Election 2020

Judith Collins rides the blue highway

On the campaign trail, Judith Collins is fully embracing every 'you're only about roads' barb people throw at her 

National Party leader Judith Collins couldn't have picked a more on-brand venue.

The building was blue. The audience was blue. And the parking was free.

Collins continued her roll-out of tunnelling announcements on Wednesday, at a Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce event on Petone's Esplanade.

The location wasn't accidental. The Esplanade outside was humming with cars and trucks and it wasn't even midday.

If she'd scheduled her talk a little earlier the traffic would have resembled the kind of congestion she was railing against indoors.

Hutt South is an electorate race on a knife-edge and incumbent National MP Chris Bishop is reportedly facing a serious race to hold onto his seat, but the audience weren't the type of Hutt voters who are likely to make it a close-run affair.

They cheered as Collins mentioned she planned to add more lanes to one tunnel (Mt Victoria) then another (The Terrace Tunnel), clapped for the Petone to Grenada link road and applauded even more for the Cross-valley Link (which would purportedly address some of the traffic issues on the Esplanade). 

Collins knew she's acquired a reputation for roads and embraced it. "How many tunnels have you announced?" a Newshub reporter asked (both in jest and because a lot of journalists had lost track): "Not enough," came the response.

A Basin bête noire 

When it came time to open the discussion up to questions from the audience, they weren't about sequencing, mode shifts, benefit-cost ratios or business cases.

"We have got a housing crisis and at the moment biggest problem for developers is getting a plan change through..are you guys going to relax the Resource Management Act?" asked one member of the audience

"There's been a whole lot of changes while the present government has been in power to in the residential property investment area. What are you going to do about it?" another said.

The biggest cheers were reserved for an old National foe: the Basin Reserve.

The whole Let's Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) process started after NZTA's plans for a Basin flyover were canned by an independent board of inquiry and a sequence of planned changes were put on hold as a result.

National has never really gotten over that defeat.

"Everyone in this room knows what happened between 2010 and today," Collins said.

"The endless debate over the Basin Reserve Flyover led to total paralysis."

"While the rest of the country was working with central government to unlock investment in world-class expressways and high quality public transport, Wellington was going backwards.

"The endless debate over the Basin Reserve Flyover led to total paralysis."

LGWM was supposed to break the deadlock, as a joint initiative between NZTA and the region's councils to ensure the next lot of improvements didn't get similarly bogged down by local opposition. 

Collectively the LGWM group came up with a "recommended programme of investment" in consultation with much of the region's public.

When government funding for the package was announced last year, some elements of the programme weren't included. Others like the Mt Victoria Tunnel were sequenced so that they would only happen after public transport improvements were fully embedded.

The departure from that programme has been a subject of rancorous public debate ever since.

Bishop acknowledged many of the projects the party is proposing for Wellington - like the Terrace Tunnel - have individual benefit-cost ratios of less than one (meaning the country would get less than a dollar out of each one it invested), but is encouraging the public to see them as part of a network.

That argument isn't without merit. Even Cabinet advice to ministers on LGWM stressed the need to see tunnels like the Mt Victoria Tunnel as part of a wider transport picture. The benefits of each individual project would only be realised once all were completed.

Collins says the endless debate over the Basin Reserve led to paralysis. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka

The party has also taken the transport debate in Wellington a step further and suggested a solution to tackle Wellington's transport governance issues. A new agency would first lead LGWM, and then go on to run the entire region's transport. 

While they've likened the idea to Auckland Transport, it's worth noting they've referenced a much more low-powered idea floated by former Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, where a service authority would manage all public transport but wouldn't own any of the region's transport assets. 

In some ways this may prove one of the most important ideas to come out of this policy proposal.

Along the capital city's 'Golden Mile', opposition is gearing up after a number of heated public consultation sessions. Strong governance will be required if LGWM is to avoid major delays through local opposition.

Others in Wellington fear there could be more opposition to plans for rapid transit through suburbs like Newtown. 

A new National Policy Statement on Urban Development will loosen development rules within walking distance of those routes once they're set down on paper.

That puts a lot at stake for NIMBYs in those areas when it comes to transport planning, and people on all sides of the capital's transport debate have been getting very nervous in recent weeks.

All of them could likely find one thing to agree with in what Collins said on Wednesday.

"This region has talked about transport for far too long. The time for endless and interminable squabbling is over."

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