The Northern Busway

The Northern Busway is New Zealand’s first purpose built road dedicated to bus passenger transport. It is improving journey speeds and reliability, and provides an attractive alternative to private vehicle use.   BY MARY SEARLE

busway.jpgOpened in February last year, the 8.5 kilometre long Northern Busway runs alongside State Highway 1 from Constellation Drive in the north, down to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It is part of a public transport network linking North Shore City and Hibiscus Coast with the CBD. Express services and local bus services link into the busway through five new stations at Albany, Constellation, Sunnynook, Smales Farm and Akoranga.

Congestion on the motorway into and out of the CBD is chronic during rush hour. There is not actually a capacity issue on the harbour bridge, but rather it is the approaches to the bridge which have issues.

For commuters coming into the city in the morning from the northern suburbs, the tail of the traffic can snake back for a number of kilometres, extending travel times and exacerbating frustration. With commuters using the bus service, vehicle numbers on the motorway are reduced, easing congestion, and those travelling in the buses can enjoy wizzing past the crawling traffic on their own dedicated piece of road. It is estimated that for every full bus there are 40 fewer cars on the road.

Because the bridge is not yet at full capacity, there is no need for separate bus lane on the bridge. That being said, the outside southbound lane is restricted to vehicles exiting at Shelly Beach Road and buses, which allows the buses to go straight onto Fanshaw Street where Auckland City has its own dedicated bus lanes.

In fact, the section of road from Onewa Road down over the bridge has no segregated bus priority, but traffic is generally free running here.

The busway began taking shape in late 2004 after 15 years on the drawing board and has been described as “a train system on rubber wheels”.

Fletcher Construction began work in January 2005 on the $82 million contract to build the first 2.9 kilometres of the busway (from Northcote Road to just north of the Onewa Road interchange), the Esmonde Road interchange upgrade, construction of the Akoranga station, and all of the associated North Shore City works and the laying of a Transpower underground power line.

Fletchers was also awarded the $108 million contract to construct the 4.34 kilometre northern section of the busway from Constellation Drive to Northcote Road, the earthworks and foundations for the Sunnybrook and Westlake stations, and continuation of provision for Transpower’s power line. The 220kv line provides a secondary power supply to the North Shore.

North Shore City contracts of $11.2 million and $12.6 million for the busway’s Albany and Constellation Drive park ‘n’ ride stations were completed in October 2005 by

HEB Contractors and Works Infrastructure respectively. An $11.5 million contract to build on- and off-ramps connecting both stations with the motorway was carried out by AC Blackmore.  

The Esmonde Interchange opened in May 2007. This upgrade ($36 million on top of the busway’s $290 million) enables northbound buses to access the busway at the Akoranga station. It also allows a much wider range of traffic movements at the interchange.

As part of the upgrade, massive concrete beams, many weighing as much as 40 tonnes, have been installed to help carry a new east-west carriageway. Some 150 beams, 30 metres long, were used to construct the four separate bridges needed for the new carriageway.

To meet tough deadlines and avoid hindering daytime traffic, construction crews had to work only at night.

Busway Stage 2, which involves improvements to the Onewa Road interchange and the extension of the busway to the Auckland Harbour Bridge, is the final stage of the project.

The recently completed Onewa Road interchange upgrade improves southbound bus access to the motorway, together with separate bus and vehicle access onto the motorway from Onewa Road. There is now a dedicated bus lane northbound, which removes the final bottleneck. Most use is in the morning peak, but there was also a need to get the buses back up to Albany and Constellation to run down again. NZTA found in the first few years is that they couldn’t recycle the buses fast enough, but this northbound bus lane removes this problem.

The interchange has been completely reconstructed. The original bridge was demolished and replaced with two new bridges over the motorway, which increased minimum clearance from 4.9 to 6.0 metres.

Because of the Northern Busway’s wide-ranging benefits and links, the project is a partnership between four authorities – the New Zealand Transport Agency, North Shore City Council, Auckland Regional Council and Auckland City Council. 

Looking ahead

The Government has recently accelerated the Victoria Park Tunnel project to begin in January 2010, a year before it was due. The NZTA is current calling for expressions of interest in the

$430 million project. Once completed in four years time the three-lane tunnel will be for northbound traffic, allowing the current two northbound lanes on the viaduct to be used by southbound traffic, effectively doubling capacity of this section of motorway.

Once the Victoria Park Tunnel is constructed, the NZTA is likely to allow high occupancy vehicles in the busway. Currently they’re not allowed as doing so will merely get more traffic across the bridge and into the back of the queue at the Victoria Park Viaduct.

There is also a proposal in the pipeline to extend the busway up to Silverdale, and NZTA is looking to protect the route for this at the moment. The timing of this project will depend largely on demand, as the population in Silverdale and Albany grows.

As well, the North Shore City Council wants to look at busway options down State Highway 18, which the NZTA has agreed to investigate, so there is an east-west busway as well as a north-south one.

And finally, to fully future-proof the busway, the radia and gradients have been designed so, in the future if so desired, it can be reasonably easily converted to light rail. The bigger issue here would be the busway having to be closed while the light rail is built, and by the time this comes round the busway is likely to be full of crowded buses – a logistical issue to be dealt with if the situation ever arises. 

Contractor, Auckland Harbour Bridge Special Supplement, May 2009
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