This morning’s Dominion-Post features a full page advert, notionally inviting people to make submissions on the resource consent application to extend the runway at Wellington Airport.
In fact, the advert is mainly an opportunity to tout the case for the hugely-expensive proposed extension – in what must be one of the most expensive locations in the world in which one could add 300 metres to a runway (and still not comfortably meet international safety guidelines). The pretty graphic highlights 20 Pacific Rim cities which planes could reach from Wellington – without ever mentioning that the most likely outcome, if the project succeeds at all, is flights once or twice a week to one or two of them.
All one really needs to know about the proposal is that the owners of the airport think the project is sufficiently unattractive that there is no way they would proceed with the extension if it involved investing their own money.
The owners – WIAL, majority-owned by Infratil – have been quite clear that the project will only proceed, even if it gets resource consent, if there is a massive public subsidy – huge contributions from some combination of local, regional, and central government that would not be reflected in a commensurate ownership interest in the airport. But there is no mention, at all, of this fact.
In a little note at the bottom of the advert it is described as a “high level factual summary of some of key effects from the extension”. I did spot the odd fact in the advert, but mostly it was boosterish opinions, clothed in consultants’ reports – and all summarized in the huge alleged national benefit estimates. I’m deeply unconvinced by the economic case for this airport runway extension – the benefits appear to be overstated, and the discount rate used to evaluate them seems too low – but would have no real objection if private shareholders were paying for it. But they aren’t.
I’m not making a submission. As a matter of principle, I don’t think the Resource Management Act should be used to block business developments, unless there are compelling environmental grounds – and I have no expertise in environmental issues, and am interested only to the extent Lyall Bay remains a pleasant spot for the family to swim.
The real debate should be around decisions new local and regional councilors consider making about injecting public subsidies to this operation (over and above what has already been spent). The quality of public sector investment spending is typically quite poor, and around the country airport investments (see eg Rotorua) are no exception. As the local body elections are just weeks away, the focus needs to be on the attitude towards the project that each candidate takes. So much money is involved, and attitudes to this project seem to reveal so much about candidates’ views on the role of local and regional government, that for me it will be a defining issue. I will be seeking out candidates who are clearly opposed to spending public money on the extension. In the huge field of mayoral candidates there appear to be a couple of options – but their fine print needs checking out. I haven’t yet done my research on the council and regional council candidates. I encourage greater Wellington readers – because although the Wellington City Council has been driving this, they’ll be looking for money from other local authorities in the region – to prioritise this issue.
My fear is that once the election is over, there will be a behind-closed-doors process rushed through, with no rigorous evaluation of the economics of the project. Cheer-leading from the local business community – always keen on the sort of public subsidies and activities that don’t face the market test that keep Wellington afloat – reinforces the risk.