Push for councils to own bus depots after Wellington site sells for $35m

Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) wants to own bus depots so they can be kept for public transport use rather than retail and housing.

This week the Herald revealed Kilbirnie bus depot has been sold for $35 million, leaving NZ Bus short of a location to store part of its Wellington fleet.

Infratil used to own NZ Bus but sold the operator to Next Capital in 2019. The land at 45 Onepu Rd in Kilbirnie was not part of the deal.

The land is in a prime location and is understood to be earmarked for development by its new owner.

But it’s considered a strategic asset for public transport because it’s so close to the routes NZ Bus runs in the east of the city. Operators don’t get paid for the time spent driving to and from a route.

In a submission to the Government, GWRC said regional councils need to have stronger control of critical infrastructure like depots to be truly strategic in the planning and provision of world-class public transport.

“This is to ensure the critical assets remain available to public transport use (ie they are not converted into other uses such as retail or housing), and that competitors’ access to the public transport market is not constrained through the private and diverse (multiple) ownership of these critical assets.”

The regional council said local government should own public transport fleets, which would then be leased back to operators.

Similarly, it said local government should own depots and related infrastructure, particularly EV charging, which would then be leased back to individual or multiple operators to enable competitive access.

Having dedicated electric charging facilities is crucial for measures GWRC is taking on climate change.

Emissions from buses currently make up 70 per cent of Metlink’s carbon footprint, or 35 per cent of the regional council’s overall footprint.

It wants to replace or convert its existing fleet to electric power by 2030, the year set for its target of being carbon-neutral.

GWRC chairman Daran Ponter has previously said in relation to the Kilbirnie sale: “It’s a bit galling to see what were significant public assets slip through our fingers.”

He said they were looking for a strong signal from the Government that it will back council ownership.

“Owning, or at least controlling, these assets is key to minimising the risks to delivering public transport, which have been plainly evident in the Wellington region as a combination of industrial action and driver shortages has hampered service provision.

“We want to strengthen our communities’ confidence and pride in our public transport.”

Transport Minister Michael Wood has been approached for comment.

Green Party transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said she was shocked when she heard the Kilbirnie bus depot had been sold.

“It’s really a strategic asset and it influences how much it costs to run bus services and how much time it takes for the bus to get from the depot to its run.

“To have that in the hands of private operators that can just sell it off and potentially cause huge problems for running bus services is wrong.”

Genter said it was common overseas for bus depots to be publicly owned even if some of the services were run by private operators.

Whoever is planning the network should own the infrastructure, Genter said.

“Public transport is a public good.”

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