Nelson election candidates got revved up over the city’s transport issues during a robust debate on Wednesday evening.
Already a hot topic with many Nelson residents, more fuel was added by Prime Minister Bill English just a day earlier when he announced that a re-elected National-led Government would start construction on the Southern Link route in the next parliamentary term, committing up to $135 million to the controversial project.
Unsurprisingly, the National Party pledge featured strongly in the discussion at the election forum that was hosted by Nelsust Inc and Progress Nelson Tasman. It was standing room only at The Boathouse as people on both sides of the argument came to hear from the candidates for New Zealand First, Sue Sara; Labour, Rachel Boyack; the Green Party, Matt Lawrey and National, incumbent electorate MP Nick Smith.
The Southern Link, proposed to connect the Annesbrook Dr and Haven Rd roundabouts, is designed to ease congestion and improve accessibility on the city’s arterial routes including Rocks and Waimea roads. It has divided the public for years, with many people against the plan to move traffic to the likely new route along a section of the much-loved Railway Reserve and through the Victory area.
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Smith has been a strong advocate of the Southern Link and was delighted by the announcement.
The candidates from the other three parties were less impressed and before the forum, they all called for the release of a New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) report on its investigation into the Southern Link, which the agency confirmed had been completed.
“It’s an important piece of work that the taxpayers have paid for,” Lawrey said. “Taxpayers of Nelson and New Zealand should have the opportunity to read it now.”
Lawrey said it was “ludicrous” the National Party had made the announcement “without releasing the report that the decision is largely based on”.
“What’s in the report that Nick Smith and the National Party don’t want us to read?”
Lawrey, a Nelson city councillor, said the report was due to go to the council before Christmas, then there was talk of it coming out in February and then in the second half of the year.
The National Party announcement before the release of the report seemed “incredibly dodgy”.
“It really is quite unreal,” Lawrey said. “It sounds like blatant manipulation of a government agency to achieve a political result.”
Sara said the NZTA report needed to go out to the people.
“We can’t make a judgment until NZTA says: ‘This is where it’s going in, this is where it’s coming out, this is who it’s going to affect’,” Sara said.
Boyack accused National of “riding roughshod” over the NZTA process.
“I think, it looks like there has been some significant political interference in the NZTA process,” Boyack said. “They [NZTA] should release it.”
Smith said he rejected claims of political interference. NZTA was responsible for the report but the “normal convention” was that agencies such as NZTA did not release controversial reports during an election campaign.
NZTA on Wednesday said it had completed work on the Programme Business Case for the Southern Link investigation and the project would now move to the development of a Detailed Business Case. It expected “to publish the Programme Business Case report and further information on next steps for the project next month”.
Calls for the report also came at the forum, firstly from Lawrey and then from some members of the audience, who called out: “Where’s the report.”
Smith told the crowd NZTA was responsible for developing the report.
“I have not seen it,” he said.
Lawrey argued the Southern Link, over time, would increase congestion and pushed for public transport. A Green Party policy of making it free to youngsters up to the age of 19 would help encourage a change in culture towards public transport use, he said.
Boyack said she wanted to be “relentlessly positive” about the use of public transport to help ease congestion.
“That’s the answer.”
The “sticking point” for her on the Southern Link was the airshed the route would pass through and the small particles from vehicle fumes that could damage lungs.
“I could not sleep at night knowing that I was going to support a decision that could be detrimental to the health of the people in that community,” Boyack said.
All the research and door knocking had revealed health was the issue people wanted addressed “not a road for political purposes”.
Sara asked whether a park and ride system could be an option and suggested children should walk to school.
“The focus has been on building more roads and not investing in getting people off of them,” she said. “We need to make public transport as appealing in Nelson as it is in the bigger cities.”
Lawrey, Sara and Boyack all raised coastal shipping as an option for moving freight.
“It would be wonderful for Nelson,” Lawrey said. “We get the freight off the trucks that are on the road and we put it on the sea … it’s free, you don’t have to build it.”
Boyack said Labour wrote a document around coastal shipping in 2008 called Sea Change.
“A lot of that work was forgotten when the National Government came in and so we’re going to focus once again back on coastal shipping,” she said.
Sara said NZ First had a policy to bring in coastal shipping. “The sooner, the better.”
Smith said if coastal shipping increased, as it had been for the past five years, the amount of road capacity needed “to get to our port grows”.
“When a population grows as our region has, you still need the road capacity to be able to move goods and people and that is why the Southern Link is such as essential part of both improving our environment and our transport infrastructure,” he said.