There was great excitement in Wellington recently when the government finally announced – after much procrastination and indecision – its intentions for the ever so over-optimistically titled “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” plan. The multi-billion government announcement proposed a light rail system from the central city south to Island Bay; a second tunnel through Mount Victoria for vehicle traffic to the airport and eastern suburbs, with the existing tunnel being converted for pedestrian and cycle usage; and undergrounding some of the roads around the Basin Reserve.
The announcement received a generally positive reaction. According to the Mayor of Wellington the plan is “transformational for the city” and he hailed the government’s announcement as “a massive day for Wellington.” Other civic leaders made similarly positive comments, and after years of increasing bottlenecks in the centre of the capital city, there was a general feeling that the sense of malaise that has plagued transport planning locally might be at an end.
However, amidst all the excitement and relief, a few harsh realities were overlooked – deliberately or otherwise.
For a start, there is nothing new in the government’s announcement. It is virtually the same as that from the previous Transport Minister three years ago. (He was the same Minister who as Minister of Housing at the time was promising to build 100,000 affordable Kiwibuild homes over ten years, and we all know the abject policy failure that became!) So, regurgitating another of his grandiose schemes as the solution to Wellington’s transport woes hardly inspires confidence that it will be any more achievable than Kiwibuild.
The current Transport Minister has no more credibility. He stood alongside the Prime Minister in 2017 when she was Leader of the Opposition and faithfully promised Aucklanders that a light rail system would be built from the central city to Auckland Airport in just three years. Today, almost five years later, not one centimetre of track has been laid. Instead, the current plan is for construction to begin in 2023 and be completed by 2030 at a cost of $14.5 billion, far more than twice the $6 billion estimated in 2018. Even those figures are uncertain – in March 2022 Treasury estimated the costs could rise to $29 billion.
But the fate of the project still remains uncertain. One of the leading candidates for the Auckland Mayoralty this year is promising to scrap the light rail project if elected, and there does not appear to be any long-term commitment from the National Party to light rail in Auckland, should it lead the government after next year’s general election.
Even if the Auckland example is ignored – a foolish risk to take – it would be naïve to think that “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” will move at anything like the even snail-like pace promised for it. According to the official announcement, light rail to Island Bay will be running by 2030, but the business case for the scheme is not due for completion until 2024, already casting real doubt on the feasibility of the 2030 date, given resource consents, and construction timeframes. It is currently projected to cost $7.4 billion, but, as with the Auckland case, Treasury is already warning that the costs are likely to be substantially higher. This week, even the government’s vaunted Infrastructure Commission dismissed the government’s plan as “fundamentally counter-productive.”
And then there is the notoriously fickle nature of the Wellington City Council’s political complexion which seems set to continue whatever the outcome of this year’s local government election. The current leftist majority is likely to remain and has been making noises already that the latest plan does not go far enough and is still too focussed on motor vehicles, raising the spectre of a further stoush to come on the proposed second Mount Victoria tunnel. The present Mayor has been unable to impose his will on the Council in the current term, and the chances are things will not change if he is re-elected. His Labour-endorsed challenger is a journeyman politician, with an average earlier record as a city councillor and an even less inspiring record as a local Member of Parliament. If elected, he will simply do the Labour Party’s bidding so long as it is in office, and be ignored altogether should the National Party come to power. Either way, Wellington seems unlikely to be able to advocate a unified position, or have its concerns taken notice of by central government.
None of this detracts from the reality that Wellington’s transport system is in need of an overhaul, both to make it more efficient and climate friendly. The enduring problem is, however, the unfortunate combination of a government that has shown itself to be spectacularly out of its depth when it comes to progressing major infrastructure projects in a timely manner, and local politicians who seem to be unable to agree on anything, means all the bold plans announced just over a week ago are unlikely to amount to much.
Just as Kiwibuild has entered the national lexicon as a metaphor for pious dreams that cannot be achieved in reality, “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” still looks destined to be remembered more for what it fails to achieve, than what it will ever do.