Some Wellington City councillors are mystified by a plan that doesn’t prioritise bus lanes to the eastern suburbs, with one saying it’s the reason she has lost confidence in the capital’s $7.4 billion transport project.
Their concerns have reached the ear of Mayor Tory Whanau who agrees something needs to be done sooner than originally planned.
Intense scrutiny has come back on Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) after a minority group of Wellington City councillors filed a notice of motion last week.
They want the council to declare no confidence in LGWM and withdraw the council’s funding agreement.
Seven councillors are in support, notably long-term Eastern Ward councillor Sarah Free who ran on the Green Party ticket up until last year’s local body elections when she changed to being an independent.
Free told the Herald she has lost confidence in LGWM because she felt the project has forgotten about the 40,000 residents who live in the eastern suburbs.
LGWM originally proposed mass rapid transit from the central city to the airport in the east, but the route was then changed to go to the southern suburbs due to the threat of sea level rise.
Free assumed the “compromise” for this would be continuous bus lanes through Mt Victoria all the way to Miramar.
While continuous bus priority to Miramar is in the pipeline, it’s part of LGWM’s transformational programme (big projects such as mass rapid transit and a second Mt Victoria tunnel), construction is not expected to begin on this scheme until the end of the decade.
Some small-scale bus improvements are being proposed for the next few years instead, along with more cycleways.
Free said she was “bitterly disappointed” and argued the council did not need a multibillion-dollar transport plan to deliver such minor changes.
Bus lanes were a quick win that could actually get Wellington moving, Free said.
“If buses are going to compete with cars they have to be faster and they have to be more reliable and so for me, bus priority to the east was an incredibly important part of Let’s Get Wellington Moving and to find that it’s been overlooked... that’s hugely disappointing.”
LGWM’s website said the No 2 bus, which services the east, is Wellington’s most frequent bus route and carries the most people.
Programme director Sarah Gardner said it was important to integrate projects to save money and reduce disruption.
“For example, if we were to build continuous bus priority to the east now, ahead of confirming the details of the extra Mount Victoria Tunnel and the other parts of the transformational programme, there’s a high risk we’d need to rebuild much of it. No one wants to pay for the same thing twice.”
But the mayor said it was apparent something needed to be done sooner than originally planned.
“I will be asking questions at the Governance Reference Group to see what shorter-term solutions are available to improve the current situation,” Whanau said.
Eastern Ward councillor Tim Brown, who has also lost confidence in LGWM, said the lack of action to improve bus services in the east was a total failure of LGWM, the regional council, and he didn’t think the city council was free of blame either.
“It is notable that GWRC has been able to purchase 20 electric buses, lease a depot, and arrange commercial terms with the airport company so as to restart the Airport Flyer service while doing nothing for the people who live or work in the east.
“In the same vein, Cobham Drive has attracted huge investment for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians, yet not one cent for users of bus public transport.”
It was a mystery as to why these bus improvements were not a priority, Brown said.
But Labour Eastern Ward councillor Teri O’Neill said bus priority would not solve congestion alone.
“Currently, Wellingtonians are stuck in traffic, and they’re stuck in a climate crisis, we need better options- that means protected bike lanes and bus priority.”
O’Neill said LGWM was doing this in a staged approach.
Over at the regional council, Transport Committee chairman councillor Thomas Nash said steady progress was being made on the region’s bus driver shortage.
“We are going to get to a point where the challenge is no longer the driver shortage, the challenge will be how do we extend the frequency and reach of the network and a big part of that is going to be getting bus lanes.”
Nash was confident that if both councils (being two out of three partners in LGWM) wanted to accelerate some bus priority lanes, then they would be able to do so.