In the Congestion Free Network 2, we floated the idea of Northwestern Light Rail along State Highway 16, rather than a Busway. We did this for a few reasons:
- Aspirational: We suspected that like the Northern Busway the Northwest Busway would also be a victim of its own success. By putting up the idea, it built the case for future proofing.
- The cost differences were relatively small: When comparing a Busway with Light Rail along the whole City Centre to Kumeu corridor, it seemed the costs differences might not be that significant. This is because Light Rail can operate in a slightly narrower corridor in existing areas, while in greenfield areas Light Rail can be built on simple ballasted track whereas a Busway involves the formation of a whole new road
- Northwest Light Rail can utilise the Queen St Light Rail corridor thus removing the need for expensive City Centre end works. The advantage buses had was the ability to stage the cost over time, but with the ATAP Refresh recommendation that the busway should be built from Newton-Lincoln first rather than Westgate-Te Atatu this may now not have that much of an advantage.
- Dig Once, Do Right: By building Light Rail was most of the route straight away created a build once right situation the corridor wouldn’t need to be done then dug up in a decade or two.
- Albert Street Place Making: Albert Street can be rethought, with Light Rail significantly fewer buses will be using Albert Street allowing the street purpose to be re-focused much more on pedestrians/cycling/placemaking.
During the election campaign, the idea of Northwest Light-Rail was picked up by both Labour and the Greens. The acceleration of Northwest Light Rail was part of Jacinda Ardern’s first policy announcement after taking over the leadership from Andrew Little. With the election of a new Government, Northwest Light Rail goes from being something aspirational to something highly likely to happen with Phil Twyford announcing recently
We are proceeding with the policy we campaigned on, that is to building light rail from the CBD to the airport, and to West Auckland, starting immediately
Northwest Light Rail will be a large investment, no doubt about it. However, there are several things we can do to manage its cost and develop a strong business case for the project.
- Take advantage of the Dominion Road Light Rail: Queen Street will have large capacity when completed and we can leverage that corridor for the Northwest as well which will significantly reduce the cost as a second City Centre Light Rail corridor would not need to be built in the foreseeable future.
- Use the current motorway corridor: Work to date appears to assume that any Northwest public transport upgrade would be outside the existing motorway corridor and result in the need to purchase homes and demolish them to make way, alongside ripping up of many sections of the just-completed Northwest Cycleway. This assumption should be challenged, especially the opportunity to shuffle lanes around, narrow lanes slightly (which has good safety benefits) and utilise the shoulder lanes (these are proposed for bus use anyway).
- Do not expand the causeway. The causeway between Pt Chevalier and Rosebank Road has only just been reclaimed and it is unlikely that the consent of further reclamation of the causeway will be feasible. But why do we assume we need to do a large amount of widening? Are we going to widen Queen Street or Dominion Road a lane for Light Rail, did we widen Sandringham Road when we put Bus Lanes in? The same logic can apply for Northwest Light Rail instead of massive widening we can use some of the lanes created during the Western Ring works. This means no new bridge needed across the causeway, no large relocation of the cycleway, no large-scale demolition of houses during a housing crisis as well as significantly reducing cost as only targeted widening would be needed. This will not just reduce cost but also reduce the time to complete the project. Less consenting required, fewer court cases, fewer earthworks and construction. The Light Rail will have the capacity of nearly three motorway lanes each way, in the same space as one lane of traffic each way. One good way of doing this might be to take the space currently allocated to the bus shoulder lanes for light-rail, turn one general traffic lane into a “peak only” lane that is used as a shoulder lane outside peak times. If this was going to be OK for buses, why not for cars?
On the alignment between Pt Chevalier and the city I think the Light Rail should follow the motorway corridor rather than Great North Road for a few reasons:
- Interferes less with major bus routes and increases capacity: By using SH16 Great North Road still can be a major bus corridor creating capacity on top of Northwest Light Rail instead of supplementing. If the Light Rail was to use Great North Road then questions of how to deal with Great North services would need to be addressed.
- Interferes less with the present/future cycle network: By using SH16, the K’Rd upgrade, as well as Great North Road and Pitt Street, can have a higher focus on cycle infrastructure and pedestrian amenity.
- Much Faster for Northwest: SH16 creates a faster service which will better serve the communities as well as the development of the Northwest. Travel times from Kumeu to the City would be around 38 minutes and from Westgate 28 minutes. This will be a game changer for the region.
The Northwest Light Rail project is a perfect opportunity to link walking/cycling upgrades to fully unlock a rapid transit corridor. In the Netherlands, this is a primary way of increasing catchment and the Northwest is ideal for this kind of investment. Walking/Cycling upgrades in the area such as Te Atatu Rd and Lincoln Rd as well as safer streets upgrades on the local streets should be considered and completed before/same time as the opening.
Finally, while this is a major project that will need to be done in “one go” at least as far as Westgate, there are some interim upgrades that could be made that would still provide value in the long run. These could include:
- The Lincoln – Te Atatu section of the Busway, of course, built in such a way that would easily be upgraded to light-rail.
- Important interchanges at Westgate, Lincoln and Te Atatu, this could be done on its own if the feeling was putting in a busway only to upgrade it a few years later may not be worth the hassle.
Together, these fairly small upgrades or at the least the latter could be done in the next couple of years and unlock the Western New Network until the full project is completed.