5 Jun 2024

Controversial Palmerston North road layout to stay - for now

6:43 pm on 5 June 2024
Councillors will vote next Wednesday about where to go from here with the Featherston Street project.

Councillors voted today about where to go from here with the Featherston Street project. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Palmerston North City Council has voted on a controversial new road layout.

The city council on Wednesday voted to keep a cycleway and bus stops in traffic lanes on a busy inner-city street, a vote passed only by the barest of margins.

Changes made to a 900-metre section of Featherston Street include creating a cycleway away from traffic next to the footpath, reducing carparks and moving others close to traffic, and creating bus stops in the traffic lanes.

The work's been controversial and a month ago the council pushed pause while new options were looked at for the bus stops.

Wednesday's council debate was called about the stops, but turned to the project more generally.

In announcing his opposition to the work, councillor Mark Arnott channelled a Chinese philosopher.

"I will quote Confucius, and when's it's obvious the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps."

Councillor Lew Findlay spoke metaphorically.

"If you drop a brick on your foot and you break the bones in your foot you've got some pain, and you go to the hospital and you get the foot reset and the bones fixed.

"Well, councillors, we've dropped a clanger."

What Findlay calls a clanger has cost $2 million, 90 percent funded by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency. The changed section includes two busy schools and an intersection with State Highway 3.

If the council had decided to make changes they would be funded out of ratepayer pockets.

On the agenda on Wednesday were options to move bus stops out of the traffic, making cyclists either wait, ride on the footpath or into traffic, and costing upwards of $1m.

In the end, though, eight councillors voted through mayor Grant Smith's option to finish the almost-concluded project and then review its effectiveness in November and April. Seven councillors opposed this and one abstained.

Fifteen councillors voted for a later move, suggested by councillor William Wood, for officials to report back then about the suitability of a non-separated cycleway, a shared walking and cycling path, and other options for a longer stretch of Featherston Street.

Smith said best course of action was to make a decision when the work was finished and could be judged properly.

"I admit there's some social licence here which has been lost. That's why we've got a gallery of people here urging us to make a different decision," he said of those attending the meeting in opposition to the project.

"I don't think we can make that at this stage because the project hasn't been finished. I go back to some of my original comments - you're judging a house design without it being built yet."

Vehicles on the far side of the road park in the cycleway. It's intended that barriers would prevent this, but construction on the project has paused.

Vehicles on the far side of the road park in the cycleway. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Wood led the charge against the changes - and against the mayor's metaphor.

"I would have to say that the house analogy really gets me because if your house is on fire and the community are standing [there] saying, 'Put the fire out', [do] we go, 'Well, let's wait until we've built the second storey and see if it's still on fire?' I just reject that analogy."

Councillor Pat Handcock urged his colleagues to leave emotion out of their thinking and support the changes.

He noted the award the project won at a recent Public Relations Institute of New Zealand gathering for its community engagement - the council says this is its most consulted-on project.

"We have to not only listen to our constituency but we also need to use critical thinking, and sometimes when we get an emotive situation like this critical thinking goes out the door."

That was where councillor Vaughan Dennison said the social licence to continue the project had gone.

He said only a tiny number of people caught buses on the street's stops and he couldn't understand why officials were saying such stops had to be in traffic lanes.

"The silent majority has got noisy... and if you're not listening it's going to cause some future problems."

Illustrating that, residents' group member Brenton Beach presented a petition signed by 3700 people to put the road back the way it was.

He warned councillors backing the project to expect backlash at the next election.

"Those who support the Featherston Street project argue from the perspective of safety - safety trumps everything else.

"This is called the ideology of safety-ism."

Safety-ism was an obsession with eliminating threats to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs.

There were relatively few crashes on the section of road, and the changes were politically motivated, Beach said.

"It's coming from parties who used to be in government and from members of the council who are affiliated to the old government - not necessarily all of them, but some of them."

The new bike lanes have meant some car parks have been moved.

Photo: Jimmy Ellingham

Brian Holmes, who owns a business along the street, Ebony Coffee, also urged councillors to reverse the changes.

"You're probably sick of seeing me. I can assure you the feeling's mutual," he told them.

"Congratulations to those who voted for the cycleway. You've now closed a business and have a landlord with an empty shop."

Holmes was referring to a barber shop that's moved because of a drop in custom since the changes.

Mayor Grant Smith said the new layout was about safety, and was not politically motivated.

He questioned what the people who wanted the road put back the way it was wanted to achieve.

"Putting it back to normal - what is that? Car dominated, 60 or 70kph driving past two schools that are all fenced in like prisons. Is that normal?"

Officials estimated it could have cost up to $7m to return the road to its previous layout, but a firmer figure in the end was not needed.

Councillors Brent Barrett, Rachel Bowen, Roly Fitzgerald, Pat Handcock, Lorna Johnson, Debi Marshall-Lobb, Orphee Mickalad and mayor Grant Smith voted to finish the road and review it later.

Councillors Mark Arnott, Vaughan Dennison, Lew Findlay, Leonie Hapeta, Billy Meehan, Karen Naylor and William Wood were against.

Kaydee Zabelin abstained.

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