Brian Rudman has an opinion piece in today’s Herald looking at Auckland Transport’s recent light-rail announcement and hoping that the Mayor jumps on board to support the idea a bit more than he has so far.
The mayor is struggling to put together a budget that will accommodate his magnificent obsession, the $2.5 billion underground City Rail Link (CRL), without triggering a ratepayer revolt, so his testiness over Dr Levy’s light rail proposal is understandable.
But if Mr Brown wants to be remembered as the mayor who solved Auckland’s transport congestion problems, he should be embracing the light rail proposal as though it was his idea.
His single-mindedness over the CRL is admirable. Such projects need a 24-hour-a-day champion. But it shouldn’t blind him to the bigger picture – that the heavy rail network, while vital, is only a small part of the city’s overall transport system, and that regardless of how much money is thrown at roads and buses, which the majority of commuters use, increasing congestion will inevitably induce cardiac arrest.
The mayor’s attitude towards the project so far perhaps has more to do with his surprise that Auckland Transport had undertaken such a major piece of work without him knowing the details, as well as the risk that some CRL opponents may jump on light-rail as an alternative to CRL (I explained how they do very different tasks here). However, as there is clearly merit in the proposal, Rudman is right in suggesting that the mayor jump on board – at least in terms of supporting full investigation.
Rudman also points out that we should not be surprised to see Auckland Transport come up with some big new ideas for how to solve future transport challenges, because the existing/previous plans tend to show things getting worse – regardless of how much extra funding is raised for transport:
This was spelt out in March 2013 when Auckland Transport (AT) revealed its Integrated Transport Programme, with the dire warning that even if the $34 billion allocated to transport in the city’s proposed 30-year plan was spent as planned, the end result would be gridlock.
Worse, AT admitted that even if the city funded the alternative $59 billion gold-plated plan the transport boffins wanted, the outcome would still be dire.
“Even with the fully funded programme,” admitted the report authors, “road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels”.
It was all self-explanatory. The mayor’s vision of squeezing 700,000 to 1 million people into the compact isthmus city by 2041 was going to put an unsustainable pressure on the roading network. There wouldn’t be room for the extra cars and buses.
The main arterial roads, such as Symonds St and Albert St, would be jammed with buses.
At the time, the mayor refused to see the futility of pursuing this inevitable endgame. He still doesn’t. Instead he appointed a “consensus building group” to select ways of extracting another $12 billion from Aucklanders through fuel taxes or road tolls, to help fund the gold-plated scenario.
The group proposes the inevitable mix of taxes, all of which the Government has indicated it won’t allow. Yet the mayor won’t budge.
Thankfully, AT now acknowledges the flaw in its earlier 30-year plan, and is suggesting a solution employed by liveable cities all around the world. Modern trams.
While we are yet to see all the details of the light-rail project, especially in terms of its cost and the extent to which it resolves future transport challenges, at first blush there is some compelling logic to the scheme in providing high quality PT to a part of Auckland that has huge existing patronage and will never be served by rapid transit.
Perhaps the issue here is more about the ideal timing and priority of light-rail, compared to all the other projects Auckland is planning in the coming years. For example, there is a lot of investment required to enable the new bus network to be successfully implemented, there are huge areas of northwest and southeast Auckland with extremely poor public transport and there is an under-utilised rail network because of the Britomart bottleneck (which CRL resolves).
However, timing and priority issues aside, the mayor should be congratulating Auckland Transport for coming up with new ideas and finally accepting that their previous plans just weren’t adequate to meet Auckland’s transport needs for the next 30 years. Rudman is right in pointing this out.
With Mr Brown hanging his legacy – and his re-election hopes – on fast-tracking the central city rail tunnel, he obviously sees light rail as an unneeded distraction. That ignores the fact that the existing 30-year transport grand plan is designed to fail for the majority of commuters forced to travel by car or bus – even if we could afford to build it.
The light rail proposal is the chance to go back to the drawing board. No one’s suggesting trams should displace the CRL. They’re just a possible missing link in the earlier flawed integrated transport plan.
And while they’re fitting trams into the new model would be a good time to shave the unaffordable $12 billion blowout off the overall budget.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could compare the merits of this light-rail scheme (or the many other important projects on AT’s list) against the marginal state highway projects the government is throwing billions at over the next few years?