Posted by: kduston | May 4, 2009

The Transport Imperatives of Wellington Airport

So the plan is out. Wellington Airport have released their Draft Master Plan (PDF) giving the long-term view of both the development of the airport and its relationship with the Wellington region. Obviously there are significant implications for transport in Wellington, and to its credit the report takes the issues facing the airport seriously. This is an important document in the development of the region’s transport links and deserves a close read.

Like most strategic documents the Draft Master Plan is based on some assumptions about the shape of the future. And like too many strategies it does seem overly reliant on the idea that the future will be largely like the past, only more so. The unspoken assumption is that everything will be bigger, brighter and faster in the future – air passenger volumes will continue to increase, the demand for international travel will always grow, and that in a time of carbon constraints and resource limits there are still no real impediments to unending increases in passenger numbers.

The Airport’s view may well be correct – as the old saying goes, making predictions is difficult, especially when they involve the future. But I can’t help thinking that Wellington in 2030 may only bear a passing resemblance to the vision outlined in the Draft Master Plan.

As a city, we’ve sometimes got the prediction business seriously wrong – the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Oriental Bay is the poster-child for the world turning out to be a different place than we thought. The future is very much a foreign land, and the march of “progress” sometimes takes us into uncharted territories that are not always well mapped out in strategy documents.

In the 1950s it was a statement of faith that passenger arrivals by ship would continue to grow; no doubt many well-intentioned planners ran their rulers through the graphs of increasing sea passenger volumes, consulted shipping lines about the larger ships they intended to launch, and concluded that the golden age of sea travel was just beginning – and a modern terminal for them to use was a sensible and pragmatic investment in the city’s future. As we now know, the end result was completed just in time for it to be declared obsolescent.

So we would do well to treat Wellington Airport’s predictions with a degree of skepticism. We are a long way away from the rest of the world, and any changes in the macro-economy that make it more expensive to travel long distances will have a remarkably negative impact on the number of people flying to Wellington; factoring the cost of carbon into airline ticket prices may well have that kind of effect. If there are limits to oil extraction and carbon emissions, then the rosy projections of mass tourism via ever-larger aircraft may be nothing but wishful thinking.

Wellington Airport is, of course, a private company – albeit one with a public shareholding. So it is very much entitled to predict and plan its own future, and to make investments on whatever basis it sees fit. Putting more money into runways and facilities is a decision for the company’s Directors, and I have no doubt that they will make those decisions with the best information they have to hand. But as a city we should be cautious about rushing pell-mell into supporting investments that are predicated on Wellington Airport’s view of the world – and the multi-million dollar roading projects enthusiastically endorsed by Deputy Mayor Ian McKinnon fall into that category.

Infrastructure investments are, by their nature, akin to making bets about the future. We’ve proved we can get it wrong before so we should be careful to not take a simplistic approach to those bets. The world won’t end if Wellington takes a cautious approach to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a second Mt Victoria tunnel, the flyover at the Basin Reserve and all the supporting roading network that Cr McKinnon seems to think is essential to the growth of the airport. The economy is less than buoyant, passenger volumes are falling rather than rising, and the jury is very much out on whether any of these projects will ever justify their very considerable costs.

The Draft Master Plan for the Airport is a very interesting document, but it should not be used by the Council as an excuse to push through projects that may be completely unnecessary by 2030. We should watch and wait, and see if the rosy future envisaged by Wellington Airport comes to pass. One white elephant in the city is enough.

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