Wellington Scoop

Too early for a tunnel decision

by John Rankin
We don’t know enough right now to make the decision that Mayor Foster has made about another Mt Victoria Tunnel. About the only thing we know for certain is that a second tunnel is desperately needed for walkers and cyclists.

If LGWM’s proposed rapid transit route survives the next round of design (and that’s a big if), we will need a rapid transit tunnel through Mt Albert to Kilbirnie.

If on the other hand the next round of design favours a different route, we may need a rapid transit tunnel through Mt Victoria, either instead or as well, either in combination with a road tunnel or not.

We haven’t yet decided what form of rapid transit, if any, is best, so it could be a rapid bus tunnel, a trackless tram tunnel (ie light rail vehicles running on virtual tracks), a light rail tunnel, or a heavy rail tunnel.

If it’s heavy rail, the only feasible route is probably via a Mt Victoria tunnel. The option most likely to be future-proof is a multi-modal tunnel: walking, cycling, rapid transit and road.

I’d have thought it would be a prudent use of rate-payer and tax-payer money to work out what sort of Mt Victoria tunnel we need before committing to build one, as the new mayor has done. And that in turn means deciding what we want the future city to look like.

If we want to build up not out, with medium density housing along transit-oriented corridors, then the desired location of the development areas will determine the areas a rapid transit network needs to serve.

On the other hand, if we go ahead now with a second Mt Victoria road tunnel, and kick rapid transit down the road because it’s “too expensive” (as if somehow it’s going to be more affordable in future), we will lock in Wellington as a congested, car-dependent city for the next 50 years.

Mayor Foster’s position is a call for the Wellington region to build out not up, whether he intends this or not. Is this the future he wants?

Rapid transit needs a business case, yet Mayor Foster is not seeking a business case for a second Mt Victoria road tunnel.

Why the difference? If induced traffic is properly allowed for, the business case for a road-only Mt Victoria tunnel could be marginal; adding road capacity will not “fix” congestion.

Perhaps Mayor Foster could explain how adding road capacity but not building a rapid transit alternative will achieve LGWM’s goal of “moving more people with fewer vehicles”.

We can build what we need for the 21st century or we can stay behind as the world moves on.

John Rankin is spokesperson for FIT Wellington.


  1. Brendan, 15. October 2019, 12:22

    Too early? We’ve been waiting for two decades for a second tunnel! Let’s Get the Tunnel Borer started now! We, the majority, are bored to death by minorities stopping our city progressing. And yes, toll the tunnel.

  2. Glen Smith, 15. October 2019, 15:48

    John. This is a excellent summary. As you say we need to “work out what sort of Mt Victoria tunnel we need before committing to build one” which, following the principle of ‘do it once and do it right,’ should be a definitive long term solution for transport to the east. Unfortunately this is exactly what NZTA’s current road-only Mt Victoria Tunnel proposal abjectly fails to do, with modelled projections showing this plan is not a long term fix (Wellington Road/Ruahine St congestion dropping back to LOS E as early as 2031). If implemented as proposed it will, as you say, simply ‘kick the can down the road’ and lead to the whole issue having to be revisited by mid century (when retrofitting a proper long term solution with be exponentially more difficult as hugely larger cost).

    We need increased tunnel capacity across the Mt Victoria to Mt Albert hill range for 4 modes. Cycling and pedestrian (as you point out) but also rapid transit (for the necessary long term capacity that road can’t provide) AND increased road capacity (for the extra trips that can only be feasibly undertaken by car). The majority of extra capacity should be non-road due to the higher capacity and lower carbon footprint of these alternative modes. Rapid transit should be rail on the ‘heavier’ side of the spectrum due to capacity, attractiveness to discretionary riders, but most importantly for compatibility with our existing rail network by ‘track-sharing’ to produce a seamless regional PT network. As you point out, this rail on the ‘heavier’ side of the spectrum can only feasibly go via Mt Victoria. This, along with cost and consentability, are just a few of the many reasons for not taking rail via Newtown.

    Almost certainly the best way of getting all 4 of these modes to the east is by a large bore stacked multipurpose second Mt Victoria Tunnel and it is good to see FIT considering this option. This was proposed by international tunneling expert Alun Thomas and nobody has produced any evidence to disprove his conclusion that this would be substantially cheaper and far less destructive than separate tunnel bores. If the NZTA had been able to undertake proper co-ordinated long term transport planning, it is possible they could have got Alice (the affectionately named tunnel boring machine that produced the Waterview Tunnels) to bore the second Mt Victoria Tunnel at a discounted price while it was in the country (4.8km of tunnel bored for $1.4 billion – at this rate the 700m long Mt Victoria Tunnel would have cost $240 million). Another opportunity might arise since the new tunnel-based second harbour crossing in Auckland will likely need a large bore TBM. Don’t hold your breath that NZTA are competent enough to co-ordinate the planning for these two tunnels.

  3. Dave B, 15. October 2019, 17:57

    @ Brendan – We have been waiting five decades for the rail extension that was first mooted in the 1950s, recommended in 1963 by the very consultants who also recommended the present-day motorway (De Leuw Cather & Co), reaffirmed in 1966 by these consultants as “essential to have in-place by 1986”, feasibility-studied in 1970 by consultants Beca Carter Hollings & Ferner, and then abandoned in 1975 against all this advice.

    As for supposed majorities of people in favour of spending the majority of transport-funding on roads, this is the argument former Transport Minister Steven Joyce tried to use for Auckland. “94% of commuters travel by car”, he alleged, “therefore 94% of Auckland’s transport-funding should go to roads”. He famously opposed the City Rail Link project, insisting that “Aucklanders love their cars and you’ll never get them into public transport”.

    Well in spite of Mr Joyce, Auckland’s rail system was upgraded and electrified and usage has soared as commuters ditched their cars. Now the much-needed City Rail Link is being built.

    The ‘majority’ will generally respond to the provision that is made for them. If that provision is only roads and cars, then that is the mode they will use. If good PT options are provided and roads cease to receive a disproportionate share of the funding ‘cake’, then many people will turn to PT. Auckland, once a PT basket-case, is now showing the way here.

  4. Brendan, 15. October 2019, 20:58

    I think you are in a minority of one Dave B. That is why your tunnel will remain your idea. The rest of us want another road tunnel now and sensible people will put up with a toll to get it built sooner rather than later. I’m sure the Chinese could get it built in 5 years!

  5. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 15. October 2019, 21:11

    Dave B: “The ‘majority’ will generally respond to the provision that is made for them. If that provision is only roads and cars, then that is the mode they will use. If good PT options are provided and roads cease to receive a disproportionate share of the funding ‘cake’, then many people will turn to PT. Auckland, once a PT basket-case, is now showing the way here.”

    Absolutely. That’s worth repeating, again and again.

  6. Brendan, 16. October 2019, 7:19

    Chris CF – disproportionate share of the funding cake? Who puts the ingredients into the cake in the first place? The car users at the petrol/diesel pump that’s who! The rich bus and rail white collar commuters should pay for their trip to their email work station. Why should I and other High Viz people who do a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay to subside them at the petrol pump?

  7. Andy Mellon, 16. October 2019, 9:28

    Because Brendan, if those commuters weren’t on the train or bus, your car commute would be vastly, vastly worse if not nigh on impossible. And to imply that it’s the ‘rich’ who use bus and rail seems pretty disingenuous. One could equally argue that it’s the ‘rich’ in large, single occupancy vehicles who make the driving commute unnecessarily difficult for those that need to drive.

  8. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 16. October 2019, 9:41

    Brendan, do you actually know how state highways and local roads are funded? I suggest that if you do some research you’ll find the majority of it is via general taxation and council rates, both of which the “rich bus and rail white collar commuters” contribute to.
    Then there are the externalities – everyone shares the dis-benefits of noise, atmospheric pollution and community severance that cars produce but not everyone benefits from the convenience of using them. Incidentally, most of those “rich bus and rail white collar commuters” also own cars and have paid the taxes and duties associated with their purchases. So it’s not as simple as you might think, and it’s certainly not an us-versus-them situation.

  9. Brendan, 16. October 2019, 10:02

    Yes CCF – State Highways are 100% funded through hypothecated petrol and Road User Charges. Local roads have a 50% petrol and RUC basis with the rest raised from business and residential rates. Buses run on the roads and users pay 50% of the costs with the rest coming from the petrol/RUC charge and me and others from our ever increasing rate bill. Rail, well most of the capital funding is coming from the Crown but me and my fellow tradies are chipping in with petrol and diesel to fund commuters on the Capital Connection and on other rail lines into the city.

  10. Kerry, 16. October 2019, 10:27

    Brendan. You don’t subsidise anybody at the petrol pump. An example is bicycle studies in Auckland, modelled using the NZTA Economic Evaluation Manual, planning for another 4500 cyclists a day coming into central Auckland in the morning peak. Overall, spending $1.00 on providing for cyclists brings benefits of $2 to $4 from greater road-space, better health, fewer crashes and reduced emissions.
    Cars use road-space road less efficiently than any other mode of transport. Even sharing with buses can double capacity, and creating space for walking, cycling and public transport all increase the people-capacity of a traffic lane dramatically.
    Other hidden subsidies include space for parking on-street, and the cost of all the people killed by cars; the total is three times the traffic fatalities, because of pollution effects.
    A recent LGWM study shows a corridor capacity of 13,000 people an hour on Taranaki Street, up from 2500 persons/hr today. The capacity comes from walking, cycling, buses and light rail, with limited access for cars. This is the LGWM objective: more people in fewer vehicles.
    Providing for more cars can only increase emissions, pollution, crashes and climate-change, and is no longer acceptable in a civilised city.
    Copenhagen is planning to be carbon-zero by 2025: what can Wellington achieve, now that we know 2050 will be too late??

  11. Brendan, 16. October 2019, 13:06

    Why can’t cyclists pay for their infrastructure since it usually involves taking space from user-paying motorists (or pedestrians).

  12. John Rankin, 16. October 2019, 16:18

    I have a lot of sympathy for Brendan and people like him, for whom congestion is a significant cost to their business and not just a personal inconvenience. But adding road capacity is not the answer, because it will encourage more traffic. Cars are the least efficient way to move people around the city. Instead of adding capacity, we need to prioritise making our roads more productive. So:

    1. In the short term, encourage students to get to and from school without using a car. Wellington is far less congested during school holidays. Perhaps this can become a project for our school-age climate activists, where they can make a real difference.

    2. In the medium term, invest in bus priority measures, so bus journeys are faster and more reliable. This will encourage more people to take the bus. GW and WCC are doing this; we need to encourage them.

    3. In the long term, we need a mass rapid transit network serving our busiest corridors, integrated with feeder bus services. Because this will take time, we need to start work yesterday. Those using the rapid transit network will have a congestion-free journey. It pays to live on busy corridors.

    4. And we need to introduce congestion charges for bringing vehicles into the city centre during peak periods. But only when people have real and attractive alternatives, otherwise it’s just a tax, that will hit the least well-off the most. For business vehicles, the congestion charge must be a deductible business expense.

    So while I can question some of the detail, in my view LGWM has got the mix about right. We need to move more people using fewer vehicles.

  13. Dave B, 16. October 2019, 16:40

    Brendan, full marks for persistence in trying to argue for more of what has got us into such a mess already! Once upon a time I would have suggested that you move up to Auckland where you would have found many people including politicians who think as you do. But that has largely changed. Aucklanders generally accept now that ever-increasing provision for cars has caused a transport-nightmare. Its motorway-programme has been ramped right down and efforts are going into boosting the “missing-mode” – high-quality mass transit. There is at last a general acceptance of this, now that the last bastion of opposition – the National Party – has been disempowered.

    And by the way, as a cyclist who pays rates I definitely do contribute to the meagre cycling-infrastructure that I use. I also contribute a heap to car-infrastructure that I make little use of. Roading designed primarily for cars is actually way more than cyclists need, as well as not being particularly suitable for them. Where is the fairness of that? By extension of your argument, I should get a rates-rebate as a low-user of the expensive car-infrastructure that I have been forced to contribute to. But that’s a silly argument, just like yours.

  14. John Rankin, 17. October 2019, 14:07

    @GlenSmith: I think we need to keep an open mind until LGWM has carried out more detailed investigation and all the evidence is in. On one hand, Brent Efford is certain that a Mt Albert rapid transit tunnel is the best option, as LGWM’s initial investigation envisages. On the other hand, you, @DaveB and others have pointed out that this is a less direct and potentially lower speed route.

    What we don’t know at this stage is how LGWM plans to solve the low speed problem on its proposed route. If it were up to me, I would consider elevating the line wherever a surface route would prevent cruising at speeds below 45 or 50 kph. This kind of strategic grade separation, putting rail overhead, is common overseas. The aim would be to deliver an airport to railway station travel time of under 20 minutes. As Stephen Moore has pointed out, an elevated line may open the possibility of a rapid transit route via Constable Street, mitigating both the speed and distance problems. FIT tried really hard to make a surface route via Constable St work; it can’t be done. But the surface footprint of a modern elevated light rail line is surprisingly small; I think it’s worth investigating.

    Until detailed analysis of rapid transit design options is complete, it is foolish to be deciding what to build by way of a second Mt Victoria tunnel. Whether or not it is their intention, those pushing for a second Mt Victoria road tunnel now may kill any chance of Wellington city getting rapid transit for another 30 years. Does Mayor Foster want to be known to future generations as the man who killed rapid transit during a climate crisis?

  15. David, 17. October 2019, 16:13

    It doesn’t matter what anyone says, if a second road tunnel is built, it will increase traffic congestion. It’s like a jar of beans. The more beans you put in the jar, the more it fills up with beans. Quite simple really.

  16. Victor Meldew, 17. October 2019, 20:18

    David. Of course a second tunnel will relieve congestion. Mt Victoria and the Basin Reserve is Wellington’s traffic bottle-neck!

  17. Traveller, 17. October 2019, 20:22

    Victor. You are wrong. Getting more cars faster through another tunnel will just move the congestion to another part of town – to the Taranaki Street intersection, for example. The CBD can’t cope with any more cars.

  18. Glen Smith, 17. October 2019, 21:04

    John. Absolutely agree “we need to keep an open mind until..all the evidence is in” and that “a second Mt Victoria road tunnel now may kill any chance of Wellington city getting rapid transit for another 30 years”. Any road-only tunnel (as currently proposed) without definite proposals for a high quality PT corridor to the east (to produce a balanced transport network) should, as with the road-only flyover, be fought tooth and nail. But that doesn’t mean the final solution for a balanced transport plan shouldn’t include some extra road capacity.

    The route via Newtown is based on a ‘trunk and feeder’ design which both you and Brent Efford espouse, despite the evidence in my article of 20th August that in a city the size of Wellington a ‘trunk and feeder’ design is inferior to direct services. If instead you adopt a radial connective design, with multiple uninterrupted regional direct ‘lines’ of the same mode from start to finish, then getting the Eastern lines to their destinations as efficiently as possible and leaving Newtown to be serviced by the Southern bus-based lines is clearly more sensible (in my view).

    David. Increased road capacity that isn’t balanced by increased PT capacity and efficiency undoubtedly produces greater congestion by way of generated traffic. The Victoria Transport Planning Institute did a very good and easy to read summary of this topic earlier this year (). Figure 11 on page 23 compares the long term congestion effects of road widening vs increased transit. Initially road widening appears to give good results (useful for the short term political expedience of Andy Foster to attract the votes of people like John Morrison, Brendan and others who can’t be bothered studying the topic in depth) but in the long haul its effect on congestion is negative. In contrast the same money spent on PT produces increasing long term congestion benefits as the network expands and discretionary trips are increasingly diverted from road.

    In terms of cost benefit (what Andy appears to be basing his position on) again initially the effects of road building look positive (see figures 9 and 10 on page 22) but once the effects of generated traffic come into play the vehicle operating and travel time benefits soon disappear while the external costs of induced traffic rises, leading to an overall negative societal cost/ benefit.

    In terms of your analogy of a jar of beans, I would more compare it to two jars of water connected by a tube. One jar is the ‘road’ jar and the other the ‘PT’ jar. Water flows until an equilibrium is reached. As the city grows, we have to add more water (trips). If you make just make the car jar larger, all the extra water just flows into it (and congestion increases). If on the other hand you expand the ‘PT’ jar at the same time then the water redistributes across the two. And if you make the PT jar even bigger still then water flows from the ‘car’ jar (and road congestion drops). So the trick is to expand the ‘PT’ jar MORE than the ‘car’ jar. This I exactly what a multipurpose tunnel does. It adds over 90% of the capacity as cycle/ pedestrian/ PT while adding likely just enough long term road capacity to cater for the trips that can only feasibly be undertaken by car.

  19. Dave B, 17. October 2019, 22:37

    Quite possibly, if “4-lanes-to-the-planes” was completed, then for a while at least, traffic might flow freely from the present motorway, through the tunnels and out to the east. But. . . .

    1) Such a development would induce more traffic. The perceived ease of driving would encourage more people to drive, to make more trips more often, to switch from inadequate public transport, to relocate homes and businesses because of the seemingly freed-up driving-conditions. Great for a while, but then the new road fills up with traffic and becomes an even bigger congestion-problem than before.

    2) Motorway traffic doesn’t stay on the motorway. It exits into existing streets, into non-motorway streets, into ordinary streets, CBD streets, on-street parks and off-street-parks. Only now there is a whole lot more of it. So the existing infrastructure groans under the weight, and grid-locks more-often, and becomes even-more intolerable than before. Especially so in a peninsula-city like Wellington where there is no onward destination for through-traffic to disappear to.

    3) When we realize that we have made everything worse, and more car-dominated, and more car-entrenched, then what? We will have spent a large amount of our limited transport-funding on a 4-lanes-to-the-planes, non-solution. Will there be any money left to belatedly change direction and do what we should have done in the first place which is to extend our incredibly-effective but all-too-often ignored regional rail system, to unload some of the thrombosis that we have stupidly allowed to paralyze our roads? This is exactly the mistake that Auckland made over many years, and is now desperately trying to get itself out of. Do we have to go through the same painful process before we also learn? Do we have to learn the hard way?

  20. Derek G., 18. October 2019, 7:17

    Glen and John. Both of you want Light Rail. Would you be persuaded that what Wellington needs is a road tunnel if the ‘evidence’ supported it?

  21. John Rankin, 18. October 2019, 17:27

    @GlenSmith: most of the economic benefits of rapid transit come from the value created through transit-oriented development around the stations. The direct transport benefits are relatively minor. So the route needs to go where the opportunity for transit-oriented development is greatest. As I understand it, in the end this was LGWM’s rationale for routing rapid transit through Newtown. Having spent a lot of time in cities with trunk and feeder transit systems, they work well and really ought not be considered controversial. Smart people choose to live close to the trunk; there are lots of smart people so the trunk corridor develops higher residential density over time.

    For me, the best argument for building rapid transit immediately is that Wellington city is projected to add 80,000 people over the next 30 years or so. We need to house them and get them to and from the places they work, study and play.

    Rapid transit lines with a split near the end of the line (λ-shaped) can be good, provided that the service frequency is high enough. Obviously, the frequency of service halves once you pass the split. So this kind of design works best where the rapid transit line is physically segregated from traffic, which allows higher frequency operation. If we are going to run rapid transit on-street, trunk and feeder is probably a better option.

    Road congestion doesn’t necessarily reduce if all you do is build rapid transit. Induced traffic will re-fill the space. However, many more people experience a congestion-free journey. If we want to reduce congestion, we need road pricing as well. Drivers can then choose from a congestion-free journey on rapid transit, a de-congested car trip for a fee, or live with congestion.

    @DerekG: if the ‘evidence’ claims a Mt Victoria road tunnel will reduce congestion, then I shall be suspicious that the modelling used does not properly count the effect of induced traffic (which @DaveB describes above). Given a choice between investing in productivity and investing in capacity, in the long run productivity is always better value. Since about 1950, successive government of all political stripes (and many businesses) have chosen capacity, which is why NZ has among the lowest productivity in the OECD.

    It may be that a road tunnel is the political price for getting rapid transit: the bribe you have to pay to get the job you want. If so, there need to be two conditions: rapid transit starts first, so a future National-led government can’t de-fund it; and we introduce a congestion charge for cars entering the city centre during peak periods (more effective than the toll @Brendan suggests).

  22. Glen Smith, 18. October 2019, 23:11

    Derek. To achieve a good balanced long term transport design to the east I think we are going to need small amounts of increased tunnel capacity for motor vehicles (perhaps 2 lanes as planned) and large amounts of increased capacity (the rest) in tunnel space for more space efficient transport modes (cycling/ walking/ dedicated PT corridors). I don’t view this extra road space as a ‘bribe’ (as John does) but simply reflects the neutral objective reality that a significant number of trips are both essential and can only feasibly be undertaken by car.

    If the cheapest and least destructive way of achieving this end result is by adding the extra road capacity in combination with 1 or more of the other 3 modes (as I believe the evidence shows it is) then it should all proceed together. If the cheapest and least destructive way is having the increased motor vehicle capacity in a separate road-only tunnel and finances are limited then the other more efficient modes clearly take preference (dedicated PT space – preferably rail- being the top priority) and should be completed first and road tunnel space later.
    The best plan is to add them all in one multipurpose tunnel (I welcome objective evidence that this isn’t the case).

  23. D.W., 19. October 2019, 9:18

    How about tolling the tunnel John R. to keep demand at the same level as today but just quicker. The money could help pay for your Light Rail project. Wouldn’t that be a win-win?

  24. John Rankin, 22. October 2019, 10:09

    @DW: If you just toll the tunnel, how many drivers would re-route via Newtown and round the bays? This was NZTA’s argument against tolling Transmission Gully: people would use the existing route. I think you’ll need a cordon charge that aims to de-congest the city centre, in conjunction with rapid transit, better bus service, and better and safer walking, cycling and scooting.

    We need to wait and see what the business cases find from their modelling and I agree with @Glen: “If … finances are limited then the other more efficient modes clearly take preference (dedicated PT space – preferably rail- being the top priority) and should be completed first and road tunnel space later.”

    Mayor Foster has noted that we are going to need 30,000 more houses over the next 30 years. How will these new people get around if we don’t build a rapid transit network, supported by better regular transit and walking, cycling, scooting? My preferred future is that all major new development happens on higher-density rapid transit corridors.

  25. luke, 25. October 2019, 16:13

    If you want more cars, build more roads. It really is that simple.