Wellington Scoop

What went wrong? CBD speed limits stay the same for a second time

In a marathon session last night, the Wellington City Council voted down the proposal to reduce the speed limit on selected CBD streets to 30km/hr. It was a defeat for Transport portfolio leader Andy Foster.

Foster’s track record with speed limits isn’t good – this is the second time in three years that a decreased speed limit has received the thumbs down. In 2011 there was a proposal to decrease speeds on the Golden Mile to 20km/hr, and it was soundly defeated. This time, the speed limit was a bit higher and the road selection a little wider, but his colleagues around the Council table seemed equally skeptical.

What’s remarkable is the consistency of the result across two very different councils. In 2011 the conservative bloc was much more assertive – think Ian McKinnon and John Morrison – while this term there’s a much more collaborative approach to getting things done. With the likes of Nicola Young and Mark Peck around the table, who either live or have businesses in the CBD, you’d think that a lower speed limit on the streets they live and work on would have been an easy sell.

And looking at coverage in the Dominion Post, Deputy Mayor Justin Lester was doing his best to take councillors on the journey, a state of affairs that’s different to three years ago, when the more conservative Councillors seemed to want to stifle Celia Wade-Brown’s agenda at every turn. So what went wrong?

The first problem was that the quality of the proposal. As was pointed out on wellington.scoop the officers’ arguments weren’t exactly compelling – agreeing to a 30km/hr limit on roads where the average is already 31km/hr doesn’t seem like grappling with the big issues of the day. And it does seem odd that the progressive/green bloc would want to expend so much political capital to get such a small improvement.

But the real challenge seemed to be Foster’s inability to convince his colleagues to support the proposal. It wasn’t a big change so it shouldn’t have needed a big sell.

Perhaps the reason for the skepticism has to do with his support for the now-failed Basin Reserve flyover. While he may well feel that throwing in his lot with the Transport Agency was the right thing to do, the way he went about it – using a swing vote at the last minute in a way that ambushed his colleagues – would naturally inspire some cynicism about both his motives and methods.

Political memories are long memories, and all politicians hold grudges. Perhaps these two defeats for Foster have less to do with the merits of lower speed limits than they do with blow-back. And if that’s true, then he has a very hard row to hoe indeed.

This is important because transport is not a collection of standalone decisions that can live or die individually; some of the projects in the pipeline are critical to Wellington and the legacy of the politicians who advocate them.

Let’s take the Island Bay cycleway as an example. The cycling Mayor clearly has a lot of political capital tied up in a project that has significant merit and (if the comment threads on wellington.scoop are anything to go by) relatively wide community support. To have been defeated on the cycleway would have been a black eye to a green mayor, not to mention her allies around the council table, and would have been a gift to the conservative elements in the city who are still chafing from the thrashing John Morrison received in the last election.

The question is now whether Wade-Brown can leave this critical project in the hands of her transport portfolio leader. Does she continue to back Foster, hoping that his form will change and the defeats will come to an end? Or does she have to consider a portfolio reshuffle to be sure of getting the cycleway result that’s wanted? Only time will tell.