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Pain, cost and embarrassment … because the Transport Agency didn’t listen

by Patrick McCombs
The NZ Transport Agency would have saved themselves a lot of pain, cost, and embarrassment if they had listened more to Mt Victoria residents. The Board of Inquiry did not turn down the application because the engineers can’t build a decent bridge, but because they adopted tunnel vision (excuse the pun) on their wish for an elevated road, and demonstrated that they do not have the skills to carry out a proper public consultation.

The outcome could have been different if the Transport Agency had managed to persuade people that there was a problem, and that all the alternative solutions had been properly explored. They failed to do that. Instead their “consultation” asked residents to choose between flyovers A & B.

In 2009 the Mt Victoria Newsletter said that it “will not be campaigning for any particular roading solution, but will strongly advocate for an effective consultation process”. We said local residents who would be affected by the roading proposals want an opportunity to sit down quietly with the Transport Agency to discuss (a) the problem as seen from different perspectives, (b) possible remedial actions or solutions, (c) the impacts and costs of the available solutions, and (d) the net advantages of the options. “Being asked to wait until the experts have decided what is needed before commenting will not provide an opportunity to influence the plans nor let people feel they have been heard”.

The Mt Victoria Residents Association and the local Historical Society, together with individual residents, have had to expend a lot of effort and money to prove that point.

Let’s hope that the Transport Agency has learnt some lessons, and that we can address the Basin’s issues together from now on.

The Board of Inquiry Decision

Having found that the proposed flyover would have significant urban design impacts, the Board needed to understand how the NZTA had selected that option. The streamlined law did not require the Board to find that no better alternative existed, just to check that options had been identified and considered in a proper way. At the hearing, however, the NZTA was unable to explain how their experts had evaluated their five options against four criteria: built heritage, social impact, transportation, and townscape. As Scoop had identified in 2013, NZTA’s tunnel option scored better than the flyover on NZTA’s matrix. The Board noted that the technical report “does not present an explicit conclusion regarding which option is preferred overall, although it is implicit that Option A [the flyover] is preferred”.

The Board was unable to replicate the decision-making process that had led the NZTA Directors to confirm the flyover as their preferred option.

Even when NZTA re-examined the flyover option after the government had found the money for the National War Memorial Park, their report was slammed by the Board:

“It was not a careful evaluation of options in light of the decision by the government to underground Buckle Street. … At most it could be called nothing but a cursory review of the situation.”

The Key to Future Developments

NZTA, the regional and city councils, and other supporters claimed that clearing congestion at the Basin by grade separation would allow other improvements including the Bus Rapid Transport system and duplication of the tunnel. This argument was bought by David McMahon in his minority report.

However the other Board members read the law and legal precedents. They pointed out that, because there was no guarantee that either (or both) of those projects [tunnel
duplication and BRT] will in fact go ahead, they were “required to make their decision on the basis that the Mt Victoria Tunnel duplication does not form part of the future state of the environment, and on the basis of the limited information currently available to us regarding the Public Transport Spine Study”.

“That is the key result of the Transport Agency’s election to seek approval for the [flyover] Project separately from that for the Mt Victoria Tunnel duplication, and in advance of the Public Transport Spine Study and its outcomes being finalised. In having made that strategic decision, the Transport Agency must now accept the consequences of doing so.”

Impacts on Mt Victoria Neighbourhoods

The Board of Inquiry’s decision is equally scathing about NZTA’s attempts at community consultation and their failure to consider the impacts on local residents. For example, it noted that NZTA’s social impact report provided the school rolls without indicating whether they were growing or falling, and failed to convey St Mark’s concerns about children moving away during the construction phase. The report covered the implications for owners whose property was directly affected, but lumped all other residents together, whether they lived in Mt Victoria or Tawa.

The Board was appalled at the lack of information about the impact on Mt Victoria residents. It spread the blame for this beyond NZTA, noting that neither the Wellington City Council nor the Regional Council commissioned social impact reports, “notwithstanding their policy and strategy interests in social matters and their support for the Project”. The City Council should have been protecting the interests of its residents.

The Board said:

“While setting out a comprehensive listing of potential social impacts [the NZTA report] often provides little explicit locational detail and rarely provides an explanation of the logic underpinning the assessment … nor reference to any underlying data and analysis to back up the assessment of effect. Of particular interest to us is the fact that the text does not appear to acknowledge the local experience, knowledge and perspectives of the potentially affected people.

“The final assessments appear to us to rely heavily – indeed, almost exclusively – on the assessments of technical experts in transportation (travel benefits, accessibility benefits, active mode benefits) and amenity (noise, air quality, dust, etc). In this regard, we note that the validity of some of these assessments is contested by other experts and submitters.

“We conclude that this aspect of the social impact assessment adds little to the understanding of benefits and adverse effects that we gain from the technical evidence on which it relies.”

Among the Board’s findings:

• We were left uncertain of the extent of actual consultation undertaken by the social impact assessors specifically related to the assessment work, particularly with those most likely to be most adversely affected;

• We see little evidence of community perspectives expressed in the analysis and
description of social effects;

• We cannot find where the social data assembled for the assessment has been used
in the analysis of potential social effects;

• We could find little discussion of the potential longer-term social consequences of some of the direct effects identified; and

• We could find no discussion of the distribution of social effects.

Patrick McCombs is co-editor of the Mt Victoria Newsletter, in which this article was first published.