Last week Waka Kotahi announced they have approved funding to cover a massive increase in a major project for Wellington: Te Ara Tupua, the shared path walking and cycling link between Wellington and Lower Hutt along the edge of the harbour.
In terms of long overdue practical connectivity (and fixing a glaring missing link in our climate change times), the project is a bit like Wellington’s version of Skypath – only this one appears that it is actually going to happen.
A new shared path linking Wellington to the Hutt Valley is a step closer, with the Waka Kotahi Board approving funding of up to $311.9 million (incl. contingency) for the project.
The funding is to build the Ngā Ūranga ki Pito-One section of Te Ara Tupua – a walking and cycling connection running from the Ngauranga Gorge to Petone.
Robyn Elston, Waka Kotahi National Manager System Design, says it creates a crucial active transport link between Wellington and Lower Hutt. The project’s design will also increase protection for the rail line and State Highway 2, strengthening Wellington’s strategic transport links.
“This funding decision means we can sign up to construction and get this important project underway”.
Robyn Elston says Waka Kotahi now has a high level of certainty over the project’s cost, which will be higher than the original estimates.
“The cycleway is technically complex to build, and like other large construction projects in New Zealand and around the world, it is affected by the inflationary pressures of a constrained labour market, supply chain disruptions, the increased cost of materials and the impacts of COVID-19. These factors are resulting in increased costs on all of our projects. For example, the price of diesel, a key input in construction projects, has almost doubled in the last year. Another key road construction material, bitumen, is at a ten-year high. Steel is also driven by similar international demand and shipping constraints, where the local price has risen by more than 30% over the past year.”
Back in 2019, the project was expected to cost about $94 million. This had doubled to $190 million last year, so the latest cost estimate represents a pretty significant increase. Given it appears most of the reason for the increase are due to labour and supply change issues, I do wonder how many of the other big transport projects around the country are faring – for example, we know there’s a cost increase on the way for the City Rail Link but the amount isn’t yet known.
I do have a few issues with the project/announcement. The biggest one is just a degree of jealousy this project is actually happening while in Auckland any walking and cycling access over the harbour, the closest equivalent to this project, has been repeatedly delayed and then cancelled. But there are two other things to highlight…
This is not (just) a “cycleway” project. . .
One day, someone should really do a thesis on whether shared paths (which allow for walking, wheelchairs, jogging, dog-walking, sightseeing and all kinds of personal mobility) are more likely to be called “cycleways” in press releases and media reports and headlines – does it correlate with budget, location, or both?
In this case, the community is clear about who and what the pathway is for:
Graeme Hall, chairperson of the Great Harbour Way/Te Aranui o Pōneke trust, said the new pathway would be a social, community asset.
”There will be prams, kids, dogs, bikes, all in the same social space, which we’ve never had before between Lower Hutt and Wellington,” he said.
The project was also important for Wellington’s resilience – it will extend the seawall and protect the train lines from debris and seawater.
”People are probably thinking “that’s expensive for a strip of asphalt” but it’s more than that, it’s a huge amount of work to push out the seawall and create space so rail doesn’t get challenged on days like (Thursday),” Hall said.
In this case, one of the reasons this project is so important is it’s not just about building a “cycleway” or even a “shared path” – it’s also in large part about improving the resilience of the rail line and motorway it will run alongside.
In many ways the project is more of a sea wall first that just will happen to have a cycleway on top. “Strengthening Wellington’s strategic transport links,” as Waka Kotahi says – specifically by “better protecting the rail line from storm and sea surges, and future proofing for sea level rise”
This isn’t some theoretical issue either: there were 10m swells at the harbour entrance last week with 6m waves coming through into the harbour, with significant impacts to coastal communities, transport, and other infrastructure:
Thursday’s swells delivered regular waves of 6 to 7 metres in and around Te Whanganui-a-Tara – a 10m wave was also recorded.
Waves crashed over the coastal roads of Lower Hutt’s eastern bays, cutting off thousands of residents from their homes. Winds were so severe a Bluebridge ferry circled the harbour for several hours, unable to berth due to powerful winds.
And you may recall that part of the rail line was washed out during a winter storm in 2013.
A decade ago, it took almost a week to get the rail line repaired, and while it was out of action, Wellingtons endured increased congestion and travel times. A study into the impact of that disruption found the economic impact was between $12 million and $43 million.
With climate change resulting in more frequent and intense storms as well as higher sea levels, it’s not hard to imagine that the 2013 event could be repeated on a fairly regular basis. And in Covid times, it’s also not hard to imagine the increasing challenges of funding the work and securing material and contractors to get it done in a timely fashion.
So, given how strategically important the project is for protecting the road and rail line, it’s surprising how little attention Waka Kotahi gave this aspect in their press release. It’s especially concerning as they know full well how some media love to use the idea of spending on “cycleways” to foment outrage.
Particularly when it comes to cycling, we really need our transport agencies communicating these broader benefits better.
. . . but it is eating up the cycleway budget
As noted above, the project is much more than just a cycleway, but my concern is that it’s eating up a huge chunk of the country’s earmarked funding for cycling and walking.
The current 2021-2024 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) has budgeted for Waka Kotahi to spend about $371 million on walking and cycling projects across the country. There’s another $247 million in the budget for local authorities to spend. (Of course this is still pennies compared to state highway budgets and even local roads.)
That ringfenced NLTP budget for walking and cycling includes $195 million for this project, and that was from before this latest cost increase. It’s not clear where the extra funds to cover the cost increase will be coming from, but I worry it’s also coming from this general walking and cycling budget and achieved by delaying other important projects.
This is part of a concerning trend we’ve seen from Waka Kotahi in recent years, of pushing everything they can into other funding buckets. For example, in Auckland, the widening of SH20B for T2 lanes was initially planned to be paid for out of the state highway bucket but was switched to being out of the public transport one. The same thing happened with the Northern Busway extension. The change in those two projects alone sucked up all of the government’s increase in PT funding from a few years ago.
So we’ll have to wait to see where this extra funding is coming from for the Wellington project, but given how much of the work is about protecting the road and rail lines, I hope it’s not coming at the expense of other walking and cycling projects.
Another huge irony of all of this is that Wellingtonians (like Aucklanders) have been waiting the better part of a century for some basic connectivity – on foot and on wheels – that’s now finally being provided at huge expense, in a big hurry, and in large part in a way designed to protect a transport mode that makes it so urgent we finally see some action.
Looking at recent extreme weather events, some people might be moved to say: who’d want to walk or bike in that? When, if New Zealanders had had that basic option this whole time, we probably wouldn’t have to be asking that question. So looking ahead, the big question isn’t “how can we afford these resilience projects”, it’s how did we ever let ourselves think we couldn’t.