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OPINIONPoliticsDecember 19, 2023

Let’s Get Wellington Moving was a giant waste of time


After eight years, the capital’s embattled transport programme has been dissolved. What was the point of it all, asks Joel MacManus.

On a Monday evening in April 2021, councillors from Wellington’s city and regional councils were shepherded into a meeting room and given a critical mission: decide the priorities of Let’s Get Wellington Moving. 

That meeting should have been a giant red flag with flashing lights and sirens that something had gone seriously wrong with the transport programme. This wasn’t the strategy meeting at the beginning of a project, or even the first check-in after six months to make sure priorities were aligned. Instead, it had been six years since Let’s Get Wellington Moving was created and no one, not even the people running the show, knew what they were trying to achieve or why it existed. 

The overall vision LGWM sold got people excited. A fast, dense, low-carbon city criss-crossed by tram lines and bus lanes. For the first time in a long time, it felt like Wellington knew where it was going. This week, LGWM was dissolved by the National-led government. Its 37 staff, who earned an average of $148,746, will be looking for new work. In its eight years of existence, it released more reports than anyone will be able to read in one lifetime and built one (1) pedestrian crossing

Let’s Get Wellington Moving was a giant waste of everyone’s time. It was expensive, slow and unaccountable. It was a sick joke at the expense of everyone who hoped that better things were possible in Wellington. What was the point? Why did we put ourselves through this? 

The projects on LGWM’s list were a strange mix of massive and minuscule. It included multibillion-dollar deals for light rail and a second Mt Victoria tunnel, along with a list of new roundabouts, bus lanes, bike lanes, footpath changes and more. There have been constant arguments about what should be included, but underneath it all, LGWM never justified why it should be in charge of things – let alone exist at all.

An artist’s rendering of light rail to Wellington Regional Hospital (Source: LGWM)

The entire programme was born out of the failed Basin Reserve flyover and a scheme to improve connections to the airport. After facing protests and losing a high court case, Waka Kotahi tried to get all the decision-makers into a room to come up with a new plan for the city. 

Transport in the capital is a three-headed beast. Local roads in the capital are controlled by Wellington City Council, state highways are run by central government, and the public transport network is run by Greater Wellington Regional Council. LGWM was meant to be the panacea that would finally break down the bureaucratic barriers between the three organisations. Instead, it just created more. It became the fourth head of the beast. 

Let’s Get Wellington Moving had its own offices and staff, who were technically separate from the three council and government partners but had no actual independence. At every step of the way, it had to go back and get approval from all three before it could do anything. Media requests for comment often had to be quadruple-handled before any response could be sent. Rather than depoliticising the projects by getting everyone on board, it made the whole thing even more fragile, because all three partners had veto power and could blow the whole thing up. With a local or general election every year or two, the programme never had any long-term security. 

For the public, it meant even more confusion about who was in charge of what. Instead of dealing with their local councillor, they were dealing with an entirely new entity with a strange name. 

It made sense for the big projects – light rail and the tunnel – to be run by a separate entity that could make long-term planning decisions before spending billions of dollars. But the minor projects LGWM was responsible for were a hodge-podge of random things chucked in a bucket without any real consistency. Most of them could have been built more quickly and easily by the council or Waka Kotahi without ever having to involve the four-headed beast. 

The Golden Mile was a fundamentally simple idea (reallocating some road space to speed up buses and get more foot traffic) that LGWM turned into a nightmare. There are always going to be some people who hate change, but LGWM only seemed to inflame the tension – like when the chief executive told one business owner “You look better in the paper than you do in real life.” 

Now that the organisation has been dissolved, the Golden Mile upgrade is going to be handed over to Wellington City Council to finish, with partial funding from Waka Kotahi. This is how it always should have been. The council has authority over Lambton Quay, Willis Street and Courtenay Place, already has relationships with residents and businesses, and has plenty of experience overseeing street changes. There was never any need for LGWM to get involved. 

The Cobham Drive pedestrian crossing is the only tangible thing the organisation managed to build, and it almost drowned in controversy. The crossing itself was an obvious and sensible idea, providing a much-needed connection between the Evans Bay shared path and Ākau Tangi sports centre, as well as several schools. LGWM never managed to properly communicate why it was building the crossing, and it erupted into backlash from some of Wellington’s biggest businesses and lobby groups.

The Cobham Drive pedestrian crossing (Source: LGWM)

Even light rail veered off course. Initially intended as an airport connection, when the plan was finally revealed the route was switched to Island Bay because it was a better spot to build apartments – and it wouldn’t be finished until 2043. By its end, LGWM was no longer just a transport programme, it was about city development, housing, business and climate change. One plan can be all of those things, but only if it’s designed very intentionally – which LGWM wasn’t. 

In the end, LGWM wasn’t ruined by its organisational structure, the bureaucratic inefficiency, or even the bad engagement. Those were all just symptoms of the same underlying problem: it didn’t know what it was.  

The remit became bigger and vaguer. Wellington had transport problems, so the solution was to chuck a bunch of ideas at LGWM and say “Go on, do transport stuff”. But as LGWM kept doing more and more surveys and workshops and consulting more politicians, it went through a process of design-by-committee and turned into an amorphous blob. 

The fateful Monday evening meeting in 2021 to decide the programme’s priorities didn’t make anything clearer. Instead, it created a maths problem. The programme, it determined, would be 40% about reducing vehicle reliance, 20% about making the central city liveable, 15% each about accessibility and safety, and 10% focused on resilience. 

LGWM became everything to everyone and ended up being nothing to nobody. Wellington got screwed around for eight years and still has the same transport problems it started with. 

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