The Board of Inquiry for the $1.8bn East West Link project announced its draft decision yesterday, confirming the Notices of Requirement and granting the necessary resource consents for the project to proceed.
I had thought that it would be a 50-50 decision. After all, the East West link was opposed by the majority of individual and business submitters. It was opposed by Mercury Energy because it cut through the mothballed Southdown power station. It was opposed by Ngati Whatua and other iwi on cultural grounds. It was opposed by the Campaign for Better Transport because the economic assessment wasn’t transparent.
With regard to alternatives and economics, which is the main focus of this post, the Board’s decision starts off promisingly enough under the heading of “Contested Issues to be Determined:
Submissions were received from various submitters to the effect that NZTA’s choice of route for the EWL and/or its assessment of alternative routes were inadequate. These critical issues must be considered and weighed by the Board in its assessment of NZTA’s notices and applications.
However, the Campaign for Better Transport’s arguments are summarised in the following paragraph on page 331:
If you’ve been following the story so far, you will know that this summary is almost entirely erroneous. In evidence, the CBT’s economic expert Donal Curtin made the following key points, as noted in this post:
- NZTA’s chosen Option F, from a purely economic perspective, was not the best option. The greatest quantum of benefits comes from Option B.
- On a Benefit Cost Ratio, or “bang for buck” basis, Option F is again not the clear preference.
- None of the options were highly effective projects when assessed against the NZTA’s own classification system of effectiveness.
Far from asserting that the benefit-cost ratio is a decisive criterion, Donal pointed out that the economic perspective is not “society’s last word on the right projects to undertake.” He examined the NZTA’s Multi-Criteria Analysis, and noted the MCA did not spit out any obvious overall winner either. Donal was also critical of how the NZTA weighed up the alternatives:
But the paragraph does not explain, as it should have, exactly how the “challenges” of option F were weighed against its positives. It also does not say how the other options fared under whatever implicit weighing-up exercise was used, which in my view is a significant omission, given that, going into the exercise, either option A or option C looked to have the better overall characteristics.
This was reinforced during cross examination, with Donal under oath saying:
The best I could answer that with is to say that I thought, based on the published documents that I read at the time, that the NZ Transport Agency had done a jolly good job of bringing different perspectives into the calculation, including environmental perspectives. As I say, I could not see my way to how they quite got to the option they could, based on that very good information they’d collected.
What left me wondering, though, and as I said in my evidence, was it wasn’t clear to me when they’d gathered all that information how they made the decision they did. Having gathered all that good stuff about the degree of environmental damage or the degree of cultural heritage that might be threatened and then the degree of economical payoff and the construction costs, when you’ve done all that good stuff and you’ve gone into a room to make a decision, how exactly were all those things traded off? On my reading, just on the formal reading of the documents, I couldn’t quite see how the NZ Transport Agency got to the option they chose based on the information they had.
So the statement that Mr Curtin made no criticism of NZTA’s assessment of alternatives is clearly false. Mr Curtin never asserted that the benefit-to-cost ration was a decisive criterion for the NZTA either. In evidence, it was also shown that the “enduring benefits” of options B, C and F were all relatively close. Similarly the Board was unmoved by the CBT’s closing argument on page 4914 of this transcript:
Of course, the Resource Management Act also has provisions in relation to the consideration of alternatives. Section 171(1)(b) requires the Board consider whether adequate consideration has been given to alternative routes. In the Basin Bridge decision which was upheld by High Court, it was found that the consideration of alternatives had been inadequate. On page 367 of that decision the Board found there was a lack of transparency and replicability of the option evaluation and a failure to adequately assess non-suppositious options, particularly those with potentially reduced environmental effects.
It is our contention that the same shortcomings can be found in the proposal before this Board today. Under cross-examination, Mr Williamson insists that the assessment of alternatives for this project has been logical, transparent and replicable. He stated that was true in an economic sense as well, on page 4090 of the transcript. But Mr Williamson also stated that the economic evaluation tool was in, in his opinion, the most well-developed economic assessment tool within the public sector in New Zealand by a long way. For instance, we know it already includes factors for improved safety and decongestion benefits, which is what you were referring to before.
It is difficult to understand, therefore, how the recommendation of this economic evaluation tool, which was not option F but option B, has been ignored by the NZ Transport Agency. The NZ Transport Agency talk about the enduring benefits of option F. Enduring benefits are defined in the indicative business case as the change in daily mean travel time from 2026 to 2036, but this time period is already included in the 40-year timeframe of the standard economic evaluation methodology.
The NZ Transport Agency claim the multi-criteria analysis also supports option F, but this is by no means clear when we look at the study. Mr Curtin in his evidence states that the NZ Transport Agency should have made clear how it weighed those alternatives against each other, and we support this view. The decision-making process that led to the selection of option F is opaque…
…declining the application will not lead to an adverse outcome for the economy or the environment. It will give the NZ Transport Agency an opportunity to present an option that local individuals and businesses actually support, an option that makes better use of public transport options and active modes, like walking and cycling, an option that doesn’t make rail to the airport from Onehunga more difficult, an option that doesn’t sever Onehunga from the foreshore or involve one of the largest reclamations in New Zealand’s history, an option that will cost less and so leave money available for more worthwhile projects.
Putting aside the feeling that the Board of Inquiry process has been a total jack-up from the outset, where does this leave us now? Well, perhaps due in part to the negative publicity surrounding the East West Link the BOI generated, the current Labour / Green / NZ First Government does not support the newly approved plan. The consents will eventually lapse (I’m unclear exactly when but a range of 10 – 35 years are listed on page 342) but parts of the designation could well be used in any new proposal.
Hopefully the stakeholders, landowners and Panuku, the property arm of Auckland Council, can meaningfully engage with the NZTA early in the new year. With the Government announcing support for light rail, perhaps this is a good time to look at the plans for the replacement Mangere Bridge and see if a light rail crossing could be included in the design. With persistence and a bit of luck we’ll end up with a far better solution to the transport issues around Onehunga than what has been consented. What do you think?