The transport catches: Locals have to shell out $2.5b and there's a 30-year wait

The Government's long-anticipated announcement on the future of Wellington's transport leaves a sting in the wallet of commuters.

Let's Get Wellington Moving has been three years in the making, trying to reach consensus on how to unlock Wellington's potential and let people and freight move more easily around our great city.

This has long been a sore point, with no major investment since the Thorndon motorway in the 1970s.

The Wellington Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of its members and the business community, has strongly supported a long-term transport plan for Wellington including road, public transport and cycling. We also recognised the need for some local contribution, on top of the $300 million we already pay in fuel taxes every year.

The vision is for four lanes from Transmission Gully to the airport, together with public transport improvements to make getting around easier. People should have a real choice between getting in their car, riding the train, cycling safely, or running in to work.

Today's transport package is a good list of improvements: a duplicate Mt Victoria tunnel, four lanes to the airport through Hataitai, and a new public transport system servicing the southern and eastern suburbs.

But it comes with a catch. Locals have to pay an additional 40 per cent, or $2.5 billion, and we have to wait 30 years for it to be completed.

The reason for this is the Government slashed the state highway construction budget last year, and is now asking local ratepayers and businesses to make up almost half the shortfall here.

Auckland has recently benefited from the Victoria Park tunnel and Waterview tunnel, both essential state highway connections fully paid for from excise taxes. But our tunnels will only proceed if locals chip even in more money – essentially Wellingtonians have to pay twice.

In fact, the announcement from Phil Twyford yesterday essentially turns Wellington's state highways into local roads, requiring ratepayer contributions on top of the tax motorists already pay at the pump. Twyford calls this an "innovative mix" of funding, but no other region is treated this way.

There's no doubt that Wellington is missing out to Auckland.

Councils nationwide have long complained about central government cost-shifting responsibilities on to them. Their lobby group, Local Government New Zealand, regularly raises concerns and  a Productivity Commission inquiry is currently under way into the problem. Now we have another example, and I look forward to local politicians advocating fiercely on behalf of their constituents.

Wellington's economy desperately needs infrastructure investment to unclog our roads and let freight and commuters move more freely around our city. New projects are required now to cope with the economic and population pressures already here.

Stringing construction out over 30 years means ongoing congestion and never getting ahead of population growth. The solutions required today will not be enough to cope once finally in place in 2050.

Yesterday's announcement also raises questions which require answers before Wellingtonians can have confidence this plan will actually succeed.

The origin of Let's Get Wellington Moving was the controversy over the previous proposal for a Basin Reserve flyover, and the planning gridlock which resulted. Yet, among all the glossy detail released yesterday, there is no confirmation of how north-south traffic will be separated from east-west traffic at the Basin. Will it be a tunnel, a bridge, or something else?

The form of the second Mt Victoria tunnel appears to prioritise buses, walking and cycling. Will cars actually be able to use it and the additional lanes on Ruahine St?

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester and Greater Wellington chairman Chris Laidlaw support the package. But they do not represent all councillors around the table. And with local body elections this October, just how certain is the required funding from local government? Especially with one hand tied behind our back following the veto of a Wellington regional fuel tax.

Even central government funding, which should be the most secure, is reliant on the New Zealand Transport Agency board signing off on each individual project – just as it does currently. Twyford's undertaking is merely to write to the board chair, a position currently vacant.

These arrangements are further complicated by tying the two councils, NZTA and the Crown together for 30 years. A heroic effort which has the potential to let problems fall through the cracks and resort to the parochial finger pointing which landed us in this mess in the first place.

It makes you wonder what yesterday's announcement was actually about.

No agreement on local government funding from councils. No agreement on central government funding from NZTA. Just a list of projects spread out over 30 years which locals will be paying for every time they fill up, pay their rates, park in the city, or catch the bus. That's stinging.

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