Last week, Waka Kotahi announced they approved funding to cover a massive increase in a major project for Wellington: Te Ara Tupuathe shared pedestrian and cycle link between Wellington and Lower Hutt along the harbour.
In terms of long-awaited convenient connectivity (and fixing a glaring missing link in our time of climate change), the project looks a bit like Wellington’s version of Skypath – only this one actually seems to be happening.
A new shared path linking Wellington to the Hutt Valley is a step closer, with the Waka Kotahi Board having approved funding of up to $311.9 million (including contingencies) for the project.
The funding is for the construction of the Ngā Ūranga ki Pito-One section of Te Ara Tupua – a walk and bike connection from Ngauranga Gorge to Petone.
Robyn Elston, Waka Kotahi National Manager System Design, says this creates a crucial active transport link between Wellington and Lower Hutt. The project design will also increase the protection of the rail line and State Highway 2, strengthening Wellington’s strategic transport links.
“This funding decision means we can sign up for construction and get this important project underway.”
Robyn Elston says Waka Kotahi now has a high level of certainty about the cost of the project, which will be higher than initial estimates.
“The cycleway is technically complex to build, and like other major construction projects in New Zealand and around the world, it is affected by inflationary pressures from a tight labor market, supply chain disruptions supply, rising material costs and the impacts of COVID -19. These factors drive up costs on all of our projects. For example, the price of diesel, a key input in construction projects, has nearly doubled over the past year. Another key material for road construction, bitumen, is at its highest level in a decade. Steel is also being boosted by similar international demand and shipping constraints, where the local price has risen more than 30% over the past year.”
In 2019, the project was expected to cost around $94 million. This amount had doubled to $190 million last year, the latest cost estimate therefore represents a fairly significant increase. Since it seems like most of the reasons for the increase are due to labor and supply shift issues, I wonder how many other major transportation projects across the country are doing – for example, we know that there is an ongoing cost increase for the City Rail Link but the amount is not yet known.
I have some problems with the project/announcement. The biggest problem is just a degree of jealousy this project is happening while in Auckland all walk and cycle access on the harbor the closest equivalent of this project has been delayed to several times and then cancelled. But there are two other things to point out…
This is not (only) a “bike path” project. . .
Someday 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 “bike lanes” in press releases and media reports and headlines – does it correlate with budget, location, or both?
In this case, the community is clear on who and what is the course for:
Graeme Hall, chairman of the Great Harbor Way/Te Aranui o Pōneke trust, said the new way would be a social and community asset.
“There will be strollers, children, 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 train lines from debris and seawater.
“People probably think ‘it’s expensive for a strip of asphalt’, but it’s more than that, it’s a huge amount of work to push back the dike and create space for the rail not to be not challenged on days like (Thursday),” Hall said.
In that case, one of the reasons why this project is so important is that it’s not just about building a “bike lane” or even a “shared lane” – it’s also largely about building a improve the resilience of the railway line and the highway it will run alongside. .
In many ways, the project is a dike first that will have a bike path at the top. “Strengthening Wellington’s strategic transport links”, as Waka Kotahi puts it – especially in “better protect the railway against storms and sea waves, and ensure the sustainability of sea level rise”
This is not a theoretical question either: there was 10m swell at the harbor entrance last week with 6m waves entering the harborwith significant impacts on coastal communities, transportation and other infrastructure:
Thursday’s swell produced regular waves of 6-7m in and around Te Whanganui-a-Tara – a 10m wave was also recorded.
Waves crashed into the coastal roads of Lower Hutt’s eastern bays, cutting thousands of residents from their homes. The winds were so strong that a Bluebridge ferry circled the harbor for several hours, unable to dock due to the strong winds.
And you may recall that part of the train track was washed away in a winter storm in 2013.
Ten years ago, it took nearly a week to repair the track, and while it was out of service, Wellingtons suffered increased traffic congestion and journey times. A study of the impact of this disruption found the economic impact to be between $12 million and $43 million.
With climate change leading to more frequent and intense storms as well as rising sea levels, it’s not hard to imagine that the 2013 event could repeat itself quite regularly. And in the times of Covid, it’s also not hard to imagine the growing challenges of financing the work and securing the equipment and contractors to do so in a timely manner.
Thus, given the strategic importance of the project for the protection of the road and the railway, it is surprising to note the little attention that Waka Kotahi gave to this aspect in its press release. This is all the more worrying because they know very well that some media love to use the idea of spending on “bike paths” to foment outrage.
Especially when it comes to cycling, we really need our transport agencies to better communicate these wider benefits.
. . . but it eats up the budget for cycle paths
As stated above, the project is much more than just a bike path, but I’m afraid it will eat up a lot of the country’s funding for cycling and walking.
The current 2021-2024 National Land Transportation Program (NLTP) has planned for Waka Kotahi to spend approximately $371 million on walking and cycling projects across the country. There is still $247 million in the budget that local authorities have to spend. (Of course, this is still pennies compared to the budgets of national highways and even local roads.)
This budget for the NLTP for walking and biking includes $195 million for this project, and that was before this last cost increase. It is not clear where the additional funds will come from to cover the increased costs, but I am afraid that they will also come from this general budget for walking and cycling and that they will be obtained by delaying other projects important.
This is part of a disturbing trend we’ve seen in Waka Kotahi over the past few years of pushing whatever they can into other funding buckets. For example, in Auckland, the widening of SH20B for T2 lanes was originally to be paid for on the national highways compartment, but was replaced by the public transport compartment. The same thing happened with the extension of the Northern Busway. The change in these two projects alone absorbed all of the increase in government funding for PTs a few years ago.
We will therefore have to wait and see where this additional funding for the Wellington project will come from, but given the scale of the work involved in protecting the road and rail lines, I hope this will not come at the expense of other walking and cycling projects.
Another great irony of all this is that the people of Wellington (like the people of Auckland) have been waiting for almost a century for basic connectivity – on foot and on wheels – that is finally being provided at great expense, in a hurry. and largely in a way designed to protect a mode of transport that makes it so urgent that we finally see action.
Looking at recent extreme weather events, some people might be moved to say, who would want to walk or ride a bike in there? When, if New Zealanders had had that basic option all this time, we probably wouldn’t have to ask ourselves that question. So looking forward, the big question isn’t “how can we afford these resilience projects”, it’s how did we afford to think we couldn’t?