The Cost to Re-Build Central Wellington Without Cars

In the last three articles, I have argued for and against the removal of cars from central Wellington. Both Wellington City Council (WCC) and Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) have proposed such a move to varying degrees. LGWM are proposing to remove cars from the golden mile and various side streets. Tamatha Paul, of WCC, has proposed that ALL cars be removed from central Wellington. Jill Day, of WCC, has put a motion forward to the WCC to double central Wellington parking fees on weekends in the interim. This makes the city one of the most expensive places in the world to park. Yes, the world! That in itself is to drive (no pun intended) people away from the city centre (thankfully WCC recently had the sense to decline this motion – Dom Post 24 May, 2021).

What are the costs and benefits to this? We need to examine all the costs, before looking at the benefits (mainly around congestion and carbon emissions, without any thought to the economic impact to the city or providing alternative solutions).

The costs are potentially enormous. Firstly, in lost revenue to central Wellington retailers and to WCC. There are the additional costs to build light rail to Island Bay and the airport, and the numerous cycleways that will be built with no tangible revenue benefit to the city. Finally, the costs to build alternative options that I outlined in article 3.

What is the cost to retailers and WCC?

Let us take the extreme position, as that is what Tamatha Paul has proposed, and been supported by most councillors.  Removing all cars from central Wellington would result in a loss of more than $12 million p.a. in revenue for WCC. This is based on loss of car parking from the golden mile, times a factor of three. As I am not privy to council figures, this is an estimate, and therefore this figure could be much higher. This figure does not include loss of revenue from coupon parking if businesses decide to leave the city and thus taking workers out too.

There will also be a loss of revenue for retailers along the golden mile of up to $34 million p.a.  By extending this to all of central Wellington by a factor of three,  that could be up to $102 million p.a.  That is a crushing blow to retailers, restaurants, bars, hotels, and parking buildings in the area.

The cost for building cycleways around Wellington is estimated in the millions, for no tangible benefit, other than an attempt to get more people to cycle. They will not be shopping, except having a coffee or lunch, and maybe a beer or wine.  WCC want to remove cars from the city centre, which brings revenue to both retailers and WCC, and replace with cyclists who do not.

LGWM plan to build light rail to Island Bay and the airport. The cost for this is greater than $100 million. This is again to remove cars from Wellington. From an economic and environmental perspective, this may have benefits. Wellington is attempting to replace one mode of transport with another. However, in cities like London and Sydney, rapid transport systems have only had a marginal impact on reducing traffic. London’s Heathrow Express is not profitable despite being a very efficient way of getting to and from the airport (I have used the Heathrow Express).

At this point in the argument, this whole ideological move to remove cars comes at a major cost to the city, in infrastructure costs and lost revenue.  To guarantee that Wellington is still vibrant and profitable, we need to ensure people still want to come to the city, because not everyone wants to cycle into town, or catch a bus, or train, or have the ability to jump onto the light rail. The alternative comes at a cost too, but hopefully provides revenue to retailers and WCC.

There are options to supplement the restructure of Wellington (refer article 6). At present, the motivation to remove cars is a narrow concept, ideologically driven by environmental factors and reducing congestion, but without consideration to the economic impact on the city. There are costs to the alternatives, but they do have the benefit of reducing congestion, improving the environment, and at the same time providing revenue to businesses and WCC.

To implement the LGWM plan and to help WCC maintain revenue, perhaps we should investigate an idea that worked very successfully in the past?

In 1950, the government set up the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority, also known as Special Purpose Authorities (Stuff, 3 May 2021). Contracts were issued in 1954 and the bridge was built by 1959. In contrast, four years of LGWM has achieved nothing! To redevelop an environmentally friendly and less congested city, the government should reconsider implementing a Special Purpose Authority to initiate the plans and cover the $6 billion cost of LGWM, or at least the potential additional costs of adding in an alternative.

Building car hubs on the city edge and a cut or cover of the State Highway through Wellington is a major cost (without considering a Waterview Tunnel 2 option). These options are probably anathema to both LGWM and the left leaning WCC. However, these two options have the benefit of achieving the following:

  • Improving the environment
  • Reducing congestion in the city
  • Maintaining revenue for businesses and WCC

There is also a need to increase housing in central Wellington to offset those people who are no longer willing to come into the city. This is current government policy to help slow the urban sprawl. Initially I agreed with this, however a recent conversation with an engineer highlighted that (he has advised authorities on this issue) this is not a good idea. Wellington is prone to a major earthquake at some point and another 80,000 people living in the city centre would be very problematic. Literally, 80,000 people would be displaced overnight due to massive infrastructure failures. However, assuming this happens, the major plus side is these people will be able to support businesses and provide revenue to WCC by way of rates.

To make Wellington a destination city comes at a cost but has the benefit of drawing people to the city to spend money at galleries, experience walkways, parks, restaurants, bars, and the free minibus rides round the centre of the city. The cost is creating this environment, but the payback benefit is revenue generation.

Finally, improving bus and train services is essential, and not a substitute for cars. This is simply an alternative service that encourages people take a bus or train because it is cheaper and an efficient means of transport. Cars are not going away as they are a very efficient means of transport. They will simply become EV’s, hybrids or hydrogen cars. We must cater for all forms of transport, and how they will provide economic and environmental benefits to the city. Right now, both LGWM and WCC are not considering all the alternatives.