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The runway extension and the ratepayers

by Ian Apperley
In an opinion piece today, city councillor David Lee points out dangerous thinking [1]about the costs of the airport runway extension. In particular, that ratepayers are likely to pick up the lion’s share of the costs despite being a minor shareholder.

We’ve been watching the efforts by Justin Lester [2] and others in the Council to sell the idea to the public. Pollyanna statements, linking anything positive they can to the extension in an effort to tart the extension up, sponsored articles in Capital Magazine by Infratil, a flashy website [3], and the rest.

Which is a problem. Because the indicators so far are not happy. Let’s look at what we know:

1. The Prime Minister, the Transport Minister, and the Economic Minister don’t support the runway extension. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, it just means that there will be no cash from the Government.
2. Treasury will not support it without a formal business case in their format being written. That format is objective, there is nothing flashy about it. But as far as we know the WCC and Infratil haven’t used their format.
3. BRANZ, the airline association, which has 22 international airlines in its membership, won’t support it.
4. Air New Zealand has said even if the runway is extended, they won’t use it for long-haul flights.
5. The Pilots’ Association has taken the airport to court over its safety limits. If they win, an extension may be forced on us. We’d have to pay for the extension to meet safety requirements, not to allow larger planes.
6. Wide bodied aircraft will not be able to take off with a full load, even with the extension. In order to allow full payload takeoff, the runway would have to be even longer. No one has done the math on whether, with a lighter payload, those aircraft could make a long-haul route. Say to Hong Kong or Los Angeles.
7. The airport’s initial assessment showed very few economic benefits for decades. Which is a problem, because the world changes fast.
8. Climate change. Sea levels in Wellington are rising the fastest in the country, because of subduction (we are slowly sinking), and that, coupled with expected climate change, makes the long-term life of the airport problematic.
9. Costs for the airport extension seem very optimistic. Similar costs in Hong Kong show between three and four times the cost of what has been quoted here.
10. Wellington is not a tourist gateway. Tourists land in Auckland and Christchurch and travel in either direction to the other, passing via Wellington. In much the same way that Vietnam works, so does New Zealand. You don’t land in the middle of Vietnam, you start in the North or South and work in the opposite direction.
11. Tourist numbers in Wellington have been rising steadily without any extension.
12. There are unanswered questions around safety with a northerly takeoff pattern. Currently, the airlines have to do quite a bit of extra work and planning in order to deal with an engine failure. This includes dual-GPS and a flight path that takes them up the Hutt Valley and then left through Haywards. This was introduced so we could fly fully-laden A320s. What happens in that scenario with aircraft that are far heavier?
13. Costs for infrastructure upgrades will be high. Bigger planes means different equipment, different gate configurations, more fuel, and far more airport services. Taxi turning ways may need to be widened. These have not been included in costs to date.
14. The extension needs resource consent. It doesn’t have it.
15. WCC funding is contingent on signing a long-haul airline that commits to Wellington. That hasn’t happened. Probably because it is incredibly expensive.

When you start to question the sanity of pouring millions of dollars into the idea, which the WCC has been doing, you are attacked as trying to somehow sabotage Wellington’s economic growth. This is simple politicking by self-interested parties who are happy to play the man, not the ball, and pander to the residents’ sense of stasis. All the while refusing to deal with the facts above, brushing them away.

Unfortunately for some councillors, that stasis has led to an optimism bias on a scheme that looks like a White Elephant in the extreme. Allegations of corruption, self-interest, and conflicts of interest have been flying. As my great-grandfather (who oddly enough, built the last extension) used to say “Never attribute to malice what you can to stupidity.”

As I have commented before, I think the WCC is in a position of conflict. It, we, own 33% of the airport. It would be better for an independent body, say the GWRC, to take control of the process of public consultation, if it ever happens.

The feeling that I am left with is a Council that is singing its usual tune, “we know better than you.” They’re following a promotion and sales role as opposed to an objective analysis.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the Council say “We aren’t sure this is going to fly. There are dozens of challenges that must be overcome. We have a hunch this would be a good thing for the city and we will continue to invest money in investigating it. We will make those investigations completely transparent and publicly available. We’ve removed officials and politicians from the process who are perceived to have a conflict of interest. $90 million, or more, is a significant amount of money for the ratepayers to invest and there may be better projects to support. In the meantime we are going to look carefully and long at the options because it may be the right thing to do. There is no rush.”

Sadly, the politicking, Pollyanna statements, and propaganda are likely to continue. Ratepayers deserve better.

This article was first published on Ian Apperley’s Strathmore Park blog. [4]