Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Back on track: but only just

As I speculated in my last post, and as John confirmed in his comment, the council has announced that they've stopped the consultation process for the Johnsonville line and gone with the so-called "base case" of refurbished units. So in one sense this is indeed "back on track": the future of the Johnsonville line as a set of train tracks is secure. But (to stretch the metaphor still further), the wheels are spinning and we're going nowhere.

The "base case" will satisfy no-one. Not the supporters of rail or light rail, not the supporters of the busway, not even the tiny fraction of submitters who wanted to close down the line entirely. That's because the base case was never presented as an option for consultation, and it's actually a worse public transport offering than the "enhanced rail" scenario, which I considered fairly minimal and uninspired. As the technical report (824kB PDF) says on page 8: "The difference between the base case and the enhanced rail scenario is that the base case provides a less frequent train timetable (same as the existing), no improvement to bus services (the same as existing) and does not allow for any significant improvements to the stations." Woo fucking hoo.

So why has the council gone with a scenario that was never offered as an option? Given the mayor's indignation at the so-called "stoush" with central government, one might expect a fit of pique on the council's part: "if you won't give us your rail line, we won't do anything for public transport". But the technical report, which was close to completion long before the government acted, apparently "showed that none of the scenarios justified further investment". That's extraordinary, since it implies that even if the government had done nothing, the council would have reverted to the base case anyway. In that case, why the big stink? Alternatively, maybe the council would have ignored the report and gone with the busway, despite its poor evaluation, had the government stayed out.

But what about the report itself? Here's the overall summary of its evaluation, from page 31:

Overall summary of North Wellington Public Transport Study technical evaluationFor the moment, let's ignore the great big gaps and assumptions underlying the models and criteria (including the extraodinary assumption that "future fuel costs ... are assumed to remain constant over the forecast period"!) and try to understand the implications of these results. There's been no attempt to weight or compare the seven objectives, so you can't just add up the ticks and crosses to come up with an overall winner. If they were all weighted equally, then all the rail scenarios would work out better than the base case! The only way that the enhanced rail scenarios would work out less justifiable than the base case is if "economic efficiency and affordability" is weighted much more strongly than all the other criteria: even above economic and regional development. In other words, the long-term economic health of the region is ignored in favour of short-term bean counting. And they say Aucklanders lack vision!

Is there any hope here for those of us who believe that public transport capacity and quality actually needs to be improved rather than grudgingly maintained? It's notable that light rail came out on top on two of the categories (including the trivial matter of "environmental sustainability"!) despite a model that was stacked against it, and was first equal on two others. The report says this on page 32:
Light rail generally performs as well or better than the other scenarios across all objectives except economic efficiency and affordability and risk, where it performs relatively poorly. It has the highest benefits of all scenarios but also has very high costs. The funding contribution required from GWRC over the next 10 years is significantly more than allowed for in the LTCCP. On this basis it would be difficult to choose light rail without a significant commitment of additional funds from another source (such as central government) and a reduction in the risks associated with the scenario. Without a commitment to extension of light rail to serve the wider region, deployment of light rail on this corridor alone would not seem sensible.
I think most advocates of light rail have never seen it as a solution for "this corridor alone", but as part of the wider picture. So, the most optimistic view of the "base case" result is that it's just a holding pattern, and the much-delayed Ngauranga to Airport study will finally look at the benefits in an integrated way rather than as a series of disconnected studies that always fall down on narrow economic analyses, but I'm not holding my breath.

Oh, and the DomPost finally got around to publishing my latest letter yesterday, so at least their readers have seen some minor and belated correction of their vast misprepresentation of the support for light rail. Yay.


At 6:37 PM, November 21, 2006, Anonymous Michael said...

I'm hopeful that a holding pattern is all it is - that wouldn't really be unreasonable, since it makes sense to tie it in with at least the Ngauranga-Airport study. Otherwise it's was all just a joke.

It's also worth remembering that local body elections are next year.

At 7:00 PM, November 21, 2006, Blogger Maximus said...

excellent work Tom.

how about ciculating a link to this post to the WCC and GWRC so they know that we're watching them, and expecting better of them.

At 10:00 PM, November 21, 2006, Blogger John Rusk said...

-Is there any hope here for those of us who believe that public transport capacity and quality actually needs to be improved rather than grudgingly maintained?

Very well said. You and I admittedly disagree on exactly how that should be done, but the issue is very real.

It's appalling to see authorities comitting a billion dollars to Transmission Gully, but wimping out on public transport. Why is there no money for public transport in Michael Cullen's big fat surplus?

I can't help wondering if local govt have tried to choose the path of least resistance, the option which provoked the least total opposition (including financial opposition from the funders), rather than actually trying to improve the status quo.

But, hopefully it will provoke more opposition than they expected...

At 10:30 PM, November 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public transport is funded by local government, not central government. So the net benefit to the City and Regional councils is greater if they get millions of dollars of road, however useless it is, than if they sink money in public transport.

The end result overall is a loss for everyone. The central government surplus is only good for capital investment, but that's necessary for building a light rail system anyway (or, yes, even a busway). It is a possibility, I suppose, but I don't think it's likely (or even desirable on a national scale, unfortunately) in this case.

At 12:51 PM, November 22, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

Ah, but wasn't the study supposedly a prerequisite to going to central government for funding?

Alternatively, maybe the council would have ignored the report and gone with the busway, despite its poor evaluation, had the government stayed out.

I suspect that this was the case all along: the whole study was just an excuse to scrap the rail line. Now that Kerry has found out she can't do that, she's not playing anymore and she's taking her ball home, despite the the popularity of light rail and enhanced rail in a study which cost us $400k. Grrr.

Talking of which, congratulations Tom on getting the corrected figure for light rail support into the Dom Post. It only took what, 3 months??

At 2:07 PM, November 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there any groups dedicated to pushing Light Rail? I know there are some well known names on the scene who have been involved for a long time, and there are a lot of groups that have interest in LRT such as LivingStreets, the Civic Trust, and Option 3. But I wonder if Wellington wouldn't be better served by a dedicated and specific group that can act as a central point for information on the subject, and push for specific proposals in detail. (Rather than Option 3 which has a fairly broad aim.) Now could be a good time to start getting information out and put it on the agenda in the build up to the local body elections.

Anyone aware of such groups, or have interest in forming such a group? (Probably a strange place to raise this.)

At 2:57 PM, November 22, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Brent Efford's WEL-TRACK has been promoting light rail in Wellington for years. If you have a look at the site, then drop him a line, he can put you on the mailing list.

At 8:19 AM, November 29, 2006, Anonymous Colin said...

There's an article in todays paper that, while interesting in itself, also has a very curios statement right at the end:

"However, given the council and Government recently committed to a $50 million upgrade of the Johnsonville rail line, ..."

??? Where is this $50 mill going? Is this the 'base case'?

At 9:05 AM, November 29, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

The $50m isn't for an "upgrade of the Johnsonville rail line", but for refurbishing/replacing the existing units. It is indeed the "base case", in that unlike the enhanced rail or light rail scenarios there's no improvement of rail services, and unlike all the scenarios there's no improvement of bus services. Essentially, it's just long overdue maintenance.

As for the monorail article, I'm rather sceptical.

At 12:38 AM, June 09, 2007, Anonymous Kevyn Miller said...

Anonymous said "Public transport is funded by local government, not central government." This is equally true for roads. In fact, between 1984 and 2004 there was absolutely no central government funding for either roads or public transport. Unfortunately the central government funding that has been provided since 2004 has gone entirely to Auckland, Wellington and Tauranga. Fortunately public transport and local roads are heavily subsidised by road users through the user pays system that was introduced in 1924. State Highways have been fully funded from this source since 1936.


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