15 Apr 2024

New Wellington tunnel: 'An astonishing misunderstanding of transport priorities'

9:50 pm on 15 April 2024
Traffic backed up in Wellington after train wagons derailed yesterday.

The proposed new tunnel would speed up travel to and from the airport by 15 minutes, says the government. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

A new underground mega-tunnel in the capital would be a colossal waste of money, opponents of the government's suggestion for the tunnel say.

The government has told the transport agency to investigate a four-kilometre bypass. which would run from the city centre to the suburb of Kilbirnie.

It says the new tunnel would speed up travel to and from the airport by 15 minutes - a marked increase from the two to three minutes saved under National's election campaign promise of a second Mt Victoria tunnel.

But Greater Wellington Regional Council transport chairperson Thomas Nash said the announcement showed "an astonishing misunderstanding of transport priorities at a national level".

He said the idea had been considered and discarded before, because it did not deliver value for money.

"We have new inter-island ferries that we need, we have massive upgrades to regional rail/metropolitan rail that we need, we have basic stuff like bus lanes, more buses that we need. The idea that a multi-billion dollar tunnel underneath Wellington for the 30 percent of traffic going out to the east should be the top of your priority list is, frankly, astonishing."

Labour's spokesperson Tangi Utikere said National was being irresponsible, announcing the prospect of another tunnel after cancelling urgently needed new Cook Strait ferries and hiking the cost of public transport.

"Nicola Willis and Simeon Brown keep telling people there is no money for ferries or public transport, and yet they seem to have no problem exploring another tunnel under Wellington," he said.

"National is cutting half-price public transport for under 25s and cancelling free travel for under 13s at the end of this month ... the Cook Straight ferries have been canned, despite the urgent need for replacements."

He said the government was also repealing the plans to help councils fix their water infrastructure and ignoring the need for better transport corridors above ground.

"Yet there's enough money for a business case on another tunnel, which was ruled out under Let's Get Wellington Moving for the cost being 'eye watering' ... National already has big holes in its Budget, so they're now looking to add costs for future governments instead of dealing with the infrastructure needs of today."

The announcement was a diversion from the important investments the city needed, Utikere said.

However, Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand policy advisor Billy Clemens pointed out that it was expected the Greater Wellington region would house 10 percent of the country's population by 2048.

He said a new investigation was needed, because costings on the earlier proposals were now out of date.

"In the meantime you will have continued to see the freight task increasing in and around Wellington, those population projections still quite strong, and also in the meantime you've seen proposals that the last government took up for light rail struggle to make any particular traction."

Green MP and Rongotai representative Julie-Anne Genter said there were better solutions to Wellington's traffic woes, because the tunnel would come at enormous cost and would not be finished for at least a decade.

She said those billions of dollars spent could be put to better use.

"Electric ferries, better public transport, our regional rail needs significant investment," she said.

"In the long run, if we're going to spend heaps of money on a project, light rail would do much more for affordable housing and enabling people to move around the city."

There was half a century of evidence showing that increasing road capacity made traffic worse, Genter said.

Transport Minister Simeon Brown said the tunnel could improve the cycling and pedestrian experience above ground by removing some traffic through the city.

"If you think about the trucks, the heavy vehicles, the through traffic which actually makes it more challenging to have better walking and cycling opportunities in the CBD, it makes it harder to do better public transport in the CBD.

"Actually, there are significant benefits for other modes if you remove that traffic."

Cycling Action Network national project manager Patrick Morgan said an underground bypass would not make the roads above safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

"If you want to improve safety on our city streets, you know how to do that. It means traffic calming, it means protected bike lanes and better walking opportunities. Adding more motor vehicles to a city makes congestion worse, it makes safety worse."

Morgan said even investigating the idea was a waste of money, particularly during a time of thousands of public sector job losses.

"This is a slap in the face for public servants who are facing job insecurity, to hear that the government is going to waste even a single dollar on this failed, hare-brained idea."

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