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Few issues provoke such ire in the Southland Community as the Around the Mountains Cycle trail. Many see it as an expensive waste of rate payer money and whenever another council asset or service needs funding it is the first whipping boy of choice.
Mayor Tong has always expressed reservations about it and after 6 years in office he continues to proclaim it to be a flawed project which he will not waste further public money on – or at most the absolute minimum that he is more or less obliged to spend. He regularly criticises the people who conceived it. This ignores the inconvenient fact that most cost over runs were around the Athol area and options around Athol were overseen by Mayor Tong.
When he elected to intervene in response to the vociferous complaints of two farmers matters became complicated and it would seem expensive for rate payers. The two farmers objected to the idea of people cycling and riding on the disused railway line which was crown land the old railway line.
Tong seems to have given in to all their demands and to then, at considerable cost to ratepayers, council moved the trail. Council have not released cost estimates but a sum of between $500,000 and $700,000 has been talked about.
In spite of Tong’s apparent capitulation to the demands of the two farmers and the additional costs imposed by that on the project he appeared to secure nothing in return. Approximately 20% of all the gates and cattle stops on the entire trail were installed on the two farms but the farmers continued to make access difficult and when the work was done riders on the trail apparently encountered up to a dozen locked gates blocking the path, a situation that remained the case for several years.
The damage done to the reputation of the cycle trail and to Southland over the years, with Tong actually supplying the padlocks, is incalculable. At the very least it was a ridiculous situation that remains an embarrassment to any Southlander priding our region on being a good host to visitors.
In fact while most of Tongs continuing complaints of mismanagement and incompetence seem to be largely directed toward events that predate his time as mayor, most mismanagement occurred under his Mayoralty and indeed under his direct control.
About 10.4 million dollars of government and rate payer money has been spent. The latest very comprehensive Council revue sums up the options and should point the way forward as it aims for a ‘completion that maximises the value of costs already incurred’.
The report makes a number of points with regard to the trail retaining its ‘Great Ride’ status including a statement that ‘stakeholders view retention of the ‘Great Ride’ label to be a critical element of this value proposition for potential users’ so that it can compete with the other 22 Great Rides in the New Zealand Cycle Trail network. The report states that ‘Subject matter experts warn that an on-road option may lead to the trail being less attractive both to potential users and commercial operators looking to be involved with the trail. Living up to the ‘Great Rides’ branding is a priority for Council and commercial success will partly depend on the cycle trail’s competitiveness against the other 21 trails across New Zealand.’
So, in other words if we lose the Great Ride status the trail will perhaps languish and even fail. The report also states that if the missing 28.5 kilometres of missing trail was completed at a cost of about 4 million dollars ‘to achieve additional visitor growth of 25%, it is projected to generate $2.39 million of additional economic benefits over the appraisal period’. It is expected to both attract more individual visitors and result in a longer multi-day experience. Interestingly although the figures presume a rate of growth of 25% the report also states that visitor growth potential could be as high as 50%.
Unfortunately the report then uses a cost benefit analysis to show that the best option is the one that council has opted for, a cheap 125k hook up from the current end of the trail to the public metal road running through to Mavora. The trouble with that is that although the return on the dollar looks good as a percentage of the minimal amount of money spent the return is equally minimal.
Furthermore the report states that this bare minimum approach ‘also presents risks and disadvantages, including an increased risk of central government funding withdrawal. While cyclists would still be able to cycle a loop of sorts, as they presently do, by using local roads, experts warn that failing to offer a complete off-road loop may deter potential multi-day riders planning a trip to Southland and may lead to a perception that it is an inferior Great Ride option.
This sounds negative and it is. If the expenditure of 4 million results in a ride that returns over half that sum annually with potential for twice that amount, then it’s not hard to see how the trail could recover all the money spent on it relatively quickly. This is clearly the opposite of sending good money after bad. On the other hand the only certainty about the minimal approach is that it will never recover the money spent so far.
Confidence in cycle trails is high with Central Otago about to embark on a 26 million dollar extension to their trail network while Southland continues its seemingly endless dithering. We also run the very real risk of being downgraded from Great Ride status in a future audit by the governing body NZ Cycle Trails. This is because trails currently given that status that include sections of public road must have a plan to replace those sections with off road trails.
We need to negotiate with government to get a slice of the money we need to properly complete the trail and we need to facilitate someone else to build and operate a lodge at Mavora Lakes. Not finishing this trail is a false economy. On the other hand the indications are that finishing it properly will result in Southland quite rapidly recovering all the money it will have invested in a relatively short time frame. And we don’t need yet another expensive report to tell us so.