The Dominion Post Editorial: Proof needed for longer Wellington Airport runway case

OPINION: Wellington’s leaders support the extension of the airport. The region’s mayors have agreed in principle to put $150 million into the project.

Business leaders have long supported it. But there are also formidable opponents, including Government ministers. If the project is to fly then its champions will have to make a formidable case.

The advantages to the region seem clear, and for that reason this newspaper has also supported the runway extension. Certainly it’s a big and expensive investment: about $350m, or about $1m a metre. But the longer runway is in effect a gateway into an arguably brighter future for the capital and its people.

Larger aircraft would give us a direct link to major cities in Asia and North America. The planes would bring in more tourists, businesspeople and students. They would help the smart capital and its hinterland to grow more quickly. The outline argument, then, is easily understood.

However, the Government remains “sceptical”, according to Transport Minister Simon Bridges, one of the hard Right-wingers in the Cabinet and a man whose portfolio makes him a dangerous critic. Bridges cautions that the mayors should not expect the Government to cough up large sums for the airport, and this is not the first time the warning has been issued. The Minister of Everything, Steven Joyce, has never been enthusiastic about the airport project.

Bridges worries that a private company, Infratil, which owns two-thirds of the airport, would benefit from any significant public investment. That is not by itself the end of the argument.

What has to be weighed up is the return on the public investment against the return not just to Infratil but to the wider region and the nation.

This is a judgement call and it can be made only on the basis of the most rigorous costings. We are still waiting for the airport to complete and release the business case for the extension.

A great deal will depend on it. Ratepayers will also have a vital interest in its figures, because the councils – if they decide to confirm their agreement in principle – have to borrow money to invest and that could mean rate rises.

A report by EY last year made an attempt at more detailed costings, although it has had its critics. It estimated that the longer runway would deliver up to $1.75b in direct economic benefits to New Zealand’s economy by 2060 and could slash international travelling time by up to a third. It also claimed that the Wellington region would benefit by up to $684m between 2020 and 2060.
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Wellington needs to prove to the Government and to its own people that this is a sound investment that does not require excessive subsidies from the taxpayers or the ratepayers and does not provide excessively-subsidised profits to Infratil. Business leaders who support the project can expect no less: otherwise they are just looking for handouts like every other self-interested lobby.

So now everything depends on the quality of the argument and the strength of the evidence.

The figures have to stack up.

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