NZ Upgrade Package – Wellington Region. The good, the bad and the ugly

This is a guest post by Marko G

The coalition government’s massive infrastructure package was announced in late January.  It has been called as the “NZ Upgrade Package” and looks to fill our massive infrastructure deficit while also addressing climate change (my thoughts on that below…).

I want to look at how Wellington fared from the infrastructure package announcement – the good, the bad and the ugly.

First off, from the helpful graph courtesy of Greater Auckland, we can see the Wellington Region received a healthy (if disproportionate) amount of funding compared to the rest of the country. All up, $1.35 billion has been earmarked for the region for transport.

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Let’s take a look at what was funded.

Melling Interchange

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This project was much needed and actually packages up a few projects into one. New stop banks are to be installed along the Hutt River to increase flood resilience. This also involves a new bridge, with the old one being demolished.

The dangerous signal-controlled section (along SH2!) is being replaced by a grade separated interchange. The current intersection does not accord with Vision Zero and makes this a much safer area for vehicles and pedestrians. However, Chris Bishop and his supporters will be disappointed to find that this new interchange will not improve travel times into the city. The Ngauranga Gorge will forever be the geographical pinch point for driving into the city, and this interchange will simply move cars slightly faster to that gridlock.

The train station is being moved, with a new walking/cycling bridge providing a better and safer connection to the Lower Hutt CBD. I hope the new station is an improvement on the sad current station, and future proofed for electronic ticketing. It is sad to see an increase in park and ride facilities, which are expensive and provide very little ridership than simply leaving that area as more intensified housing. 

It would have been nice to see some future thinking about fully integrating the train station with Lower Hutt CBD. Perhaps future-proofing a line extension over the river? Or perhaps a calmed traffic environment along Daly and Margaret St to Queensgate Mall to extend the effective reach of the new Station.

Rail improvements

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The Package looked to fund a range of rail improvements across the region. At Wellington Train Station, there are $70 million of safety and capacity improvements at the busy rail junction. There is $15 million to refurbish rolling stock to maintain the Capital Connection (Palmy North) until new rolling stock is bought later this decade. There are also new storage facilities at Wellington, Masterton and Levin.

For the Wairarapa line, there is new passing infrastructure at Carterton and Maymorn for express services, a second platform at Featherston, and new signalling system. There are also level crossing improvements. Disappointingly, there are no upgrades for the ageing Wairarapa trains.

Overall, needed investments, but all just to maintain current service-levels after previous under-investment.

SH58 improvements

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Can’t really fault this improvement as well. A dangerous stretch of road with four fatalities and numerous injuries over the last decade. This provides funds for installing roadside and median safety barriers, installing two new roundabouts and bridge widening improvements.

This makes sense, especially with more Hutt traffic using this road to access Transmission Gully in 2021.

It also signals that the Government is looking to double down on this existing corridor, rather than spend an eye-watering amount on the Petone to Grenada North road, which is environmentally damaging, and makes little economic sense.

Otaki to north of Levin (O2NL)

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This one is a real disappointment – straight out of the RONS playbook. An eyewatering $817 million duplication of an existing state highway with a dismal Cost-Benefit ratio of around 0.3. Every project will have some benefit, but this is a very poor use of money.  

Yes there are safety concerns with the existing road and bypassing main centres is good for reducing traffic volumes in those towns. And yes it provides some additional resilience for Wellington but at what cost? Is this really the best use of $800 million?

More subtle safety measure upgrades on the existing road would have been better value for money.

In attempt to call this a ‘multi-modal project’ the road project also includes a separated shared path for walking and cycling running the entire length of the new expressway.

Missing: Let’s Get Welly Moving

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Though I understand the goal of this package was for votes and shovel-ready projects, there was nothing for Wellington City through LGWM. The NZTA project document states that “this investment package complements, and is in addition to, the Let’s Get Wellington Moving programme.” But this was no impediment to funding the ATAP projects Penlink and Mill Road in Auckland. It would have been nice to have some funding confirmed for some of the LGWM projects.

Missing: Any ambition at all?

Why $800 million was spent on duplicating an existing highway is simply mind blowing when you consider some of the alternatives.

We have the opportunity to vastly increase the value of the existing rail network by extending it via light rail through the region’s biggest employment area (Wellington Central) and onwards to the Hospital and Airport. This would be a massive economic and congestion-busting play that would have material climate change, wellbeing and housing impacts.

The much needed Te Ara Tupua (Wellington-Hutt Shared Path) would provide storm surge and earthquake resilience to both SH1&2 and the railway lines into Wellington. It would also provide the ‘x-factor’ transport project for Wellington like the SkyPath is in Auckland –  combining amazing walking/cycling access with a tourism drawcard. Furthermore, as we have seen in the past week with Brent Norris’ tragic death, a safe cycleway into Wellington is badly needed. 

Other smaller alternatives also exist. How about upgrading the poorly accessible and ageing train stations across the network? Or cycleways in Wellington City?

Without the Otaki to Levin expressway, this investment package would be acceptably balanced. However, with its inclusion you have to ask: Where are the transformational transport investments to match the ‘transformation’ talk from this government on wellbeing and climate change?

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