RE-BLOG CROAKING CASSANDRA: Subsidy City… Wellington Airport

By Michael Reddell

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At about 3pm, the first Singapore Airlines flight to Wellington, via Canberra of all places, lands at Wellington Airport.  Wellington-boosters, well represented on the Council and the Chamber of Commerce, talk up the first “long-haul” flight to and from Wellington.  All of which would be more impressive if it were not for the ratepayers’ money being (secretly – no information on the amounts or terms of these sweetheart deals, no robust cost-benefit analysis etc) used to make it all possible.    Were the flights financially self-supporting that would be the best evidence of them being “a good thing”.  But they aren’t.  That means (a) a presumption against them being “a good thing”, and (b) a likelihood that they won’t survive for long, at least without some permanent subsidy from the long-suffering ratepayers of Wellington. It probably isn’t a subsidy to the giant Singapore Airlines –  they’ll probably just manage a normal return on capital –  but by quite which canons of social justice ratepayers should be subsidizing government departments (probably the main purchasers of tickets on the Wellington-Canberra leg, and one of the larger sources of international passengers from Wellington) is beyond me.

But at least these sorts of subsidy deals can usually be terminated with not too much notice.  Other cities have tried this sort of thing, and the arrangements have typically fallen over before too long.  There isn’t much irreversibility about them.  The same can’t be said for the proposed Wellington Airport runway extension.  If it goes ahead, very large amounts of money will be irreversibly lost.

There was a very nice, accessible, article out a few weeks ago in City Journal by leading US economist Ed Glaeser.  In “If you build it…..” Glaeser tackles some of the “myths and realities about America’s infrastructure spending”.  There is a lot enthusiasm around, especially in centre-left circles, for more – much more –  infrastructure spending, to “take advantage” of the current very low global interest rates.  Enthusiasts, of course, rarely stop to ask why interest rates are so low, and expected to remain low, but set that caveat to one side for now.   Glaeser reports on a variety of studies on just how underwhelming most government-led infrastructure actually is: too often in regions that are declining rather than ones that are growing, all too often with low payoffs (and massive cost over-runs) at the best of times, and so on.  There are plenty of specific differences between the US situation and our own – we don’t have the Senate, steering funds to lightly-populated states, but then we have by-election promises to build bridges to anywhere –  but I don’t think we have anything to be complacent about.  His penultimate paragraph is relevant pretty much anywhere

Economics teaches two basic truths: people make wise choices when they are forced to weigh benefits against costs; and competition produces good results. Large-scale federal involvement in transportation means that the people who benefit aren’t the people who pay the costs. The result is too many white-elephant projects and too little innovation and maintenance.

Just last week we heard of the latest large cost-escalation in the hugely-expensive questionable Auckland inner-city rail loop.  “Who cares” seems to be the reaction of central (National) and local government (Labour) politicians –  ratepayers and taxpayers will pay.   In Wellington the largest regional roading projects for generations (probably ever) is underway at Transmission Gully.  The economics of the project are simply shocking, but that doesn’t seem to bother our National or Labour politicians.

And then there is the airport extension proposal.  Now, on paper, it might look like a project that might pass some of Glaeser’s tests.  After all, Wellington Airport isn’t owned by central or local government –  although Wellington City has a minority stake –  but by a company majority-owned by some fairly hard-headed infrastructure investors/operators, Infratil.

There are plenty of people around –  including commenters here on previous airport posts –  who will attack Infratil.  I’m not one of them.  Infratil is a private sector business, no doubt pursuing (as it should) the best interests of its shareholders.  And Infratil has been quite unambiguiously clear that the airport extension project simply does not stack up on commercial grounds.  In a comment on this blog six months ago, the chairman of the airport company Tim Brown put it this way:

The Airport extension is forecast to cost $300m. If airport users who get no value from it (people on smaller aircraft, people buying coffee, parking cars, etc) don’t pay anything towards it, then the estimated present value to the airport company from those who do benefit from the extension and do help pay for it may be about $100m. So on purely commercial grounds and avoiding cross subsidies the shareholders are expected to contribute that sum.
Clearly that makes it a dead duck on a purely commercial basis. Who would hand over $300m for something “worth” $100m?

Since Infratil owns 66 per cent of the airport company (WIAL) that would involve them putting up around $66m and the minority shareholder putting up $34 million.

So when people attack the idea of council or government handing over (lots of) additional money to get the project going (in addition to the millions the Council has already spent) as “corporate welfare”, they are simply wrong, at least as regards Infratil.   This project seems to be driven by the Council “boosters”, presumably why they’ve been so ready to spending large amounts of ratepayers’ money on it already.  If some branch(es) of government in fact do stump up hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what is commercially justifiable, some of it will certainly benefit some local businesses, but most of it will simply be money down the drain; spent on real resources to build an extension that simply has almost no economic value.  Other than the exercise commissioned by the airport company itself –  funded by the Council –  no one who has taken a hard look at the numbers regards the claims of large scale economic benefits as stacking up.  Of course, there are plenty of “boosters”, and others who think of (real) long-haul flights from Wellington as a nice idea, but the numbers simply don’t stack up.

Fortunately, it is local body election time.  If it weren’t, I fear the project might be rammed through with as little serious scrutiny as the cosy subsidy deal to fund a movie museum/convention centre in Wellington recently was.  (The movie industry, of course, surviving on large scale taxpayer subsidies).  At present, WIAL has a resource consent application underway.  (Of course, if the project can’t get a resource consent, the economics is irrelevant.)  Somewhat curiously, WIAL recently temporarily put the resource application on ice. This was, ostensibly, to allow them to take account of points raised in the numerous public submissions. I’m a bit skeptical of that story –  surely the submissions can’t have been much of a surprise –  and wonder if it isn’t a convenient way to minimize coverage of the issue during the local body election season.  Perhaps not, but the timing is certainly convenient.

A year ago, I assumed that the Wellington City Council – which hardly ever turns down an opportunity to waste money, and which is in the thrall of an “economic development” mindset –  would simply write the cheque, shifting large amount of ratepayers’ money into a project which  –  while fundamentally uneconomic –  it would not even secure a much-increased ownership interest in.

But as the election season has gone on, I’ve begun to be a little more hopeful that perhaps hard-headed analysis might actually play some role in the eventual decision on Council funding (or indeed, central government funding, where there is little sign of much greater discipline around capital spending).   Our mayoral race is hotly contested, and so there have been plenty of surveys asking candidates for their views on the airport extension.  Here I’m drawing mostly from a survey done by my local residents’ association.

Somewhat encouragingly, of the eight mayoral candidates not one is now unambiguously in support of spending lots of ratepayers’ money on the runway extension.

One of the mainstream candidates –  centre-right councillor Nicola Young –  is outright opposed

 Opposed. Initially I thought it should funded in line with its ownership (Infratil 66%, WCC 34%) but now I believe it would be a $300million folly. Subsidising international airlines is very costly, as Christchurch Airport discovered when it paid Air Asia X millions to get direct flights to Asia; the flights were cancelled after nine months

Another sitting councillor, this time from the left, Helene Ritchie, is also opposed

I have repeatedly opposed it and any funding towards it-including Council using rates to support an application by the Company for a  resource consent.

She further offends the elites by suggesting that voters should get to make the final decision on such an expensive proposal

The Environment Court should throw it out. If it is not thrown out, then as mayor I will call for a referendum/poll of the people, on this proposed rates funded $350 million (probably likely $500million) Airport Extension, asking residents, “Do you want to pay for the proposed airport extension? Should rates be spent on “corporate welfare”-an unnecessary airport extension?”

Another candidate –  left-wing economist Keith Johnson, campaigning (I suspect) against waste rather than to be elected –  is also clearly opposed

I am opposed to the project and have submitted a substantial paper detailing my objections to the Environment Court, covering safety, environmental, budgetary and business-case concerns.
I am absolutely opposed to the allocation of $90 million from Wellington City Council to the project, as the proposal essentially constitutes corporate welfare funded from the pockets of ratepayers.

A final minor candidate is also clearly opposed.

Unfortunately, most of the more likely candidates are somewhat more positive.

Sitting councilor Andy Foster probably isn’t going to be mayor, but despite being a typical “booster” most times when it comes to council spending, on this one he has clearly been having second thoughts.

It will depend on whether it can get over some very tough hurdles: consent, demonstrated airline commitment, robust economic case and obtain funding.  If it can, I will support it. If it doesn’t I won’t.  I suspect it won’t.

The election seems set to come down to a race between the current Labour Deputy Mayor (endorsed by the Greens) Justin Lester, the current Labour mayor of Porirua Nick Leggett, and the centrist councillor Jo Coughlan.  All three have a track record of supporting spending (lots of) public money on “economic development” projects, but I am mildly encouraged by how cautious they now seem to have become.

Here is Coughlan

I support the runway extension subject to it getting a resource consent, a business case that stacks up and appropriate funding. If the city does contribute, it should be reflected in our ownership skate. It should not be a donation

On that basis, the Council would end up owning a very large share of WIAL.  It is a middle of the road line, but it is important for Wellington voters to remember that the project is fundamentally uneconomic, and whether any money was contributed as an equity stake or as a “donation” doesn’t change that.  Central government had lots of equity stakes in Think Big projects in the 1980s.  They were all financial and economic disasters.

Here is Leggett, current mayor of Porirua

I support the idea of the runway extension. Wellington has to open itself outwards and create better connections internationally to grow jobs and investment.   I don’t support the council funding the extension beyond its 33% shareholding and if the Resource Consent is not successful – or the Government refuses to offer funding – then the project won’t proceed.

Ah yes, the “idea” sounds good.  But if it were such a good idea, users would pay for it.  That is the market test, usually a pretty sound one.  One gets the impression he doesn’t actually think the project will pass a proper cost-benefit analysis for the Council –  and $200m is a lot of money.  Leggett seems to be looking to central government –  and as he must drive past the Transmission Gully works each day on the way to the office, perhaps that is no wonder.  Wasteful capex is just par for the course –  especially when it could be dressed up in current fashionable rhetoric about advancing (with subsidies) export education and tourism.

And what of the Labour (and Greens –  even though as a party they ostensibly oppose the runway extension) candidate, Justin Lester?  He has been a strong advocate of the project, and was apparently the key figure in securing subsidies for the Singapore Airlines flights to Canberra. But now….

I have committed to seeking the resource consent for the airport extension project. It’s too early to say whether the project will proceed because the following three caveats will need to be satisfied before it proceeds: 1. Resource consent approval 2. Financial support from Central Government 3. Commitment from airlines to fly direct routes to Asia.
This is a 50 year project and needs careful consideration before any decision is made.

So even for Lester this is too big for the Council.  It can only proceed with central government funding.

Perhaps the most encouraging bit is his final sentence.  It is a long-lived project, and the option to delay must be a real one.  Perhaps in five or ten years time we will have a more secure feel for, for example, the viability of the new Singapore flights.  And –  for those more environmentally inclined than I am –  there is always the question of sea-level rise to consider, for a very low-lying airport.  Perhaps we could have another look in 20 years time?  Who knows, by then the benefits might be so overwhelming the users might even pay for the project?

In our council system, even mayors have only one vote.  Whichever of these candidates gets elected the project might still get significant additional council funding, or not.  And as central government has a terrible record of pouring money down sinkholes –  Transmission Gully, KiwiRail, probably the Auckland CRL etc – it might get funding from there even if the Council isn’t willing to stump up much.  But it is at least slightly encouraging that the mayoral candidates, reading the tea leaves of voter attitudes, have all either come out opposed to the Council paying for the project, or hedging support around with some tests that will be very hard to pass.

I’m not usually a single issue voter –  and the debacle of the Island Bay cycleway still concentrates the mind in other directions at times –  but this time I am.  There is simply too much money at stake, to allow boosters with the public cheque book to pursue their field of dreams vision for Wellington airport.

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