Divisions are emerging among Wellington City Councillors after the release of a decision that scuttles a proposed flyover at the historic Basin Reserve.
In its draft decision, an independent Board of Inquiry denied resource consent for the $90 million overbridge because of the adverse effects it would have on the urban area's heritage, function and appearance.
Sources have told Radio New Zealand there was disbelief at the council when the decision was released on Tuesday afternoon, as the board was widely expected to give the project the go-ahead.
The overbridge would have run between the Mount Victoria tunnel and the Buckle Street underpass, skirting the northern side of the historic Basin Reserve cricket ground.
The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) argued that the project was necessary because the Basin Reserve is subject to congestion and delays, particularly during peak periods and weekends, and those problems were only going to get worse in future.
The four-person Board of Inquiry sat for 72 days and considered 215 submissions - most of which opposed the project.
Andy Foster, the head of the council's transport committee, was surprised by the ruling, saying the decision puts public transport in the capital back a decade.
Mr Foster told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme there is no Plan B for the flyover and its rejection means other projects will not happen.
"The duplication of the Mount Victoria tunnel; cycleways which were proposed from the city right out to the eastern suburbs; the bus rapid transit, which we've agreed to work on, is also significantly compromised; and there's a whole range of urban amenity projects."
But another city councillor, Iona Pannett, said she hopes the Transport Agency would not challenge the board's decision. She hoped parties could now move forward to thinking about how they would develop the Basin area.
"The Government must accept this decision. They designed the board process, so they can't now turn around and say, 'Well, actually, it's faulty'. That is the judgement and I would hope and expect that NZTA will adhere to that.
"What I want is NZTA to work with the council, to think about how we make the area safer and more attractive - and that means just simple things like bus lanes, maybe a bit of planting, maybe a bit of minor adjustments to the way that the traffic moves - but that's it."
Report critical of NZTA
The Board of Inquiry criticised the New Zealand Transport Agency for failing to consider other alternatives. Since 2001, some 73 different options have been considered for the area.
It said improvements to travel times, which it calculated to be one or two minutes, were significantly less than what was originally suggested at the start of the hearing. It said it was unable to quantify the level of economic benefit that would flow from the project.
The report also found that the project would have a significant adverse impact on an urban area which included the historic Basin Reserve and Government House.
"The Basin Bridge would be around for over 100 years. It would thus have an enduring, and significant permanent adverse effect on this sensitive urban landscape and surrounding streets. It would have adverse effects on the important symbol of Government House and the other historical and cultural values in the area," it said.
The board said it did not envisage the decision changing between the interim and final reports. It said once the final decision is released, expected by the end of August, it can be appealed to the High Court, but only on points of law and cannot be overturned by the Minister.
Chance for other options, says MP
Labour MP for Wellington Central Grant Robertson said he hoped Tuesday's decision would force parties to look at alternatives.
"There are two or three that need further investigation. I was always particularly impressed with the ideas that Richard Reid, the Auckland based planner, put up for traffic flow improvements around the Basin. His project also included the second tunnel through Mount Victoria.
"There's also the Architectural Centre's proposal - the so-called Option X - both of those deserve further consideration."
Option X is a ground level alternative to the flyover incorporating a slightly longer tunnel and designed by Wellington's Architectural Centre.