Shovel-ready – the misleading catchcry of 2020

On Monday this week, New Zealand’s capital city ground to a grid-locked halt for five hours because of a small slip on State Highway 2. This shows us a number of things to be concerned about.

The city predicted to be hit by a big earthquake any day now has no transport resilience; the management of the response to the slip leaves us wondering about the capability in New Zealand to build all this new infrastructure cash is being splashed at; and the needs of a handful of cyclists seemed to take precedence over the many motorists trying to get north of Wellington city on both SH1 and SH2 from 2.50pm, when the slip was first reported, until 8pm, when traffic cleared.

On RNZ the next day, in explanation of the magnitude of the five-hour snarl-up, the safety of cyclists – with their cycle lane on SH2 closed by the slip – was cited by NZTA as one reason for closing one traffic lane to cars and trucks. NZTA conceded that closing one lane on a highway in peak hour traffic causes major issues and is a vulnerability for Wellington. There was no mention of the existing cycleway that runs adjacent to this part of SH2. It is apparently a bit rough and is being upgraded, but surely it could be used in this kind of situation?

Every winter this road has a slip at least once, causing this kind of traffic mayhem. A lot of commuters reported this was the worst wait they’d ever had. While the slip appeared very small, there was apparently a lot of instability in the bank running alongside the highway. It was also difficult for crews to access the site and get the appropriate gear there due to the built-up traffic.

This highlights the dangerous lack of resilience in the roading network and the clear need for the Petone to Grenada highway, which has been put on ice by the Government. This is despite it being listed as a top priority in the Wellington Lifelines report – to safeguard New Zealand’s economy in the event of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake on the Wellington Faultline. Our economy certainly can’t take another hit right now.

On Monday, motorists trying to get to Petone and beyond in the Hutt Valley were advised to take SH1 and then go across SH58. That just caused SH1 to gridlock and added 40km-plus to people’s journey home. Another reason to get the Petone to Grenada highway out of the mothballs, and of course, to get Transmission Gully finished.

The situation with SH2 can only be described as chaos, with no clear strategy or plan of action for something that is a regular occurrence in winter and could cost lives in a major earthquake.

Added to the mess that Transmission Gully has become – with a finish date moving out all the time to now possibly 2023 – it is hard to have confidence in the big picture planning for New Zealand’s transport network, particularly for our major cities. When it comes to Auckland, I only need to say “light rail” and you get the picture.

The situation in Wellington is sadly reflective of many parts of New Zealand’s road network. Operators are constantly telling the Road Transport Forum how much harder it is to get their trucks from A to B, or the damage their gear suffers and the additional cost pressure that puts on them. The state of the road – be it poor maintenance or limited capacity – is usually to blame for these pressures.

With our current track record, there are some big question marks hanging over New Zealand’s ability to recover from the economic hit caused by Covid-19 by building infrastructure. We don’t have the expertise, and with our borders closed indefinitely as we try and eliminate Covid-19, where are we going to get the necessary help from?

Each day another announcement is made about money being spent somewhere on infrastructure. New Zealanders need to mark all these announcements and hold those making them to account to actually deliver; to have the capability to plan, design and manage these projects; and to have the people on the end of all those shovels to do the work.

Shovel-ready may well be the most misleading catchcry of 2020.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Freight dismissed in Wellington’s road plans

Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is a misnomer for road freight transport and the purpose of the capital city’s airport and sea port connections to the rest of the world are seemingly irrelevant in its plans.

The anti-road, anti-fossil fuel ideologues have taken over and the project could be seen as getting Wellington moving for cyclists and pedestrians alone.

One mode of transport shouldn’t be pitted against another and there should be room for all. Decisions must be weighted by preferred use, volume, and economic loss or gain. But we have to question some of the thinking behind plans afoot.

New Zealand’s only way out of the Covid-19 economic devastation, dealing us daily blows, is to keep the flow of exports and imports moving as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. That means the best possible access to air and sea ports.

This week alone, we have heard that consumer confidence has hit its lowest point since 2009; Covid-19 has seen 15,998 job losses so far – with many more predicted; and New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has decreased by 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2020, the largest quarterly fall in 29 years. Things are seriously grim for those in business, let’s not gloss over that, and no cohesive plan to fix things has been presented to us.

But in Wellington, the city of the still employed public servant and the Monday-Thursday MPs, it seems all roads must be slowed, stopped and narrowed to ensure cyclists and pedestrians have priority access.

While we fully appreciate the city’s decision to focus on moving more people with fewer vehicles, there are a lot of things that need to happen before roads are closed to traffic, speeds are reduced to a crawl, and vehicle lanes are given to cyclists.

Not only would there need to be a reliable and efficient public transport system, but there would also need to be consideration given to the freight that moves through Wellington, along what is in fact, State Highway 1 and therefore, fully funded by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA).

We are quite alarmed by some of the suggestions that are being thrown around by LGWM, including a pedestrian crossing on Cobham Drive and reducing vehicle lanes on the quays that access CentrePort Wellington, including the inter-Island ferry terminal.

Getting to Wellington airport has long been a source of frustration for Wellingtonians – it’s a slow journey for a relatively short distance. What we need is four vehicle lanes all the way around the city and to the planes. A second Mt Victoria tunnel would help, but that is now just a pipe dream. To hear that Cobham Drive’s 70kph speed would be reduced to accommodate a pedestrian crossing – when there are other points pedestrians and cyclists can cross and a low volume needing to cross – we believe this seriously undermines an efficient route to the airport, which we hope to see returned to the busy and thriving hub a capital city deserves.

In the time of Covid-19, Wellington’s “Golden Mile” (Courtenay Place, Manners St, Willis St and Lambton Quay) feels more like Pyrite (fool’s gold) as the retail and hospitality sectors struggle to survive or go out of business completely. Closing it off to all but public transport, cyclists and pedestrians makes sense in the long-term. But freight will still have to move around Wellington and to the businesses on those streets.

So, it is concerning to hear the idea being mooted that the quays that would take that traffic, as well as the existing busy traffic flow, be reduced to just one lane in each direction to make way for cycle lanes. Increasing the traffic, but reducing the lanes, doesn’t seem to make any sense given this is a freight route and will be the only way to get to some parts of the city.

We agree with LGWM’s imperative to create a better, safer environment for people walking and on bikes. But the pendulum can’t swing so far that cars and trucks are no longer welcome on the road and the economy of Wellington and the rest of New Zealand is crippled further.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Wellingtonians mere pawns in Government games

I know that most of the country isn’t really that interested in what happens in the capital, but please indulge me for this one blog.

As somebody who lives and is passionate about the Wellington region, it makes me irate to see Wellingtonians and their transport issues become pawns in this Government’s ideological games.

It was disappointing this week that Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, did not force Julie-Anne Genter to release the infamous letter she sent to Phil Twyford on the Let’s Get Wellington Moving Project. Nevertheless, Minister Genter was compelled to disclose its contents and they were as bad as we all feared – she threatened the loss of Green Party support unless cycling lanes and a light rail were made priorities ahead of a second Mt Victoria tunnel. The result was a Let’s Get Wellington Moving plan that would do little to alleviate traffic congestion and delayed even turning a sod on the second Mt Victoria tunnel until 2029. Code for, it’s not actually going to be built as part of this plan.

Now, anyone who has spent anytime in Wellington knows that Mt Victoria and the Basin Reserve along with the inadequate 3-lane Terrace Tunnel are our biggest transport issues. They create bottlenecks that at busy times result in large parts of the city being locked up in congestion. Over the last 10-15 years these congestion issues have become so bad that the city really does have a transport crisis on its hands. A number of studies have confirmed that for a city of its size Wellington is one of the most congested in the world. What’s worse, is that needed roading improvements north in the form of Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway mean that more traffic will be coming into the Wellington CBD.

It has become so difficult to get across town at times that traffic is now having a measurable detrimental effect on the lives of Wellingtonians. Most people I know just refuse to go into the city on a Saturday morning, for example.

The reality is that you can add as many cycleways as you like but with the geography and weather that Wellington has, cycling will only ever take a tiny proportion of traffic off the road and will never be the primary form of transport for most Wellingtonians.

I am often accused of being anti-public transport for voicing the concerns I have regarding our road (as a a regular user of our trains to get to work, it’s simply not true). However, the last time I looked; buses also travelled on roads. Unfortunately, in Wellington the bus system is so fragile that it is actually contributing to the city’s congestion problems. The Let’s Get Wellington Moving project could have chosen to run with a project called Bus Priority, which would have meant more buses in dedicated lanes up and running within 18 months. Instead, they’ve lumbered the region and city with an unfunded, futuristic scheme that will sadly never got off the ground and make a real difference in moving freight and people around.

A fully-functioning public transport system, including a reliable bus network, that supplements private and commercial transport, requires transport corridors made up of multi-lane roads, the tunnels and flyovers to get around natural bottlenecks.

Focusing on those things rather than the folly of a pie-in-the-sky light rail project is what a responsible Government that respects the needs of Wellingtonians would do. Unfortunately, the anti-road brigade who are now occupying some parts of Government (but not all), are so fundamentally blinkered that there is little hope of genuine progress.

Finally, let me wish new Wellington Mayor Andy Foster the best of luck in his new role. It cannot be underestimated just what a difficult job he has to get agreement with our Government and sort through this mess.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum