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A transport revolt at the Regional Council?

by Lindsay Shelton
Regional councillors are starting to question Wellington’s latest bus plan. Does this signal a small revolt at the Regional Council? There’s even a curious statement about the plan from Chris Laidlaw, the council’s new chairman: “If we had our own choices, we would be far ahead of where we are now.”

Where they are now is a two option plan [1] that had already been criticised before regional councillors tried to come to grips with it this week. On eyeofthefish, Leviathan wrote that neither option would deliver rapid transit [2]. There was agreement from a Wellington writer on the authoritative transportblog [3]. A DomPost editorial [4] went further:

it looks like the steady whittling away of a fundamental improvement to Wellington public transport, in favour of that perennial: the cheap, halfway measure. In the end, those never pay off.

And yesterday during a debate at the regional council the plans were slammed as “18th-century thinking.” The DomPost reports: [5]

The proposal to build a high-capacity bus route between the CBD and Newtown and Kilbirnie had some around the Regional Council table rolling their eyes on Wednesday, despite the council agreeing to proceed with a business case for the project. In March 2014, a bus rapid transit network was chosen as the solution to Wellington’s public transport needs for the next 30 years, after it emerged a light rail system along roughly the same route would cost more than $1 billion. As a result of Wednesday’s decision, the regional council, in conjunction with Wellington City Council and the New Zealand Transport Agency, will investigate two options… One option would see lanes built along the entire route for $127 million, with buses given full priority at intersections. The other $59m option would see lanes at targeted locations only, with buses given limited priority at intersections.

Some regional councillors are doubtful that either option will produce the level of public transport benefit Wellington needs … Nigel Wilson said the investigations that led to this point had thrown up some truly visionary ideas, such as light rail, but the end result had been disappointing. “We’re talking about finding 21st-century solutions, but most of the solutions we’ve been offered are from the 18th century,” he said. “We need to start thinking about 22nd-century ideas.” Sue Kedgley agreed, saying Wellington’s narrow streets would prevent it from having the type of bus lanes required for a proper bus rapid transit network. Light rail, by comparison, could operate in areas as narrow as Manners Street.

Nevertheless, councillors agreed that the bus rapid transit route should be protected with a view to one day making the transition to light rail. But does “one day” have any meaning?

Paul Swain, the public transport portfolio leader, used the dubious “transformation” word again. He believes the new bus network will be “transformational” once new routes, fares, discounts and universal smartcard ticketing for are introduced. Chris Laidlaw wasn’t so sure. He said the council needed to “up the ante” when it came to planning for the future. But he pointed out the city council and Transport Agency needed to be on board too. Then came his pointed remark:

“If we had our own choices, we would be far ahead of where we are now.”

Chris must now explain how, as the successor to the formidable Fran Wilde, he will be showing the way for his council to “up the ante,” and how the council can be given the courage to make its own choices. (Instead of being pressured by the Transport Agency?)

And what of the two unpopular options? They’re to be investigated at a cost of $1.5m, with city and regional ratepayers each contributing $375,000 and the Transport Agency paying the rest. But how many people are really convinced that either of them will make a difference?

Ian Apperley: Fixing Wellington’s transport problems [6]