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Odd perspective from experts and consultants in transport spine study

by Brent Efford
A much-hyped Public Transport Spine Study, which grew out of the Ngauranga – Airport transport corridor study conducted under the previous Labour-led Government, is nearing its end. As usual, it is an exercise conducted by presumed experts and consultants, in which ‘civilians’ have a minor role.

A community reference group was formed. My experience of it is that it is too small (we are usually outnumbered by study team members), and key players who would be there if it had more credibility are missing. It seems to be a group which is called together to be told what has been decided, long after there has been any chance for our input to be meaningful. We get a presentation, and then we go home again.

My concerns about this process were already high when we were belatedly convened, which was after the important stuff, such as the terms of reference, was done, dusted and signed off by the current Government and Regional Council leadership.

My concerns were around three points:

1 The hypothesising of the “public transport spine” as being simply between the Railway Station and the Hospital – an odd perspective for a regional council and at variance with the geographical coverage of the Ngauranga to Airport study from which it came. It ignores the existing rail system, serving 75% of the region’s population and delivering 70% of total passenger km, upon which many hundreds of millions were being spent!

2 Despite “light rail” being given prominence in the terms of reference and the media (where it is often incorrectly called a “light rail study”), the study team seemed to have limited familiarity with the mode – not even correctly defining the industry acronym LRT in the initial documentation.

3 Presumably because it didn’t suit the ‘broken spine’ scenario in the ToR, all the reasonably recent investigations/proposals pointing towards an integrated (tram-train) rail spine – 1993 Travers Morgan, 1995 Works/MVA, 1999 RLTS, 2000 SKM Hutt City – were ignored. A Year Zero approach was taken. The “light rail” wheel has been reinvented for the purposes of the study – my expectation is that it will be declared to be “square” (too expensive/not achieving enough/whatever) and thus discarded!

Early on, I perceived issues in the documentation we were presented with. There was no opportunity afforded to discuss these details – some trivial, some fundamental – within the reference group. I compiled a 35-point list in April 2012. I had to arrange a special meeting with the then study team leader to discuss these. I was received courteously but even then I was not able to tease out the issues – I had to leave the list with him and hope that some notice would be taken of it. Some points were addressed but not enough to make me confident I was getting through in any substantial way. Points like the false separation of “bus priority” and “bus rapid transit” in the CBD context have since become major credibility issues.

My concern increased as further inconsequential meetings were being held.

Then the expectation that it would all come right in the end, given commonsense acknowledgement that the 75% of the region’s population north of the railway station do actually want to travel to and through their CBD, was blown apart by the Regional Council press release of 14 December 2012. It confirmed that the conceptual public transport spine extended only as far north as the Station. Even the Johnsonville Line (covering the northern part of the City Council’s Growth Spine plan) was not to be included, even though the Matangi noise issues on the line have made light rail there even more pertinent.

I suspect that the process is being manipulated to raise the bar against light rail while at the same time making some form of bus + ‘big interchange’ (i.e. broken spine) option appear to be a viable permanent solution.

Brent Efford is Information Officer for local advocacy group Trams-Action and is also NZ Agent for the UK-based Light Rail Transit Assn. To improve local knowledge, he publishes a near-daily e-newsletter about world light rail developments for a NZ audience. You can subscribe by emailing brent.efford@techmedia.co.nz