Wellington’s long-awaited and controversial Transmission Gully Motorway opens to the public today – a mere 103 years after the MP for Otaki at the time proposed it be developed as a road for motor vehicles to commemorate the fallen soldiers of World War I.
The new 27-kilometre motorway, north of
Wellington from Linden to McKays Crossing just north of Paekakariki, is a
state-of-the-art project, incorporating the most modern design and safety
features. In a first for New Zealand, it has its own radar system, like those
operating on many European highways, to detect crashes and other road incidents
and provide up-to-the minute information to motorists.
Speaking at the opening ceremony,
Transport Minister Michael Wood waxed lyrical that “Transmission Gully is one of the most
significant and complex new roading projects ever undertaken in New Zealand … requiring
innovative environmental and construction techniques.” Yet only a few weeks
ago, when Waka Kotahi did not open the road before Christmas as planned Wood dismissed
the project, which commenced construction in 2014, as a National-led government
“botch-up”, an intemperate claim churlishly repeated by the Deputy Prime
Minister after yesterday’s opening, where he had seemed to be very content
sitting, smiling, and purring, in the front row of the dignitaries alongside
I had the
privilege of driving over Transmission Gully – or Te Ara Nui o Te
Rangihaeata, the name gifted to it by local iwi Ngāti Toa – shortly after the
opening ceremony. It is a spectacular four-lane motorway, a vast contrast to
the current winding, accident prone Coastal Highway it replaces. It will cut
journey times into and out of the capital, as well as providing safe earthquake
access and egress. (Transmission Gully has been designed to withstand an
earthquake of 1 in 2,500-year severity.) While it has been a long wait, the
finished product is certainly worth it, and will be quickly embraced by those
living here and everyone using it.
But aside from its impressive technical qualities and the substantial
improvement it brings to driving conditions into and out of Wellington, Transmission
Gully/Te Ara Nui o Te Rangihaeata will be a game-changer in another respect as
well. It is likely to be a massive boost to industrial and residential
development to Wellington’s north, around the Porirua Basin and through to the
Kapiti Coast. And with a new four-lane highway from Peka Peka (north of
Waikanae) through to Otaki, currently about an hour’s drive north of Wellington,
due for completion by the end of this year, the whole area should expand
rapidly. Once the railway line to Otaki and on to Levin is electrified – to
allow suburban rail services to operate that far north – as promised over the
next three years, the greater Wellington region should be able to look forward
a greater level of economic and population growth than ever before.
The problem with all this additional growth, though, is as some
Wellington city local politicians keep pointing out, that it is likely to be at
the expense of Wellington city. It is easy to see why – there is more residential
and commercial space available to the north, the climate is more congenial, and
improved road and rail links make the journey into Wellington less demanding.
But Wellington city has been dying a slow death for some years – a point
former Prime Minister Sir John Key was roundly criticised for raising as far
back as 2013. Nevertheless, Wellington’s CBD is a shadow of its former self,
with prestige department store, David Jones, due to close around the middle of
this year. Add to that the Covid lockdowns and the fact that most of the public
servants who previously filled the inner city’s cafes, restaurants, bars,
hairdressers, and other service businesses are still working from home, and the
picture for Wellington businesses looks grim.
Moreover, in that context, the city’s projection of population growth of
80,000 for Wellington city over the next 30 years looks like ludicrous fantasy.
Worse though the City Council has now decided that, to meet this fictional
demand, apartment blocks up to six stories high can now be built in residential
areas, on a non-notified consent basis. It is kneejerk nightmare stuff, based
more on trying to keep Wellington city as the central point of the growing
wider region than common sense.
The opening of Transmission Gully/Te Ara Nui o Te Rangihaeata confirms
that the Wellington region’s future growth and development will not come from
Wellington city. The city’s future lies
in being the centre of government, and the country’s cultural heartland, and
the Council needs to shift its focus accordingly. What Te Ara Nui highlights is
that the Wellington region is too small, even if future population fantasies
materialise, to continue to operate as five separate insular cities (Wellington,
Porirua, Kapiti, Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt) the way it does at present.
The opening of Transmission Gully/Te Ara Nui o Te Rangihaeata needs to
become the catalyst for a new examination of the way the Wellington region
works to get the maximum benefit from the new motorway. It is time for a fresh
look at the viability of the region’s local government structure and whether a
region of just 530,000 people needs a regional council and the five district
Transmission Gully/Te Ara Nui o Te Rangihaeata is about to dramatically change the Wellington region’s roading and transport landscape, and impact population growth and economic development for the future. At her speech opening the motorway, the Prime Minister said it was an “engineering marvel” which will benefit the whole country, not just local communities, for generations to come.
But to become a reality, that will require local politicians to look beyond their own parochial patch and adopt a greater regional and national perspective to ensure those benefits are achieved.