Sudden busway plan change threatens 40 Auckland homes

Source: 1News

Shayna moved to the East Auckland suburb of Burswood 17 years ago and has fond memories of growing up there.

Shayna Cherry has fond memories of Burswood's community gatherings when she was growing up.

Community Christmases in the park, Halloweens together, and neighbours helping each other out made sure "you never felt like you didn't have somewhere", she said.

"I was 11 at the time. We moved there because it was a small community and everyone seemed to know everyone, which we figured out pretty fast."

But a transport proposal that has seemingly come from nowhere is now putting Shayna’s childhood home and the quiet community she was raised in at risk.

The planned $1.4 billion Eastern Busway would see the Panmure, Pakuranga and Botany linked up with rapid transit bus and cycle lanes that are separated from general car traffic.

Until November, public discussions about the project's $867 million Pakuranga to Botany stage had centred around a dedicated busway running the length of a widened Ti Rakau Drive, with commercial properties along the arterial road in talks with Auckland Transport for several years.

However, AT’s new preferred plan would see part of the busway through the southern part of Burswood, about 300 metres north of Ti Rakau Drive.

A new proposal for the Eastern Busway sees it go through Burswood in East Auckland.

According to proposed plans presented to affected residents, about 40 homes would need to be acquired and demolished. An additional 30 properties would need to be partially acquired — for example, their driveways or small areas of land.

The new plan that includes Burswood is expected to increase the reliability of travel times on the busway, be cheaper to build, reduce construction time by 12 to 18 months, and increase residents’ access to the busway, AT told 1News.

Once complete, buses are expected to pass by it every few minutes.

AT said part of the decrease in costs and construction time comes because it would no longer need to acquire parts of commercial properties — which come to about $30 million in savings — and can work away from sections of the busy Ti Rakau Drive.

The new plans for the Eastern Busway would require about 40 houses in Burswood, Auckland to be torn down.

1News understands that the transport organisation concluded it would be too expensive to build the original design of the busway.

The Eastern Busway had also recently faced delays because of funding, but the Government's scrapping of the Waitematā Harbour cycle path has seen money reallocated to it.

Affected homeowners 1News has spoken to said AT did not initially explain the benefits of the new design to this level of detail. More information was expected to be released later this month when public consultation begins.

“We are all emotionally attached to our community and our houses. I mean, it’s the house I grew up in, and the thought of it being torn down is very emotional to me,” Shayna said.

"But, we're also reasonable. We're appreciative and understanding human beings first and foremost.

"If Auckland Transport provided us with the evidence that this was the best way to do it, I think a lot of people would say, 'Okay, we understand that things like this happen. That's as long as you guys have provided us with the fact that you've tried every other possible scenario, and this is genuinely the best option, not just the easy option.'"

Shayna’s parents had planned on retiring in Burswood because of its quiet lifestyle. However, she’s now concerned about the compensation her parents would be able to get for their house when homes in the area were selling above their value.

"My mum, she just started crying [when she heard the news].

"They're not in a financial position where they will ever be able to afford to buy another house in Auckland."

She also worried that AT wasn’t truly listening to the community. Shayna, who wanted only her first name to be used, said the fact that valuers were already assessing properties in the community added to the impression.

"The problem is not understanding the explanation that we've been given — it's not feeling like the information we've been given is sufficient to explain their decision to run through our community,” she said.

Construction around Burswood, subject to approvals and consents, is expected to begin by late 2023 with an aim for it to be completed by 2027. Any consents are expected to be lodged late next year and will be publicly announced to allow people to make submissions.

'We're not going to take it lying down'

"This is going to sound cheesy, but it was like coming home," Jacqueline Lewis said of her move to Burswood three years ago.

Jacqueline Lewis moved to Burswood three years ago for the quiet lifestyle.

While her home wasn't in the path of the new busway design, Lewis said she was worried about saying goodbye to some of the people she'd gotten to know in Burswood and the lifestyle she'd decided to move for.

"The extra traffic that this is going to bring into the neighbourhood will be very disruptive for us."

Having done her due diligence before moving into the area, Lewis said she knew that the busway's construction down Ti Rakau Drive would cause some disruption.

But, its complete rerouting had blindsided her.

“When I first heard about it, I was in absolute disbelief. I couldn’t fathom why Auckland Transport would want to do this when we already had an agreed plan,” Lewis said.

“You can’t just come up with a plan like that out of thin air … so the fact they have, I feel, done this behind our backs and sprung it on us at pretty much the worst possible time [during lockdown], I’m not even angry about it.

“I’m just so appalled that they would consider that this is acceptable.”

Lewis is among a group of Burswood residents planning to oppose the new busway's design. More than 350 people have now signed a petition started by the residents to move the busway back to Ti Rakau Drive.

Burswood resident Sarah, who preferred that her surname wasn't used, could lose part of her property if the new busway design gets the green light.

Burswood resident Sarah could lose part of her property if the new busway design gets the green light.

She was one of the first people to move to the suburb and now lives there with her mother and young son.

Sarah helped to organise a paper survey of residents to ask for their opinion of the busway. Within two days, she received 60 responses, 54 of those wholly opposed to the idea.

Of the six others, four said they would only support it if no homes were taken and alternatives were considered, she said.

Sarah said residents also had to help translate complex planning documents to their neighbours, for many of whom English was not their first language.

"Really clear and transparent consultation would be a fantastic start," Sarah said of her ask to Auckland Transport, rather than a "tick box exercise".

AT "can't put a price" on the community Burswood had "crafted" over the 30 years of its existence, she added.

"We're not going to take it lying down."

Auckland Transport and consultation

AT’s Duncan Humphrey, who is part of the team leading the busway's construction, said they were "deeply sympathetic" to Burswood residents and the new proposed route's impact on them.

Humphrey also acknowledged that Auckland's Covid-19 lockdown "compounded" those impacts and didn't allow for face-to-face conversations with residents.

An artist's impression of the Eastern Busway on Ti Rakau Drive.

AT is offering residents translation services, access to counselling, and is working with elected representatives, he said.

He said the change in AT’s preferred design to include Burswood was largely driven by the benefits it would bring, and that "the overriding factor wasn't [the] cost".

Humphrey said that after asking the community for feedback on the Ti Rakau Drive design in 2018, "a few issues were identified".

He said these issues included the numerous intersections along the original route, which meant travel times on the completed busway would be unreliable. There were also challenges with having to build outside major businesses.

Planners soon started investigating alternative options, with Burswood first being considered in 2019, Humphrey said.

However, investigations into that option, and others, stalled until last year while AT formed the Eastern Busway Alliance to deliver the project.

Once the Alliance was formed, it analysed the options and decided that it preferred the Burswood route between March and May this year.

"One of the reasons we tend not to tell people earlier is … we hadn't settled on the option until almost the middle of this year.

"Then to go out and stir up uncertainty without knowing that you're going to choose that option would have a serious impact, and it may be completely unnecessary."

Humphrey said the proposal to build a bus station at Burswood had additional benefits, like allowing for houses around it to be built to a greater height under the Government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development.

According to AT, with the inclusion of Burswood, an additional 1800 people and 2050 jobs would be within 1km of its station.

As for why valuers were already beginning their assessments around Burswood, Humphrey said it was part of the standard process for delivering infrastructure projects.

"Property acquisition is generally one of the key risks of the entire programme.

"That's two-fold — it's a time risk, so it's important we start the process early, but it's also there's the risk of the volatile property market."

The Eastern Busway project had also increased its contingency fund for property escalation "by quite a significant percentage to reflect movement in the market", Humphrey said.

He said he "understood" that some homeowners could feel as if they were under pressure, but that there was "no obligation on these people to settle or to sell".

"Following this round of consultation, effectively, we will be weighing up all the feedback … and will consider if changes need to be made to the draft design."

Matt Lowrie, the editor of the transport and urban design blog Greater Auckland, received a briefing from AT about the new proposal ahead of it being made public.

"With public transport, it's really important that you 'be on the way', which means that you have routes that are direct and fast," Lowrie said of his impressions of the altered busway proposal.

"Diverging away off the main road is not ideal."

Lowrie said AT's justification of more reliable travel times through Burswood only held up "because they're refusing to make changes to the street environment" and planners were reluctant to take space away from cars or make drastic changes to existing intersections.

"The other problem is that Auckland Transport … have started talking to residents to give them a heads up, but there's no information out in public," he said.

"So, it's very hard to have a big conversation about these sorts of things when there's so little information other than, really, a line on a map out there."

He said there was a general trend in AT toward increased "secrecy" with what exactly it was considering for its infrastructure projects.

"AT has become so scared of engaging with the public, in a way, that they want everything lined up in a row," Lowrie said.

"So, they'll get all their analysis done before they present anything, rather than coming in from an earlier point and saying, 'Here's what we're thinking, here's what the challenges are, here's what the options are.'

“That’s a harder conversation, but it’s also a more honest one with the public.”