Wellington Scoop

Mayoral campaign: more interest in light rail, less confidence in longer runway

Who’d have thought that light rail would be an election issue again? Two elections ago, it was one of the key planks of Celia Wade-Brown’s campaign. After her plans came to nothing, the subject seemed to vanish from the political conversation. But now it’s back.

Seven of the eight Wellington mayoral candidates are now talking about light rail, in their answers to our questions about transport.

Helene Ritchie:
Planning for light rail should start – although it is likely that a CBD street would need to be completely dedicated for a two way system….Over the next twenty years we will have light rail connecting with the Johnsonville line, and from the railway station to Kilbirnie and the Airport.

Keith Johnson
I would … like to put in place serious advance planning for a light rail rapid transit spine. My preferred route at this stage is largely that proposed by Dr Roger Blakely which would run from the railway Station into Taranaki Street and thence to Kilbirnie under the Mt Victoria hillside behind Wellington Zoo. I would like to see the line go underground before the Karo Street – Taranaki Street junction and continue underground across Mt Cook and Newtown and thence to Kilbirnie.

Nick Leggett
In a world where funds and political support is of no issue…I would support Light Rail Transit extending from the Wellington Railway Station and connecting to the South, East and West to all outer suburbs.

Justin Lester
In a world where funds and political support is of no issue I would support … a light rail network from Wellington railway station to Wellington Airport via Newtown and Kilbirnie.

Andy Foster
In a world where funds and political support is of no issue …, I would support light rail … with an initial line from Johnsonville to the city (existing – either use heavy rail or convert to light rail) and then to the airport and eastern suburbs as the first line and then add connections to Island Bay and Karori.

Johnny Overton:
I would like to see an integrated light rail, train & high speed monorail (sky train) system.

Nicola Young
Light Rail will be considered seriously in the late 2020s.

Jo Coughlan is the only mayoral candidate who’s had nothing to say about light rail.

Then there are changing stances about the runway extension. RadioNZ reports that mayoral candidates are “reconsidering” the city council’s decision to spend $90million to help pay for a longer runway.

Here are the responses from seven mayoral candidates. Only one of them seems to be an unconditional supporter – and he’s from out of town.

Helene Ritchie
No I do not support the runway extension. It is unnecessary. There has been no justification for this expenditure. It is misleading to say that we will have so called long haul to many world destinations as shown in WIAL’s recent ads. I am proposing that a referendum/poll of residents/ratepayers be held to ascertain whether they think this is an appropriate spend of rates funds. It is “corporate welfare”-a gift from the ratepayers (Council) to a global company Infratil which has significant profits….

Keith Johnson
I am totally opposed to this project and have registered with the Environment Court as an objector.

Nicola Young
Infratil should contribute in line with its 66% shareholding, and not expect ratepayers/taxpayers to fund the bulk of the costs…if the runway extension makes commercial sense, Infratil will build it. Projections for the runway’s success seem wildly optimistic… I am committed to freezing our rates, and – unless convincing evidence is provided – believe the airport extension could be a costly ‘white elephant’.

Justin Lester
I think the airport extension needs to be explored…There are some caveats: (1) the consent needs to be approved; (2) we need firm commitment from an airline; and (3) we need an appropriate finance structure and significant financial contributions from Wellington Airport, Central Government and the region’s territorial authorities (which they have already agreed in principle). For the project to proceed, the biggest issue is likely to be funding and we will need significant contributions from Wellington Airport and Central Government. Without these, the project is unlikely to proceed. The airport’s contribution would need to be far in excess of $50m for the project to proceed.

Jo Coughlan
I have supported the resource consents process to date, because without a considered and fair assessment of the impacts, the project can’t proceed. We are still awaiting the business case finalisation, so it’s an open question whether there is a long-term business model. And if the business case demonstrates that the extension is a good investment for the region and the nation, then funding becomes the next step. The project will only work if the airport company and the Government are heavily involved – and if the city contributes financially to the extension, our shareholding in the airport must reflect that. It cannot be purely a donation. So my view is very much that we need to take this one step at a time.

Nick Leggett
I support the extension and the associated projection of visitor numbers and economic activity. Wellington must branch out from being solely seen at the seat of Government and begin to drive its unique economic offering on behalf of New Zealand inc….The proposal does not “fly” without Government support. This will be the key step once the consent is achieved…A Business Case should be developed that justifies a greater commercial component in the funding. I am hopeful that this is possible.

And here’s what Andy Foster told RadioNZ about the runway:

He would set up an investment vehicle that would own the extension rather than the airport. That would guarantee only long-haul flights would pay to use the new tarmac, and there would be no transfer of public money to a private company.

However vague some of the candidates may be, there’s no doubt of the level of public interest in the runway extension proposal – the Regional Council says it’s received about 780 submissions which will be considered by the Environment Court during the resource consent process.

This article has been updated since publication to include Andy Foster’s support for light rail.

More on light rail:
Five Regional Council candidates want it introduced by 2026


  1. KB, 21. August 2016, 12:40

    Still asking for light rail when autonomous vehicles are on the cusp of making public transport completely redundant is a giant fail in my opinion. No one is going to be interested in using buses/trains when point to point on demand autonomous vehicles will be cheaper than a bus/train fare.

  2. Trevor, 21. August 2016, 14:12

    KB is right. Autonomous electric vehicles which can cover Wellington’s hilly terrain are where investment should be targeted. Light rail is a 1950s Eastern European collectivist concept which is why it is so attractive to greenies. An expensive waste of scarce resources.

  3. C Calvi-Freeman, 21. August 2016, 15:17

    Autonomous vehicles will never work in town centres. As soon as pedestrians learn they can make them stop simply by walking out in front of them, it’s game over!!!

  4. Ian Apperley, 21. August 2016, 16:10

    Pittsburgh and London both went live with autonomous vehicles this month. Literally hundreds of cities are months off flicking the on switch.

  5. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 21. August 2016, 18:06

    My comment was a little tongue-in-cheek Ian, but I’ll be keen to see if they really work in a close urban environment and especially in town centres. The much-reported case the other week of a sick man getting his car to take him to hospital turned out to be that he was hands-free on the motorway only, then had to take over for the last few kilometres.

    As for reducing congestion, this will only work when we have a huge fleet of shared autonomous vehicles able to be easily summoned. The very slow uptake of “car clubs” (shared cars available for very short hire) shows how strongly people are wedded to their own private vehicles even if they only use them an hour or less a day. I doubt whether the autonomous revolution rendering public transport redundant will happen as quickly as some predict. Hell, after 50 years I’m still waiting for my personal jetpack and my flying car!

  6. Mark Shanks, 22. August 2016, 8:53

    Happy to read a generally pervasive negativism from would-be Mayors towards the airport runway extension. I still wonder why the ratepayer had to fund the costs of putting together WIAL’s resource consent, which would obviously be biased towards their profit. In the real business world they should have been required to pay their share. Do we get a refund when they fail at the environment court??

  7. Daran Ponter, 22. August 2016, 9:18

    Light rail can work in Wellington. It can be a key part of a balanced transport plan.

  8. Dave, 22. August 2016, 9:49

    I can’t believe Justin Lester keeps trying to get away with chopping and changing his story. In his Wellington.Scoop article he says “I think the airport extension needs to be explored”. On the policies section of his website he says “I’ll invest in the film museum, the airport extension and the convention centre”. So Justin are you “exploring” or “investing” or simply following what Labour HQ polling is telling you to say next? Or will your “exploring” simply fabricate the answer you need to “invest” – like ramming through the convention centre deal in secret and awarding the build contract without going to tender? How can we trust someone as mayor with such inconsistency?

  9. chris, 22. August 2016, 11:28

    I’m not surprised by Lester’s position on the airport extension. His website says he supports paying the living wage, yet he doesn’t follow that ethos at his salad shops. He says one thing then says another, and he’s stained by having been CWB’s deputy. One thing is clear from the responses – if you want the airport extension, vote for Nick.

  10. Russell Tregonning, 22. August 2016, 12:25

    There’s a very good reason why cities world- wide are taking up light rail. Eg the recent uptake of public transport went up 25% in the first year of light-rail’s introduction in our close neighbour’ on the Gold Coast. Wellington’s narrow dense CBD is ideal for a similar dramatic increase with light rail. I will be pushing hard for it if elected to GW.

  11. Sue Kedgley, 22. August 2016, 14:19

    Cities around the world are investing in light rail because they make travelling on public transport so pleasant; they also get rid of bus congestion; car clogged streets, and make streets quieter, cleaner and more people friendly. And they run on renewable energy not diesel.

  12. Cr Paul Bruce, 22. August 2016, 14:53

    Just imagine 20,000 autonomous vehicles, the number of people arriving at peak hour to Wellington Railway station, queued up to in Lambton Quay and Willis Street! You have to be joking. Light rail performs well in medium density corridors such as the spine route from the CBD through to Newtown. Autonomous vehicles will have an important part to play in low-density suburbs and small towns.

  13. time for change, 22. August 2016, 15:28

    Light rail takes all those pesky people and cars off the road so councillors can drive to meetings faster. Will all candidates please state their personal travelling habits? Do you take public transport to meetings?

  14. Andrew, 22. August 2016, 15:39

    The fundamentals around liability regarding autonomous cars are still being explored, and now tested, as in the Tesla vs truck in the US. Unless the actual vehicle envelope is reduced dramatically, I cannot see how autonomous cars will reduce congestion in a significant way.

  15. Trevor, 22. August 2016, 15:42

    Autonomous vehicles will be multi passenger, like small buses.

  16. Michael Barnett, 22. August 2016, 16:42

    The public response to the recent Get Welly Moving campaign clearly indicates a strong desire for major investment in the public transport network, walking and cycling.

    Opponents of light rail ignore the fact that you can’t ease traffic congestion by building more roads, and they tend to under estimate the benefits and potential patronage of a high quality light rail system. On the recently opened light rail on Queensland’s Gold Coast, patronage exceeded pre-launch estimates by over one million and is growing. Similarly, patronage on Auckland’s public transport is growing. Government has belatedly seen the light and is now supporting further investment in the rail network.

    I want a Mayor and Council who are prepared to and stand up and fight for major investment and not settle for a sub-standard transport system just because government is providing the funds. Let’s get light rail back on the agenda.

  17. luke, 22. August 2016, 17:07

    i want light rail from the station to newtown and eventually the airport, with a longer runway. the candidate who advocates that will get my vote. i do not want a roads roads roads mayor.

  18. Robert M, 22. August 2016, 20:19

    There has been immense light rail development around the world over the last thirty years and on a system largely laid on the roads, the cost really depends on how efficiently and effectively the roads can be shut down while it’s installed, the extent of cut and cover tunneling and how offstandard any trams or light rail vehicles are when ordered and whether suitable second hand trams are available from Europe or Australia. It is entirely possible an effective five minute interval tram service to the airport could be established for a quarter of a billion. However the difficulty in Wellington is the place appears to being developed as some sort of third world ghetto with emphasis on funding an absurd amount of public housing, I suggest the present properties be a third rennovated and privatised (the architectual masterpiece ones.) Another third the Red Row type attrocities will be levelled and the other third turned over to non profit housing associations.
    To be attractive we need the bars open 24/7, international standard barmen, barmaids, hostesses and police. In other words a tram city of intelligent beautiful people really requires a rather different population with a lot of the present inhabitants reallocated to the Wairarapa, West Coast or even the Waikato.

  19. Ross Clark, 22. August 2016, 20:48

    There’s (little or) no point talking about light rail before working out how it is to be paid for. That is why so many proposals for light rail over the years have died a death. And talk of how it is paid for means, getting central government on board to pay – well, at least two-thirds of the cost.

    Also, there’s no talk from any of the candidates about serious ideas to reduce car use, which makes the rhetoric about ‘balanced transport policies’ something of a chimaera. Why not?

  20. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 22. August 2016, 21:39

    I’m happy to stay open-minded on light rail. But in the short term we need three initiatives:
    1. Free up the Basin Reserve. I’m aware you can’t solve traffic congestion in the long term by building new roads everywhere, but this is different to resolving one or two key congestion points. Wellington is unusual insofar as it’s a sea-locked city with only two routes in and only three routes between the city and the airport, which happens to be on a peninsula. Unless and until we have a light rail tunnel or some other means of getting people through or around Mt Victoria, our dithering on the Basin and the second tunnel is costing us dearly in terms of congestion, which affects public transport, freight movement and business servicing, as well as buses (including north-south routes), not just car commuters. And yes, the flyover was the wrong proposal – quite clearly so.
    2. Get people cycling. Even a few hundred more cycling commuters will decrease traffic congestion. London has shown that if you build good quality infrastructure cycling will become attractive to many more people.
    3. Ensure Wellington gets the bus service it deserves. At present ratepayers cross-subsidise suburban train passengers. The new bus network for 2018 has some serious flaws and needs a close and urgent examination – it appears that the city has been ineffective in the past, in this regard.

    The above are my most immediate priorities. Don’t misconstrue this as disinterest in light rail, autonomous buses or any other middle to long term transport option, but we need action, now!
    Chris Calvi-Freeman, independent candidate for WCC, Eastern Ward.

  21. Vespa Pete, 23. August 2016, 1:38

    All good points CCF. Don’t forget motorcycles / scooters. They are an excellent proposition for people who require high mobility, even more so than electric bicycles. There are only a few days a year when the weather is really too bad for riding. Most motorcycle parks in the city are full up, so there is an obvious need for more please. Take note other candidates.

  22. Chris, 23. August 2016, 8:26

    Luke: the mayoral candidate in favour of light rail to the airport and extending the runway is Nick Leggett. At a total cost of probably a billion dollars or more, this is an enormously expensive commitment that will leave Wellington high and dry. Nick won’t mind as he has said he will be gone after six years. Worst of all these massive and unproven projects will take away from the essential projects that need to be completed to truly address our urgent transport problems.

  23. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 23. August 2016, 9:24

    Noted thanks Vespa Pete.. Must be frustrating to find no parks for space-saving transport. CCF. (Can commiserate fully)

  24. John Rankin, 23. August 2016, 12:34

    Ross Clark asks exactly the right question: how do we pay for light rail?

    To put it into context, for the $1bn proposed for urban motorway projects, we could build light rail from Miramar to Karori, via the airport, hospital, and CBD, with a few million dollars left over. It would be interesting to see a cost-benefit analysis that works out which investment offers the better value for money. At the moment, our transport spending is in vertical silos: roads projects compete against other road projects, PT projects compete against each other for a small slice of the total transport pie, and so on.

    But to meet Wellington’s transport needs, we have to look horizontally across all transport modes and work out how best to allocate the available funding. My modest proposal is that we ought to carve up the transport budget by region, not by transport mode. Until we do that, it’s hard to see how we can make economically rational decisions about transport spending.

    Cities with autonomous (no human driver) light rail systems, like Vancouver, operate them with little or no rate-payer subsidy. At the moment, this requires a track fully-separated from other vehicles, which is not practical in Wellington. However, given the advances in autonomous vehicle technology, by the time light rail is implemented here, an autonomous in-street system may be a realistic option. While I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, I think we can aspire to a light rail system that operates without any subsidy from the rate-payers.

  25. Durden, 23. August 2016, 15:03

    @John Rankin: Wow – Bulk funding for regional transport?! Until you change the way MoT and NZTA allocate their funds in buckets and change project assessment and prioritisation to work across transport modes–that is not going to happen. So you can kiss that goodbye for the next two terms of the NZ government at least

    And seriously everybody is banging on making assertions. Would it not be better if we had a fact sheet of how Vancouver manages without subsidy. And at least a roughly updated summary level calculation of the last round of light rail proposal assessment with the new claims of cheaper costs etc ?

    Until then it is just people talking and hand-waving arguments. We all know the devil is in the detail. Let us have some documents published so we can have a meaningful discussion for this round of re-ignited light rail interest. GWRC ?

  26. Ross Clark, 26. August 2016, 21:25

    John Rankin wrote:

    //But to meet Wellington’s transport needs, we have to look horizontally across all transport modes and work out how best to allocate the available funding…we ought to carve up the transport budget by region, not by transport mode. Until we do that, it’s hard to see how we can make economically rational decisions about transport spending.//

    Be careful what you wish for; a region which was given open slather in terms of how it allocated central government money, could well decide to opt for more roads. While the WRC has gone on for years about wanting a ‘balanced transport policy’, my take on things is that if the community was given a choice between ‘more roads’ and ‘more public transport’ (they could have either but not both), it would go for ‘more roads’ – nearly every time.

    The only solution would be a central government diktat that any money for new work would *have* to be for public transport options, and I really don’t see anything advocating that, except the Greens.

  27. Dr Sea Rotmann, 28. August 2016, 13:48

    Very glad to see that almost all mayoral candidates are back pedaling on the corporate handout/white elephant that is the runway extension. Why we had to waste $3m of our rates for a project that is clearly set to fail is another question they should answer – as all but Helene voted for that!

  28. Joy, 29. August 2016, 21:42

    780 submissions on the proposed airport extension and 70% were were opposed to it. Not sure why we are engaging in corporate welfare for Infratil – if it’s such a good investment, they should pay for it without the ratepayer having to take such a big risk.
    Mayoral candidates say they want to keep our rates down to about 3% but we had a 5% increase this year and businesses in Wellington are paying proportionately more rates than businesses in Auckland. With all the projects they are signing up to – who is adding up the cost? The WCC Long Term Plan refers to doubling the city’s debt in ten years with all this activity. And ratepayers will be footing the bill. We can’t afford it all, people.

  29. Guardians of the Bays, 29. August 2016, 21:51

    Out of the 776 submissions, 525 (68%) were opposing the runway. The Wellington people have serious concerns about the economic and environmental impacts of the runway project – now they have had a chance to speak out we hope all candidates will act with probity and ensure we dont waste even more ratepayer money on corporate welfare for the airport.

  30. Ross Clark, 2. September 2016, 23:44

    With the commencement of the Singapore-Canberra-Wellington flights, we will see just how much of a long-distance market Wellington really has; quite apart from my oft-repeated suggestion as to how links between Wellington and Auckland’s International Terminal could be and need to be improved.

    The runway extension would cost far out of all proportion with respect to any benefits it might create. And this view is coming from someone who likes flying!

  31. Anthony Maturin, 23. September 2016, 20:48

    How would an airport runway extension fit with the need to develop zero emissions economies as proposed by the IPCC and various climate change study Institutes? More sensible to close the airport and ground all jet engined aircraft. Especially where they over-fly perfectly adequate – if less convenient – surface transport routes. Convenience is not the base-line issue. Climate change is. Sure, that probably means phasing out our tourism industry, at least until we have a fossil fuel-free transport system. We have to get into our heads the concept of a zero emissions economy or else a world where the only habitable continent would be the Arctic (Myer Hillman) and there’s not much food-growing soil up there.