Minister says monorail needs to stack up financially

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Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith wants assurances a proposed monorail is financially sound before he considers approving plans.

Smith says the worst case scenario would be granting permission for Riverstone Holding Ltd’s $200 million Fiordland Link Experience only for it to fail financially.

“This is a big project, over $200m,” Smith says, “so one of the things I want to kick the tyres on pretty hard is whether it does economically stack up.

“The worst case scenario would be to approve the project, the project to not financially make it and to be left with a white elephant through one of the special and protected areas of New Zealand.”

Smith today released official advice from the Hearings Commissioner and Department of Conservation recommending he approve the project – subject to extensive conditions.

“I want to emphasise that while the Hearings Commission is pretty important and is one of the considerations I have to take into account,” Smith says. “I want to make plain that the decision is mine.”

Multi-millionaire property developer Bob Robertson’s proposals include a two-hour, 106km trip from Queenstown to Lake Te Anau.

Passengers, paying $179 a ticket, would take a catamaran ride across Lake Wakatipu to Mt Nicholas station and then an all-terrain vehicle trip to a terminal of the super-silent monorail.

It will cut almost 30km through DoC managed Snowdon Forest – beech forest which is part of the Te Wahipounamu (South West New Zealand) World Heritage Area.

The monorail then continues 14km across private land to Te Anau Downs on State Highway 94 (to Milford Sound).

Smith, who recently rejected plans for a private bus tunnel through Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, inspected the sites today.

“I wanted to see for myself the areas affected by the construction of two terminals and the 29.5km-long, six-metre wide corridor that would be cleared to make way for the monorail through public conservation land,” Smith says.

“I also wanted to thoroughly scrutinise the impacts on the Snowdon Forest and its wildlife, as well as understanding the effects on the existing recreational users of the area.

“This monorail decision will be no easier than that of the Milford Tunnel. I am very protective of National Parks like Fiordland and this project has the advantage of being largely outside it.

“However, the monorail still requires clearance of a large area of forest on public conservation land. The submissions process also shows there are strongly held views both in support and in opposition to this project.”

More than 200 submissions were received on the project with opponents estimating 20,000 beech trees will be destroyed.

Save Fiordland and Forest & Bird say native bird populations would be affected, along with protect bats and lizards.

Smith expects to make a decision by the end of the year.

Riverstone Holdings Ltd welcomed the release today of the commissioner’s report on the proposal.

Roberston says: “The monorail route has been developed in consultation with the Department of Conservation over eight years and we agree with the commissioner that it meets the required legal tests and is able to be granted with conditions that carefully manage its impact.”