Dave Armstrong: Is the Kapiti expressway a waste of money? Not quite

Commuters have complained that the Kapiti Expressway has greatly lengthened their trip into Wellington.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Commuters have complained that the Kapiti Expressway has greatly lengthened their trip into Wellington.

OPINION: When the $630 million Kapiti expressway opened many motorists could hardly contain their delight. Record numbers of enthusiastic coasters turned up to walk and bike the expressway before opening and once it whizzed into action many Kapiti residents were openly enthusiastic about the number of minutes they were saving on their travel time.

It seemed that the expressway was money well spent. Then came the news that Kapiti commuters to Wellington were facing lengthy delays at MacKays Crossing in peak-hour morning traffic. Some even reckoned that their commute time had doubled. Though the evidence so far is all anecdotal, is the $630 million "miracle" expressway not all it was cracked up to be? 

Any toddler who has played with water will know that if you pour something into a funnel, which Wellington's transport network resembles, the flow will be determined by the width of the narrowest point.  

It seems that as more daily commuters whizzed down the spacious and efficient expressway on their way to Wellington, the "chokepoint" simply moved south. Yet according to some hopeful motorists, things will all be sorted out when Transmission Gully opens in 2020. 

Really? While Transmission Gully may improve travel times for commuters moving up and down the coast, how will it affect the ubiquitous queues that form outside the Terrace Tunnel every morning? 

By building flash and expensive new roads are we simply pushing chokepoints further and further south? Could Kapiti commuters find themselves whizzing effortlessly from their home to just outside the city then be driven crazy by increasingly long waits to actually get inside the CBD? 

And once inside Wellington, where will the increased number of commuters actually go, given the thousands of car parks lost in the November earthquake? The Wellington City Council is due to review its parking policies soon and I can hardly see it reducing parking charges.

So if – according to a recent Stuff poll of 19,000 voters – over 70 per cent of motorists believe things are worse or no better since the Kapiti expressway opened, can we safely say that these big new roads are simply a gigantic waste of money? 

Not necessarily. The new roads will almost certainly improve travel times for people making shorter trips up and down the coast, they are safer, and provide necessary alternatives in the case of a major flood or earthquake.

Besides, the problems don't seem to be as bad in the evenings, and don't forget that "mad March" is often the time that traffic is the worst, with few people taking holidays and students all back at school.  

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However, it's irritating to be told that light rail in Wellington is "too expensive" when the nearly $1.5 billion spent on the Kapiti expressway and Transmission Gully could probably pay for a light rail system in Wellington's CBD. 

But let's also remember that this shouldn't be a competition between competing modes of transport. Good, cheap public transport should be the carrot that entices some motorists off the roads, which will relieve congestion. The alternative is the stick of increased parking charges and expensive and hard-to-administer congestion charges. 

Not everyone can use public transport, so while improving it will help ease car congestion it doesn't provide a total solution. There are also issues that our politicians at local and national level should be talking about like school zoning and hours, more flexible working hours and practices, and carpooling. 

But sadly, it seems that in New Zealand, getting transport, education and workplace officials to consider working together cooperatively creates a chokepoint of obfuscation, demarcation, bureaucracy and buck-passing.

The good news is that thanks to new blood in various transport roles, our regional council and city council seem to be working constructively together and encouraging public participation. This might see integrated solutions for our city that include better road, public transport, cycling and light rail systems. 

The Let's Get Wellington Moving initiative has been holding some stakeholder workshop this week and will soon be launching an online tool to help Wellingtonians understand various transport trade-offs. It may be worth checking out if you've got a few spare minutes while sitting in traffic at Mackays Crossing, or during the daily commute on the train.

 - The Dominion Post

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