Wellington runway extension or runaway costs?

A computer-generated image of a Wellington Airport runway extension.

A computer-generated image of a Wellington Airport runway extension.

OPINION: As Wellington International Airport Limited (WIAL) prepares to lodge its application for resource consent for a runway extension, it's important Wellingtonians are aware of the full facts – because, if the scheme goes ahead, a vast amount of ratepayers' money will be pouring into it.

The plan has its supporters.

Wellington City Council (WCC) supports committing $90m towards the estimated $350m cost.

Wellington Chamber of Commerce (which has WIAL on its board) and the Wellington region Mayoral Forum have voiced support, and the airport company has trumpeted the benefits the extended runway would bring to the city.

However, Wellingtonians should not feel this is a fait accompli. There is considerable concern about the proposal.

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The Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand (BARNZ) says the methodology used to assess supposed economic benefits is flawed and fears "there's potentially a huge cost to either the ratepayers or the traveller".  

Sticking your head above the parapet and questioning a project of this scale will inevitably lead to accusations of opposing regional economic development.

As a resident, planner and Wellington City councillor, I am passionately committed to investment to promote a strong local economy and vibrant compact city – but it has to be the right kind of development.

As a professional planner – I spent 10 years as an airport and land-use planner with the Royal New Zealand Air Force and several years planning major road projects for New Zealand Transport Agency – I am seriously worried about this proposal.

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Let's look at the facts.

Undoubtedly the airport is a valuable strategic asset for the city and the region. Good air connectivity is essential for commerce, trade, resilience and social wellbeing.

But it is concerning that the private company that owns the airport is proposing to contribute just $40-$50m of the proposed costs. Other councils in the region have been asked to contribute $60m, so the residents of Hutt, Kapiti and the Wairarapa are contributing more than the private owner of the airport will.

But even with this support, central Government will also be required to stump up and it seems rightfully reluctant, especially without a detailed business case.

Where is the other $150m coming from and should public money be spent on private infrastructure?

In all, the numbers are pretty arbitrary and one only needs to look at other projects which sought public funding for alarm bells to ring - Auckland's SkyCity convention centre has a multi-million shortfall before a sod has been turned.

BARNZ commissioned a peer review of the economic impact assessment supporting the project. That found the assessment "overstated the benefits while overlooking the costs", and that many of the assumptions were unsound.

Additionally, Air New Zealand and none of the other 19 airlines BARNZ represents are interested in flying long-haul into Wellington. None of the economic benefits of a runway can be realised if no airline is prepared to use it. 

On that evidence, the airport would struggle to achieve much more than an infrequent service to a single destination in Asia – perhaps Southern China, hardly connectivity to a major hub. And the Council's own analysis discounts the chance of North American links. . 

There is a real risk that $350m-plus could be spent, with huge cost to Wellington ratepayers, for a couple of flights to China a week.  

Even extended, the runway would still be short by international standards and loading would be constrained – so no freight gains either. There might be safety advantages– but that isn't the case WIAL is promoting.  If it's a driving factor, then let's have a different honest conversation about that. 

The reality is that Wellington airport is a domestic and Australasian connector that has growth potential to expand in the South Pacific and Australia. A more realistic approach would be to capitalise on our central location and proximity and ease of access to our current air hubs of Auckland and Sydney.

Airport chief executive Steve Sanderson has dismissed those questioning the proposal. In fact, it's a pragmatic and experienced voice, which needs to be heard. 

Wellington residents have every right to question the wisdom of potentially being committed to years of paying for what could become a notorious white elephant. The runway will also impose significant social, cultural and environmental costs on Wellington communities – not least the damage to our prized South Coast.

This is the time to stand up and be counted. The resource consent application is expected to be lodged in December. WCC has already spent $2.95m on this process and has committed $6.5m to help push the consent through.

This must not be steamrollered through without the public being given the opportunity to have a transparent, balanced and factual conversation with full access to both sides of the argument. 

I am urging that before WCC invests any further money in this application, that an independent, rigorous and robust business case is completed and the community is given the opportunity to assess whether the promised 'benefits' stand up to scrutiny and this very considerable investment is warranted.

David Lee is a Wellington City councillor.

 - The Dominion Post

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