Wellington mayor's transport dream runs off rails

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 19/06/2013

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They say dreams are free, but the one Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown had for light rail just got hit with a $940 million price tag.

When Wade-Brown was elected mayor in 2010, it was in part because she campaigned on pushing for a light-rail network in Wellington by 2020.

But now, less than four months out from the next mayoral election, she has changed her tune in the wake of independent research that has calculated the cost of running trams between the central business district and Kilbirnie at nearly a billion dollars.

That puts light rail in almost the same category of major projects as the $1.3b Transmission Gully highway, which central government has turned to the private sector to fund.

Light rail was one of three options looked at as part of the Wellington Public Transport Spine Study, which sought the best solution to the capital's public transport needs for the next 20 to 30 years.

The Wellington City and regional councils jointly commissioned the research with the NZ Transport Agency.

The independent consultancy AECOM released the results of the 18-month study yesterday, pricing light rail at almost five times the cost of the next most expensive option - a bus rapid transit system (better bus lanes and bigger buses) for $207m.

The third option was a bus priority system (better bus lanes) for $59m.

Wade-Brown had been upbeat about the prospects of light rail throughout the process, but she shifted her support towards buses yesterday as the economic case began to crumble.

"Really, bus rapid transit is nearly as sexy as light rail and a lot cheaper, so we'll see whether that comes out at the end," she said.

"I prefer to do my transport planning based on evidence. If the information in this study stacks up, then let's go for bus priority, pretty much tomorrow, rapidly followed by bus rapid transit."

She denied she was disappointed, saying she did not mind if her public transport was on wheels or tracks, as long as it was modern, accessible and electric.

"I have to say, I want electric [buses]. I'm not particularly keen on them being diesel."

She called for action on implementing the bus rapid transit system, as did members of most decision-making bodies yesterday. It is likely the public will be consulted on all three options.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chairwoman Fran Wilde said a bus rapid transit system appeared to be the best way to reduce congestion and cater for growth in demand for transport over the next two decades.

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"In my view, it's time we got on with it," she said.

Jenny Chetwynd, the Transport Agency's central region director, said the preferred option would have to be affordable for ratepayers, public transport users and road users.

The study found that, in order to attract enough passengers to make light rail viable, it would have to run between the CBD and Kilbirnie, rather than stopping at Newtown, as was the original intention.

Getting to Kilbirnie required a $300m tunnel to be carved through Mt Victoria.

SPINE STUDY: THE THREE OPTIONS

Bus priority ($59 million)

More bus lanes and priority traffic signals for buses along the Golden Mile to Newtown and through the Hataitai bus tunnel to Kilbirnie.

3.2 per cent increase in the number of people using public transport during the morning peak.

$35m* in time savings for public transport users.

$88m a year to run.

Bus rapid transit ($207m)

A dedicated busway for higher-capacity buses - articulated or double-decker buses - along the Golden Mile to Newtown and through the duplicated Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.

Almost halves the travel time between Kilbirnie and Wellington Railway Station.

7 per cent increase in the number of people using public transport during morning peak.

$95m* in time savings for public transport users.

$83m a year to run.

Light rail ($940m)

Tram vehicles running on dedicated tracks along the Golden Mile to Newtown and through a dedicated Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.

Almost halves the travel time between Kilbirnie and Wellington Railway Station.

No change in the number of people using public transport during the morning peak due to the need to transfer between lto bus services for travel beyond Newtown and Kilbirnie.

$56m* in time savings for public transport users.

$89m a year to run.

*In 2012 dollars

VALUE FOR MONEY

(Where the public transport options would sit compared to other projects planned for Wellington)

$1.3 billion: Transmission Gully highway

$940 million: Light rail system

$630m: McKays Crossing to Peka Peka expressway

$375m: Second Mt Victoria tunnel and widening of Ruahine St and Wellington Rd

$252m: Peka Peka and Otaki expressway

$207m: Bus rapid transit system

$100m: Upgrades of SH1 and SH57 between Otaki and Levin

$90m: Basin Reserve flyover

$80m: Buckle St undergrounding and National War Memorial Park

$59m: Bus priority system

$17m: Ngauranga to Petone cycleway

WHAT NEXT?

The Wellington Regional Transport Committee and the transport agency, will receive the study today and decide the next steps.

Public feedback is likely to be sought on the three options in the next few months. This may include an online forum.

The committee will consider the three options and feedback late this year or early next year, before recommending its preferred option.

Work on a bus priority system could begin within a few years; bus priority or light rail system work would not start until about 2021.

- The Dominion Post

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