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The good, the bad and the ugly

After four years of analysis and consultation, and more analysis and then negotiations, Let’s Get Wellington Moving announced a $6.4 billion plan to fix Wellington’s traffic congestion problems. Public Transport advocate Tony Randle gives us a rundown.

The Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) plan includes about $2.2B for a rapid transit system to the airport, separating the roads at the Basin Reserve, and a second Mt Victoria tunnel. But the rest of the work of getting State Highway 1 off Wellington streets, and a second Terrace tunnel, were put on the never-ever list.

Although they said they were announcing a major transport improvement plan for Wellington City, some crucial elements of the plan are still to be confirmed – including the mass transit vehicle (bus, tram, or trackless tram) and the year we could expect any of this to be completed.

Since the initial announcement, LGWM has released more details, including analysis of the mass transit solution and a commitment to ‘urgently’ implementing bus priority. 

So what in this plan could improve things and what just ain’t gonna work?

The Good

Let’s start with the best news, which is a promise to urgently implement some bus lanes, starting next year. Details of all the LGWM ‘early interventions’ are still sketchy, but they seem to include bus lanes on the Hutt Road, and more priority for cyclists, pedestrians and buses through the CBD. After two decades of nothing, any investment in bus priority is welcome.

There is a commitment to ‘grade separating’ the Basin Reserve roundabout. The previous plan for a bridge between the Mt Victoria tunnel and the Arras tunnel was rejected in 2014. The new plan has the Arras tunnel extended down the hill to also become a bridge, which joins Sussex Street to Barker Street. This will link Kent/Cambridge Terrace to Adelaide Road without an intersection, and I hope fix this terrible congestion point for cars and buses travelling to and from Wellington South.

After two decades of nothing, any investment in bus priority is welcome.

The other good news is the appearance of a ‘trackless tram’ vehicle, which promises to have all the good characteristics of light rail vehicles but at a much lower cost, and greater flexibility. It is claimed that mass transit based on a trackless tram would be built much faster than the seven years it would take to build light rail. Let us hope that champions of this alternative option, such as Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, can stop light-rail fans from eliminating consideration of this new but exciting public transport vehicle.

The Bad

On the negative side of things is the postponement of the second Mt Victoria tunnel for another decade. It seems fixing congestion to and from the Eastern suburbs for both cars and buses is just not a priority to LGWM. In fact, most of the planned ‘improvements’ rely on taking on-street car parks and road space for cycleways, bus lanes, and pedestrian-only spaces in the CBD. LGWM will actively make driving to work more difficult and expensive, especially if it’s into the CBD.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my transport improvement projects to actually improve transport.

Next, why is the proposed CBD-to-Airport mass transit route over 10km long? The route meanders from the waterfront along Taranaki Street to Newtown, then the zoo, then Kilbirnie, then Miramar and (finally) the airport. Mass transit travel time from the airport to the railway station is promised to be about 25 minutes. This isn’t much quicker than the 30 minutes for the current Airport Flyer bus, which is no surprise considering it is only 7.4km to town via the Mt Vic tunnel. Spending $2.2 billion on a long, slow mass transit solution, when buses on bus lanes via a second Mt Victoria tunnel would be as fast or faster doesn’t sound like value for money to me. A second Mt Victoria tunnel is costed at 25% of this amount. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my transport improvement projects to actually improve transport.

Perhaps the most disturbing element is that the proposed mass transit is founded on a hub-and-spoke model using Light Rail Transit. LGWM have used transport consulting firm MR Cagney to design the new Wellington mass transit service. This is the same firm that designed our new hub-and-spoke bus network; and it plans to change most of the direct bus services into feeder buses to light rail stations. The MR Cagney ‘Wellington Light Rail’ presentation literally states that principle of the the mass transit plan is to ‘force’ a shift to LRT through network improvements.

So, after the LGWM billions are spent, it seems that Wellington East in particular could have longer travel times to work whether they drive or take the bus. Hardly a compelling vision of the future.

The Ugly

Behind LGWM and Wellington city public transport in general is the ugly truth that we do not have leadership that believes that the bus service can, or even should, be improved. Every month there are more clues that our two councils simply cannot fix our public transport service:

  • A year on from the bustastrophe, Metlink still doesn’t have enough bus drivers to drive the buses.
  • The Greater Wellington Regional Council has again started consulting the public about fixing the bus service as if it still doesn’t know what is wrong.
  • Let’s Get Wellington Moving is moving slowly –- and is still years away from delivering any major transport improvement.
  • Our two councils cannot even agree on the type of bus shelters needed for Courtenay Place or whether someone should go to China and check out whether the trackless tram might work in our city.

our two councils simply cannot fix our public transport service

Will Let’s Get Wellington Moving work? Looking at all this evidence, I don’t think so. The proposed programme is about imposing ‘mode shift’ away from cars – it’s full of stick with very little carrot. We need a more balanced plan that is about better travel for all suburbs, whether commuters use cars or public transport, or walk or cycle.

I’m not even sure that with a good plan, our divided councils could build it. It’s difficult to see how Wellington can successfully build a multi-billion dollar transport programme when it is run by different councils with different agendas.

But I also think a more balanced future could be planned. Nothing is set in stone and it is local body election year. I encourage you to ask your council candidates about their views on the LGWM programme and judge them against what is important to you.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving is a joint initiative between Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and the NZ Transport Agency.

Tony Randle

Tony Randle
Tony is a resident of Wellington and has used public transport in the city for nearly three decades. He is a long-term public transport advocate and is a member of the Wellington Public Transport Reference Group. He works in IT and lives with his family in the suburb of Johnsonville.

First published in Capital issue #63
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