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We’ll pay the airport, say the mayors

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Can it be true? Celia and Ray and Wayne and Nick and the other regional mayors have agreed that they’ll pay “up to” half the cost of extending the runway at Wellington Airport.

Did we miss something? When did their councils vote to give them authority for this commitment?

The Dompost reports this morning

The regional mayoral forum met yesterday and agreed to fund up to $150 million of the $300m project. Of that, up to $90m – about 60 per cent – will be funded by the Wellington City Council, with the other eight councils contributing according to their population size.

They’ve made their pledge in spite of the fact that their councils have not voted for such expenditure, and in spite of the fact that there’s no credible budget for extending the runway. $300m was thought up when a northern extension was being touted. Now, a southern extension is favoured. And whatever the final price – after local councils have paid half, where is the other half coming from? The DomPost tells us the mayors believe that

the remaining $150m would be funded through a combination of airport and government money.

But there’s no government commitment to pay. And the airport company hasn’t yet specified how much it would be prepared to spend. Which is probably wise, when no one knows how much a longer runway might cost.

Perhaps “up to” in the mayors’ decision is a let-out clause, an indication that they’re not entirely committed to the unauthorised expenditure. Wellington’s deputy mayor Justin Lester offers a further hopeful qualification:

$90m would be the maximum contribution from Wellington, and the figure might drop.

At lunchtime today, the city council issued a different version of what was decided yesterday. It says the mayors agreed in principle to support a proposal to pay “around” $150m because there’s a compelling case for a longer runway. But, says the official release, there’s no commitment for any of the councils to pay.

Nevertheless, the Wellington City Council’s long-term plan includes the $90m payment. And why would the city council give so much to a privately-owned company? The deputy mayor says the capital will be carrying the lion’s share of the funding because it will get the most benefit from an extension.

There’s another qualification in this morning’s DomPost report. Justin Lester is quoted as saying:

Any spending would depend on a commitment from a long-haul airline that it would fly to Wellington.

The city council has been seeking such a commitment for three years, without success.

So far, Wellington has spent almost $3m to help the airport company prepare a resource consent for a longer runway. The city council’s first commitment was $1m, in 2013. Then things got more expensive. At the end of last year the council upped its contribution by $1.95m. The council’s payments represent half the cost of the application. The airport company (in which the council is a minority shareholder) is paying the other half.

But if the cost of seeking resource consent has more than doubled in less than two years, who knows what the real cost of extending the runway will be?

The highly-orchestrated campaign promoting the extension continues at full strength. Jo Coughlan says the longer runway will somehow “unlock the region’s economic potential.” (A similar claim, one remembers, was made about the Basin Reserve flyover.) Fran Wilde is more cautious, and wants to see a business plan. John Milford (who resigned from Kirkcaldies to join the Employers’ Chamber of Commerce) expects “clear benefits,” a claim which is dubious in the absence of any business plan. And a VUW academic, who should have known better, wrote to the DomPost in December saying that Wellington would be a “backwater” unless it had a longer runway. International students, he believed, would only come to Wellington on direct flights, and would never leave home if they had to change planes. Apart, of course, from the thousands who are here already, and who’ve had no trouble in making their connections.