by Lindsay Shelton
The night before Thursday’s council meeting, seven of Andy Foster’s colleagues believed he would be voting to oppose a flyover at the Basin Reserve. There’d been a lot of back-room discussion. They went into the meeting confident that he would be one of the group of eight who would continue to oppose the flyover – as he’d done in December.
The first alarm came when they found that he had removed words to “not support” the flyover from the order paper of the meeting, which he was chairing. Yet as he introduced the debate, it sounded as if his position was unchanged.
He spoke about “two world views which sadly tend not to talk to each other about the best solution.” He talked about the flyover debate having “become more antagonistic than it needs to be.” He said the debate was about urban design. He acknowledged that there is a “big group of people” who oppose the flyover and that the council has “twice said we’re not keen on the flyover.” But then came a clue to his change of heart: “We have never opposed it or supported it.”
He confirmed that the council review of options had found that Option X had a “cost difference which is really significant.” But in his view “more work could bring down the cost.” He also acknowledged that the council’s preference was for an underground solution “but it costs more.” He pointed to the government having chosen to pay for “extraordinarily costly proposals” for regional roads – $650m for the Kapiti expressway was his example. The implication clearly being that the government could decide to spend more on the best solution for roading round the Basin.
Councillor Justin Lester quickly dealt with the removal of the “not support” words. He got them back into the debate by moving an amendment that the council “not support the flyover”. Paul Eagle seconded the amendment, saying it was important to send a strong signal of opposition.
By lunchtime, there was still confidence that there’d be eight votes for not supporting the flyover. But as we ate the (last?) free lunch, we noticed that Andy Foster was not in the room. Where had he gone? It turned out that he’d left the building to talk with the Transport Agency about what the council should be saying.
“The original motion neither supports nor opposes the flyover, and that’s what we told the Transport Agency,” he told councillors after lunch. They were surprised to learn that he had been discussing council decisions with the government’s bureaucrats. He said he “had a chat with the Transport Agency at the lunch break” and Agency staff had told him they would be disappointed if the council voted not to support the flyover. The Agency wanted the council to be neither for nor against – therefore he would be voting against the amendment.
Embarrassingly, he went on to say “I’m not a supporter of the flyover but … we have to go with the arrangements that we have.” Not a supporter of the flyover. But he wouldn’t vote to oppose it.
The eight votes from December were thereby cut to seven. The vote was tied – seven for and seven against. Then Andy used his casting vote to stop the council resolving that it didn’t support the flyover. Which was the result that staff of the Transport Agency had wanted.
There’s been much speculation about Andy Foster’s lunchtime conversation. Some have suggested it was as if he was taking orders from the Agency. Others have speculated that his change of heart was in response to a continuation of the Agency’s threatening tactics which have been applied twice before when councillors were discussing why they didn’t want a flyover at the Basin.
In December, the Agency’s Geoff Dangerfield sent a threatening letter to all councillors saying
“We are particularly concerned about the council taking a position to oppose the construction of a bridge at the Basin Reserve. This would have serious implications for future transport investments in Wellington City that rely on fixing the traffic woes at the Basin … If the council changes its stance … we will also need to reconsider our support for a range of other transport network projects with Wellington city that rely on the efficiency gains to be delivered by the bridge… Withdrawal of support for the bridge proposal at this late stage may have significant implications for investment in Wellington’s wider transport network and ultimately on the growth and prosperity of the city.”
And in April 2011 the Agency made a similar threat, anonymously. It said Wellington could lose $2billion in roading funds unless it supported the flyover and other roading projects. The source of the anonymous threat (“the councillors are playing silly buggers”) turned out to be former deputy mayor Alick Shaw, who is a member of the Transport Agency’s board. The Agency has never contradicted his threat. Did they repeat it, in their lunchtime conversation?
We may never know. But in comments on eyeofthefish, Andy gets defensive: “Having unfortunately come to the conclusion through the review that we could not find an alternative that stacked up, it seemed the best thing we could do was focus on mitigation, and that is what the resolutions do.” Leaving a big (lipstick on a gorilla) problem: no one believes it’s possible to mitigate a 300-metre-long concrete flyover.