Mammoth hearing no walk in the park

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 14/06/2014
Basin Reserve flyover

FLYOVER: An artist's impression of the Basin Reserve Flyover, as seen from Kent Tce.

Basin Flyover
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ
A long road: Save the Basin campaigner Joanna Newman, left, and Mt Victoria resident Kay Jones have spent hundreds of hours opposing the New Zealand Transport Agency’s plans for a two-lane highway flyover outside at the Basin Reserve.

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There are good reasons why the Basin Reserve flyover should have been built already. But if the board of inquiry hearing taught us anything, it is that there are also plenty of arguments for not going ahead with the $90 million project. Michael Forbes talks to some of the people standing in the project's way about what it is like being the little guy, taking on the might of the New Zealand Transport Agency. 

Kay Jones is looking forward to getting her life back. Movies, parties, holidays and family time don't appear on her calendar any more. Legal submissions, court documents, traffic models and construction plans have replaced them.

Joanna Newman isn't faring much better. She has read so much of the 8447-page transcript from the Basin Reserve flyover board of inquiry hearing that traffic jargon is what she dreams about now.

It is a tough life for a pair of Wellington women with no legal qualifications to their names. But they have had to become quick learners.

For the past four months, they have made numerous personal sacrifices to be part of the last line of defence against the New Zealand Transport Agency's plans to build a 265-metre elevated highway, just 20 metres from the Basin Reserve's northern gate.

They have been labelled "whingers", "greenies" and the "anti-progress brigade" for their troubles, but Jones and Newman believe passionately in what they are doing.

If it was not for their efforts, alongside small groups of others, not to mention their lawyers doing much of the work unpaid, it is unlikely the flyover's board of inquiry hearing would have been the record-breaking marathon it turned into.

"At times it was pretty stressful, because you don't really know if what you're doing is helpful," Newman says.

"There was also a lot of angst over not knowing how long the hearing would go for, and what it was going to cost. There were some pretty tough decisions made about how we would keep going."

The resource consent hearing for the proposed flyover was originally expected to last eight weeks when it began in February. It wrapped up earlier this month after almost 18.

A cluster of concerned community groups - Save the Basin, the Architectural Centre, the Mt Victoria Residents Association, the Newtown Residents Association and the Mt Victoria Historical Society - represented the defence. They pooled their knowledge and resources, and between them managed to secure about $96,000 in funding from the Ministry for the Environment.

But as Newman says, that is likely to be chump change compared to the hours billed by NZTA's four-strong legal team since the flyover project was publicly notified in August last year.

She reckons Save the Basin's lone lawyer Tom Bennion probably missed out on between $80,000 and $100,000, considering all the work he did free of charge.

As a key organiser with Save the Basin, Newman did plenty of heavy lifting herself. She cut her weekly hours in half so she could help Bennion trawl through the thousands of pages of documents produced by the agency to support its flyover case.

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Her job was to scan them for any little line Bennion might be able to use against the Transport Agency experts. All the while, the agency had a group of lawyers sitting across the room doing the same to Save the Basin's evidence.

Jones went a step further. She showed up at the hearing with no support team whatsoever and began firing questions at the agency's technical experts while they were on the stand.

Schooling herself on the nuances of highway construction was no easy feat, she says. It required some sacrifice.

"I've had to cancel going to parties, films, social engagements . . . there's been a big impact on family time. We had to give up going away on holidays."

Her "mad keen" love of cricket was the reason she got interested in the flyover saga to begin with, but her stern belief that the project is a bad fit for Wellington kept her motivated.

"I haven't seen evidence that congestion coming into Wellington from the airport is that bad, except for certain short periods of time," she says.

"I've been to Auckland and seen the problems up there, and, yes, that's something that needs fixing.

"But, by comparison, we've just got some people who aren't that good at planning their travel time."

What kept Newman going throughout the hearing was a genuine passion for the Basin heritage area and her belief that the agency had not done enough to make the flyover look attractive.

"I do believe, passionately, in the value of Wellington's heritage, particularly Mt Victoria, because I live there.

"We believe the ambience and heritage of the area should not be destroyed by a highway that seemingly has little justification. If we don't take a stand now, we'll lose something that's very precious to Wellington."

Depsite having more resources at its fingertips, the Transport Agency found the flyover hearing far from a walk in the park.

Because the main opposition was community groups who could not afford an array of experts to argue their case, the board gave them leeway to grill those who appeared for the agency.

As a result, some of the flyover's designers and developers spent days answering questions. The project's lead developer, Wayne Stewart, had questions fired at him for six days straight.

The agency declined to comment on its board of inquiry experience this week when The Dominion Post asked for an interview. Wellington state highways manager Rod James said it would not be appropriate to comment while the board is still considering its decision.

But he recognised the contribution of all the "very dedicated people" who took part in the hearing. "We appreciate there are a range of views about this project, and we are grateful to each and every submitter for sharing their perspectives on these significant proposals.

"We are pleased this process has enabled all relevant evidence to be put forward and tested, and we look forward to the board's draft decision in July."

One person who shares that view, when it comes to the process at least, is Christine McCarthy, president of the Architectural Centre.

Much of the flyover hearing played out like a contest between the flyover and the centre's alternative plan, known as

O ption X - a proposal that involves having local traffic cross over highway traffic behind the Basin's R A Vance Stand rather than in full view of the ground.

One of the reasons the flyover hearing took so long was, in part, the marathon sessions where the centre's lawyer, Philip Milne, would fire questions at the Transport Agency experts.

McCarthy, like the other volunteers, became a legal assistant to Milne.

Together they launched a relentless assault on almost anyone and everyone involved in the flyover's development, grilling them on the times and places when key decisions were made.

One of their aims was to prove the agency was already sold on the idea of a flyover when it sat down to investigate the merits of Option X last year, hence it did not try very hard.

McCarthy says it was necessary to tease the issue out so Option X could get the proper assessment she feels the agency did not give it.

"That's what our job is - we need to be raising these issues and trying to do our best to have some sort of impact and make the world better.

"I think what's important now is that all views are in front of the board . . .

"I think it was very admirable the way they went about things. The judge was very clear about wanting to make sure everybody had their say and that no stone remained unturned."

As a community group, finding traffic and design experts to argue their case was particularly difficult, McCarthy says.

The pool of expertise was surprisingly small in this country and many of the people they tracked down could not help because of a conflict of interest.

"Pretty much everybody who's relevant is either working for NZTA, wants to work for NZTA, or somebody in their office is working for NZTA, or somebody in their office in another city is working for NZTA."

It is also difficult to get people on your side when you are not sure if you will be able to pay them, she says.

"It basically meant long hours with not much money if they were going to commit to us.

"We had to go outside Wellington because we just couldn't find people.

"We didn't know it at the time, but that was the easy bit."

She has no idea what the centre would have ended up spending if it weren't for Milne who, like Bennion, offered up much of his time for free.

"We were emailing each other at 1am, so he was obviously working late."

BY THE NUMBERS

8447 pages of transcript

631 pages outlining the flyover's environmental effects

355 hours of evidence

320 drawings

235 supporting documents

218 written submissions

138 documents outlining the evidence for and against

122 days from start to finish

76 people presented submissions

72 actual sitting days 68 experts gave evidence

29 closed-door meetings to discuss legal matters 20 technical reports

6 occasions when experts gave evidence as a group to save time

5 management plans

4 men who have to consider it all and make a decision

- The Dominion Post

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