Environment Court.
The latest piece of news came on Friday afternoon from the SkyPath Trust, and flew around the internet and into print within hours – not surprising, given the hunger for updates!
This was the Trust’s media release (Friday 14 July 2017):
“As a result of discussions with Transport Minister Simon Bridges we have the opportunity to deliver a toll-free SkyPath at no cost to Auckland ratepayers” says SkyPath Project Director Bevan Woodward.
“Earlier this year when Downer Construction withdrew from the SkyPath PPP they advised that SkyPath was too small and unique to work as a PPP. We then met with the Transport Minister Simon Bridges to discuss the issues with the proposed PPP. Whilst he wanted to see if the PPP could still be made to work, we were reassured when the Minister advised that he could fund SkyPath in the next tranche of the Government’s Urban Cycleway Program funding.”
Subsequent to Downer Construction’s withdrawal, the SkyPath Trust has also given notice that it is withdrawing from the PPP arrangement. Like Downer Construction, the Trust does not believe SkyPath is a suitable project to be delivered as a PPP.
Andy Smith, a SkyPath Trustee says “With the PPP having foundered, we see Minister Bridges’ offer to fully fund SkyPath as the best way forward. This means we can avoid both the tolling of SkyPath users and the revenue underwrite by Council’s ratepayers for the 25 year period as required by the PPP.”
“It would not be unusual for the Government to fully fund SkyPath. Given it is part of NZTA’s State Highway such an asset would ordinarily be fully funded by central Government. With the demise of the PPP we believe it is now time to allow Minister Bridges to include SkyPath in the next tranche of Urban Cycleway Program funding. From the feedback we’re getting, a toll-free SkyPath has wide support from Aucklanders.”
What’s the current status of the PPP?
Auckland Council is vital to the project and has invested a lot of staff time and resources to progress the project with the SkyPath Trust, Morrison & Co’s PIP Fund and the NZTA. I asked for an update from Council’s perspective, and here’s what I was told:
- The project is progressing well
- The PPP has not ‘foundered’ as reported in the media.
- There has been a lot of progress behind the scenes in the last 6 months, including design refinement and technical reviews, and drafting of the PPP contract documentation
- Funding for works at each landing was adopted in the recent Annual Budget
- A new builder selection tender process is underway, and a new builder will be selected in mid-August 2017
- Once the builder is appointed, detailed design will begin
- There is also a clear progress in place for next steps, including appointing the operator and maintenance partners (work is underway on this too)
- Auckland Council remains committed and believes a PPP option is still the best way to finance the project
- The PPP framework enables SkyPath to be constructed, maintained and operated to a high standard with minimal cost to the ratepayer
- Morrison & Co’s PIP Fund (the private sector funder) remains committed to and enthusiastic about the project
- All the current progress, momentum and investment would be lost if the PPP is halted
Would funding SkyPath from the UCP make sense?
Perhaps the biggest attraction around Friday’s announcement was the prospect of a toll-free SkyPath if it were to be funded as part of a next tranche of the Urban Cycleways Programme.
Of course that’s a highly alluring proposition – and we as much as anybody else would love SkyPath to be free to all. (There’s potentially a case to be made about charging tourists a nominal fee, although that raises all sorts of practical questions).
But halting the PPP in the hope that a renewed UCP would fund SkyPath strikes me as a risky call. For starters, we are all still waiting to hear whether the Government intends to fund the UCP beyond its current 3 year programme which ends in 2018.
Obviously we’re hopeful of a renewed UCP to expand upon the successes of the current one, but nothing is certain yet. The Herald article, which was first to print, reported:
Transport Minister Simon Bridges and National’s Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye told the Herald today that if the project is technically feasible and supported by a sound business case it can be considered as part of a future Urban Cycleways Programme.
A spokesman for Bridges said: “I can confirm that in all discussions the Minister has had with Bevan that he has been very clear, if the project is feasible it could be considered part of a future Urban Cycleway Programme.”
What we do know is that the current UCP has recently been extended to ensure coverage of cost increases, so that projects like the 7.5km Glen Innes to Tamaki cycleway can be completed in late 2018-early 2019. We’d like to think that SkyPath would shoot to the top of the list if a second tranche of UCP funding were approved for 2018-2021 – but we also know other cities will present their projects in strong and compelling terms. In this scenario, SkyPath could potentially soak up the bulk of Auckland’s share of the new cycling investment for at least a year, putting the expansion of the rest of the city’s network on pause.
Where to from here?
As Chair of Bike Auckland, I’m aware the SkyPath Trust and others have invested years of work in getting the PPP to this point. Before any major change of tack, we need to see evidence that shows why the PPP should be halted.
One way or another, we all yearn for certainty on this project. We all want to see people walking and biking the bridge as soon as possible. Bike Auckland is poised to spread the word as soon as we have solid news that the contract has been signed so construction of SkyPath can get under way.
Government could fund SkyPath over Auckland Harbour Bridge (NZ Herald)
Government could fund Auckland’s SkyPath making it toll-free for residents (Stuff/Fairfax)
Government-funded and toll-free SkyPath (Greater Auckland)