by Michael C Barnett
The need for local leadership to solve Wellington’s traffic congestion problems was identified last year by then Finance Minister Bill English in a speech to business leaders in Porirua. He criticised Wellington’s lack of a ‘progressive attitude’ to transport solutions.
Commenting on the drawn-out debate on the Basin Reserve and the outcome of the Board of Inquiry in 2014, English was reported as saying:
“It was possible the city would never solve the Basin’s congestion woes, which were holding up construction of a second Mt Victoria Tunnel and hamper access to the airport and hospital.”
Asked to elaborate, he said his message to Wellington was that, if it could come up with an alternative solution at the Basin, the Government would probably fund it, but it would not keep money sitting around forever while the city struggled to reach an agreement.
“Lack of money is not a problem for the bottlenecks in Wellington’s city infrastructure. There are large projects happening north of Wellington … and they’re all going ahead. The projects in Wellington city that could achieve those things aren’t going ahead, because the city comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t want them.”
In one sense English is correct when he says there is a lack of local leadership when it comes to transport issues in the city and region. There is however an over supply of transport committees with representatives from the Transport Agency (NZTA) and all the local authorities – all with their own personal and sometimes conflicting agendas.
First there is the Regional Land Transport Committee chaired by Cr. Donaldson and comprised of two persons representing the Regional Council (GWRC), the eight Mayors of and a representative of the Transport Agency. This Committee establishes and signs off the budget for transport planning and development for Wellington and the region and by far the major portion of its budget is dedicated to road construction, maintenance, road safety and accident prevention.
Alongside this sits the Sustainable Transport Committee of the Regional Council, also chaired by Cr. Donaldson and comprised of all thirteen councilors. According to the Council’s website this committee exists to “guide and monitor” the Council’s work on promoting sustainable transport, delivering a world class public transport service, enhancing regional resilience and reducing the impacts of the region’s transport system on the environment. In simple terms this means it is responsible for delivering rail and bus transport throughout the region in an environmentally sustainable way.
Next we have the Wellington City Council and its City Strategy Committee comprising the Mayor and all Councilors and chaired by Cr Iona Pannett. The role of the City Strategy Committee is wide ranging and includes setting the broad vision and direction of the city, determining and shaping the strategies, policies, regulations, including the key areas of urban development and transport. Again in simple terms it aims to create a livable environment designed around the wants and needs of people and provide and maintain the corridors along which the various transport modes (walking, cycling, public transport) can function.
Finally, there is the Regional Council/City Council Joint Working Group recently established to ensure dialogue between the two councils on transport issues for the region and Wellington City. Its members include Cr Donaldson, Cr Daran Ponter, Cr Sue Kedgley and Cr Roger Blakeley (GWRC), and Cr Sarah Free, Cr Chris Calvi-Freeman, Cr Brian Dawson and Cr Jill Day ( WCC).
With such a range of committees, it is little wonder that decision making is such a slow process. Debate becomes a talk fest among competing groups of individuals with diverse interests, responding to the ever present influence of the Transport Agency that is so intent on pushing through its road construction agenda all the way to Wellington Airport. The Transport Agency’s roading bias ignores the social and environmental impact of this programme, overseas trends on use of existing road space in metropolitan areas, and most important the stated wishes of the people of Wellington.
Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) was established in early 2016 as a joint initiative between the WCC, the Regional Council and the NZTA, with the objective of working with the people of Wellington to deliver an integrated transport system that supports their aspirations for how the city looks, feels and functions.
Ideally, it could be a vehicle for providing much needed local leadership on transport issues. However, its focus is too limited and the suspicion remains that the NZTA as major funder is continuing to play the part of puppeteer pulling the strings, with the regional representatives dancing to its tune in order to secure funding – ‘They’re paying, lets take the money and run.’
What Wellington desperately needs is a champion to standup to NZTA and the government, to tell them that constructing more roads is not what Wellington wants or needs, and to push for a rapid transit system based around a much improved electrified rail and bus network. Len Brown of Auckland did it and the Transport Agency and the government finally listened and belatedly put light rail on Auckland’s transport agenda.
Who is prepared to stand up and fight for the same in Wellington?
Regional chair Chris Laidlaw has gone on record as supporting light rail, but like former WCC Mayor Wade-Brown he feels challenged by the prospect. Given his profile and mana, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is also a potential champion. However, he will need to reverse his current stance of support for more tunnels and expanded road space through to the Airport.
LGWM provides a good rallying point for both to use their respective positions and fight for better outcomes. It has 12 bold guiding principles including better public transport, improved environmental outcomes, a people-centred city, managed travel demand, and the integration urban form and transport thinking. Its survey findings indicate that Wellingtonians want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment.
Working together, Laidlaw and Lester should heed these principles and survey findings and use them as the basis for making their case in a push for a livable environment and a world class public transport service.
When it all boils down, these decisions will be as much based on political issues as they are on science and economics.
Michael C Barnett is a member of FIT Wellington.