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How much? Who’s paying? Unanswered questions about a longer runway

by Dr Sea Rotmann
We are a group of concerned Wellington residents who formed the Guardians of the Bays in 2013 to counteract the seemingly gung-ho approach of the Wellington City Council and Wellington International Airport Limited regarding the long-touted extension of the airport runway – either to the north into Evens Bay, or, more likely, to the south into Moa Point/Lyall Bay.

We are concerned that important questions about the economic viability of the proposed extension have not been answered. Even though some of us are already detrimentally and disproportionally affected by the airport and its actions, we are not anti-airport or anti-progress. Instead, we are concerned that important questions about the economic viability of this project do not seem to be asked or answered by the proponents of the extension – foremost the Mayor, the City Council, and the Chamber of Commerce.

We will attempt to demand answers from the council and the airport company before they move forward relentlessly with this multi-million dollar project. In short, the most concerning questions are:

What is the actual cost going to be?

§ $300m has been touted for at least a decade, despite wildly differing conditions and construction challenges to the North and the South, with seemingly the same costing for both dumped clean-fill and highly sophisticated Japanese steel pillars. What is the ACTUAL likely cost?

Who will pay for this?

§ The airport made it clear that it is ‘not economic’ to put their money where their mouth is. The National Government has indicated it is not good for NZ Inc. The city council has indicated 50% (!) rate rises over 10 years which will partly pay for this runway. The other part will most likely be from selling assets, e.g. on our waterfront. It seems as though Wellington ratepayers will be footing most of the cost, despite only owning one third of the airport.

Which airline has said it will fly here long-haul?

§ Despite the spending of $1.4m since 2006 in a ‘Long Haul Attraction Fund’, no airline has said it would move its operations to fly long haul from Wellington. Air New Zealand has indicated it will actively compete with anyone flying long-haul (as their major hub is Auckland).

Why do we need another long-haul airport in New Zealand?

§ There are two major hubs in the region – Auckland and Sydney, both of which are aggressively expanding their international runways. Christchurch, with no curfew and a much longer runway, only manages one long-haul flight to Singapore each day. Any visitor increases from new routes are already coming through Auckland; we will draw business from existing routes.

What is economic viability of this project long-term?

§ A best-case scenario of $389-$684m by 2060 doesn’t sound great once the actual costs of the project, especially to residents in long-term rate hikes, interest and loss of income from assets including the South Coast, are taken into account. It is at best, a minute gain in 40 years and at worst, a massive loss.

What are the risks of this project?

§ They are innumerable. Yet we never hear a word about the risks from the proponents. Some are: the fact that the airport sits on reclaimed land and an actual fault line, has been hit by several tsunamis in the past, has to shut down regularly in (increasing in frequency and extremity) southerly storms, risks from rising sea levels and associated insurance costs, not filling flights due to competition from major airlines and regional international hubs, hikes on domestic ticket prices to offset losses, losses of the economic viability of the South Coast including recreational, tourism, cray fisheries, the sewerage plant operation, the marine reserve etc

These obvious questions have not received any clear answers to date, despite this extension having been touted for more than 10 years. If the champions of this project cannot give, after ten years, clear answers around the costs, impacts, risks and viability of such a large project, we should be rightfully concerned as residents of this great city.

We urge you to submit your views on this issue to the Council here.

If you have any comments, queries or would like to join our group, please contact Richard Randerson or Dr Sea Rotmann (drsea@orcon.net.nz)