by Lindsay Shelton
Four men in suits, chosen by the government, yesterday started the long process of deciding whether or not to allow the government’s Transport Agency to spend $90m building a concrete flyover alongside the Basin Reserve.
One of their number was to have been a woman, but she stood down after allegations of conflict of interest. It was the second time that a conflict of interest issue had affected the project; in December 2012 the Transport Agency’s chairman stood down from all relevant discussions because of his conflicting role as chair of NZ Cricket.
The first day of the hearing started ten minutes late. It began when a woman’s voice from the back of the room (at the Amora Hotel) shouted “please stand for the court.” We all stood as the four men in suits filed in and sat in a row on a platform.
On the table in front of them, each had a carafe of water, a glass, and a package of paper tissues. Behind them was a black curtain. In front of the curtain, there were four bookshelves, each filled with what looked like about 20 ring-binders bulging with information. The two-month hearing is going to be demanding.
The retired judge who is the chair was the only one of the four who spoke during the morning. His first words were in te reo Maori. Then he told us that his board was independent, and not part of the Environmental Protection Authority, “which has the administration function.” He’ll be aware that part of that function included calling for public submissions, which resulted in 82 per cent opposition  to the flyover.
“We want to ensure all parties are giving the best possible opportunity to out forward relevant and pertinent matters … We come with a clean slate … We’ll make our decisions solely on the evidence … I am well aware of the principles of natural justice.”
He said that formality would take a back seat and he asked us all to relax. But each time the four left the room or came back, the woman’s voice instructed us to “please stand for the court.” Which made things seem very formal indeed.
He talked about the list of contested issues, which I wrote about yesterday. By his count, the list was more than 130 items. (My count was over 160.) “That number is unwieldy, and needs to be reduced. Many items overlap, many are outside our jurisdiction.”
Representatives of the Transport Agency were the first to speak. An architect and a landscape designer described the plan at length, using more than 60 maps, diagrams and drawings which were projected on to screens. We learnt from them that the much-disputed and controversial new three-storey cricket pavilion has been re-named the gateway building. Invented at considerable cost to block views of the flyover from cricketers, it is now designed with an open ground level which will be the main entrance to the Basin. But it remains as a sadly enormous blockage to the viewshaft from Kent and Cambridge Terraces.
There was much other new material, including an imaginative new illustration of how the flyover will be brightly and colourfully lit at night.
But the Agency’s representatives also recycled some material – notably the much-derided drawing which ludicrously shows a woman sunbathing under the flyover. It was shown twice. We also learned that seats are being planned so that people can sit under the flyover. The seats won’t be for sunbathing, however, as they’ll be overshadowed by the 300-metre-long concrete structure.
A feature of the flyover hearing is that the Transport Agency is doing its best to avoid any reference to a flyover which is now being referred to as a bridge, and not only a bridge, but a bridge-over-a-valley. (Troubled waters, somewhere in the valley?) Everyone speaking on the first day of the hearing was very careful to avoid the “flyover” word. They couldn’t avoid the fact, however, that it’s to be a massive concrete box girder structure. And they’re no longer trying to pretend that it’s to be a “slim-line elevated street,”  a description which they were unsuccessfully trying to popularise in 2012.
With a straight face, the Transport Agency lawyer repeated the often-heard claims that the flyover-bridge “will support regional economic growth.” Not only cars and trucks. We learnt from him that the flyover is part of the “tunnel to tunnel” improvement project. But he wasn’t telling us what further roads will be needed after a second Mt Victoria tunnel is built. There’s a general expectation of a second flyover. But there wasn’t a word about this. We were told only that applications for the second tunnel will be lodged in the second half of this year.
The hearing continues today, with opening statements from lawyers representing the opponents of the flyover.