A transformational Hamilton East transport plan that would ease traffic congestion by making it easier and safer for children to get to school and back without a car ride looks like being a non-starter even before the city council completes public consultation to finalise design options.
The Eastern Pathways projects focusing on the Hukanui Rd/Peachgrove Rd and Clyde St/Knighton Rd areas would need major funding from Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency but the agency has overspent its current three-year budget and has already committed 90 per cent of its revenue for the 2021-24 funding period.
Hamilton City councillor and cycling advocate Sarah Thomson says she was "furious" after learning of the funding shortfall. She said on her public Facebook page on Tuesday that the community has been waiting years for the Eastern Pathways (School Link and University Link) projects to get under way.
"These are transformational projects that will connect thousands of our tamariki and rangatahi to their place of learning with safe walking and cycling options, and decent public transport," she said.
NZTA chief executive Nicole Rosie wrote to the city council saying: "There is a significant programme of work already under way across the country which will require more than 90 per cent of anticipated revenue from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) for 2021-24 to meet these existing commitments.
"The current funding commitments in this NLTF period (2018-21) mean we expect to end this financial year with our short-term borrowing facilities and begin the next three years in the red.
"As a result, we are not currently approving funding for any new delivery projects. With the 2021-2024 starting off in the red, we will face difficulties with the lower funding limits of the 11 activity classes requiring a minimum spend of $12.9 billion from a forecast revenue of $13b. So, unless our revenue is materially higher than forecast, the NLTF cannot afford to fund activities in any activity class above the lower limit," Rosie said.
Councillor Thomson, who is deputy chair of the HCC environment committee, says NZTA would mainly focus on highways; walking and cycling would be seen as a nice add-on.
"They underestimate the costs for walking and cycling. We are good to go and at first we were told it is looking good from NZTA's side as well. Now we get the note that they are nearly out of money."
The city council has dedicated $38 million as part of its draft Long-Term Plan funding for its share of funding for Eastern Pathways.
However, the council's Public Transport and Urban Mobility Programme Delivery Lead, Martin Parkes, says the project is not off the table yet.
"We keep working on the programme and engaging with the community to submit the business case to NZTA in May and await their final decision after that,"
In her Tuesday post Thomson also said: "How is it that Waka Kotahi and central govt can find billions of dollars for big highways projects that will ultimately increase emissions and congestion, but they can't afford to support projects that will dramatically improve the quality of life, health and safety of thousands of residents, as well as help us transition to a low carbon transport system?"
In her email to the city council, Rosie said that to pay for more projects NZTA would require additional funding or financing.
"Options could include Crown funding, taking on additional debt ... increasing our revenue streams," she said.
"We continue to work with the Ministry and Treasury on what funding and financial options may be available to us and I will keep you updated on these discussions and any change in our situation ... Given the focus on climate outcomes we are hopeful of good outcomes, but in the interests of transparency I want to ensure you are aware of what constraints we currently face," Rosie told the council.
On Wednesday, councillor Thomson told her Facebook followers: "While things aren't looking rosy, there's still a lot of water to go under the bridge and I'm hopeful that we can still work together with Waka Kotahi and central govt to get these important projects over the line, particularly if they have strong community support.
"Hamilton East MP Jamie Strange is supportive of the project and will be speaking with the Minister of Transport. And I understand a petition is launching soon.
"So please do keep engaging with the Eastern Pathways consultation that's happening right now and give your views on the routes and designs. We'll get there," Thomson said.
The public can have a say about Eastern Pathways/Te Ara o te Rawhiti up to 5pm on Thursday March 4.
The council has already had four public meetings to provide information and invite feedback on the design of the project, with two more meetings to come, on Sunday February 28 at the Claudelands Farmers Market 8am to noon and on Thursday March 4 at the Village Green at the University of Waikato campus 9am to 2pm.
The city council says that with Eastern Pathways in place, traffic congestion could decrease as alternative transport options like cycling, walking and public transport would be made safe enough for children to get to school on their own.
The Eastern Pathways route in Hamilton East is an important traffic hotspot with 23 schools, Waikato University, more than 20,000 students and 30,000 residents.
The council wants to hear from the community about options to make biking, walking, e-scooting, e-skating – and taking the bus – safer and easier across east Hamilton.
HCC's Martin Parkes says: "Hamilton is a very car dominated city. With 87 per cent of people using a car to get around, we even have the second highest share of car-trips in New Zealand."
With that comes problems, says Parks. Especially the efficiency of public and alternative transport which suffers due to traffic congestion at prime times in the mornings and afternoons.
Community committee chairman, councillor Mark Bunting sees the answer to the traffic congestion in school buses and cycling.
"The problem, in my eyes, is not the drive from school to work. It's the drive from home to school, because in these areas is where the traffic clogs up. Take away this extra trip for working parents and the congestion is solved."
Eastern Pathways is supposed to change that, with the council thinking about more pedestrian crossings, separated cycling lanes, traffic signals, giving pedestrians priority and high-quality bus services.
Infrastructure Operations Committee chairwoman councillor Angela O'Leary even talks about Hamilton becoming a 20-minute city.
"This means connecting people with schools and places of work with safe walking, cycling and public transport options, so residents can safely access most of the things they need within 20 minutes."
Parkes says: "We want to balance the way of transport and encourage people to leave the car at home more often, using greener ways of getting around. If we would introduce bus lanes and bus traffic lights, public transport would have a time advantage and become more attractive."
Thomson says Eastern Pathways would be a game-changer connecting people from home to school.
"Especially kids will benefit from it as it gives them more independence and they can enjoy their way to school."
Bunting, also an advocate of cycling, says lots of people want to use bikes, but they are too afraid to use them.
"We don't see as many bikes out there as we could. If you look overseas, for example to Canada, biking exploded as soon as they introduced connected cycleways.
"I think that Hamilton can be the most bike friendly city in New Zealand: we have the perfect climate, we are flat, and we have lots of calm streets that could have connected cycleways."
There is lots of work to be done. It's a significant investment and a long-term project that even if it gains NZTA funding, Eastern Pathways will still be under development in 10 years' time.
"But it will change the transport system for future generations," says Parkes.
– with additional reporting by Peter Tiffany.