Editorial: Don't water down Wellington's promised rapid bus system

News of Wellington's much-ballyhooed bus rapid transit scheme has been scarce for two years.

News of Wellington's much-ballyhooed bus rapid transit scheme has been scarce for two years.

OPINION: Wellington's gridlock over major transport projects is wearying. Even the group formed to talk through the Basin Reserve flyover saga has now repeatedly delayed its suggestions for an alternative. Understandably, one regional councillor fears it has become a "talkfest". The bulldozers look a long way off.

Yet even so, it is more important that the transport planners make the right decisions than the quickest or easiest ones. Crucially, that means ensuring a top-drawer public transport system.

So it was dispiriting to hear regional councillor Paul Swain jump all over Let's Get Wellington Moving programme director Barry Mein for suggesting a close look at plans for a supposedly transformative new transport mode – Bus Rapid Transit.

Mein's group has hired an engineering firm to check if the Bus Rapid Transit route might be future-proofed for light rail.

Swain said that was "totally inappropriate" and "this horse has bolted". That is apparently because of new citywide bus routes, due to be launched next year, which have been designed around the still-nebulous rapid-transit scheme.

But not so fast. When did the horse bolt? The last time the public heard anything about Bus Rapid Transit, arguably a more important project than tweaking the routes, was almost two years ago.

The "indicative" case released then was disappointingly unambitious. One proposal was not Bus Rapid Transit at all – which is supposed to involve high-capacity, multiple-entry buses on separated lanes – but something much more like the city's current, halting service. It looked like the usual capitulation to budget fears that never seem to quite apply to plans for major roads.

A "detailed business case" was due to arrive 12 months later, with modelling of the effects on specific streets and a chance for public feedback. But that has been as delayed as everything else, it seems.

In the mean time, Wellingtonians have chosen new regional councillors sympathetic to light rail, famously promised by former mayor Celia Wade-Brown but then ditched after the 2013 study concluded it would cost too much. Even chairman Chris Laidlaw has spoken about protecting a "corridor for light rail in the future".

Cost still probably precludes building light rail right now; the 2013 study was meant to be the definitive one. But how expensive would it be to leave the option open? It would be helpful – and perhaps prescient – to find out.

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This is a city deeply sympathetic to public transport. It has unusually high patronage numbers, and has voted for politicians that make ambitious promises about it. But it still doesn't have a public transport system to match.

The talkfest does need to come to an end – and soon. But that does not mean settling on a half-pie new bus service.

Just as many Wellington motorists are disappointed they are still stuck in traffic at the Basin Reserve, so many bus passengers are eager to get out of a clogged Golden Mile and onto the impressive system they were promised.

 - The Dominion Post


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