In recent months it has been immensely frustrating how little progress seems to have been made on the City Centre to Mangere project. Large and complicated projects always take time of course, but Auckland Transport had been working on it for years so it’s hardly like NZTA, who are now leading the project, needed to start from scratch. Contributing to this apparent lack of progress is the bizarre blackout in communications from NZTA, with their only public statements seeming to happen highly reluctantly.
A Newsroom article last week highlighted that the Council is concerned about what seems to be a lack of progress, lack of information and lack of communication from NZTA on the project:
Auckland Council has asked the Transport Minister to feed it more information about the city centre to Māngere light rail project, complaining it’s being kept in the dark over a project that will have a massive effect on those along its route.
Light rail is currently being assessed for a business case by NZTA, which is in charge of the project. But it appears that not only is the public being starved of information on any progress – so are the agency’s partners.
The council’s planning committee chair Chris Darby has written to Phil Twyford telling him that council staff have been limited in the information they could provide to councillors because of the absence of any business case. It was originally due towards the end of last year – it has now been moved to early this year, but no firm date is in place. Once it has been drawn up it will need to be approved by the NZTA board, and potentially Cabinet.
Darby has asked for regular updates during the project development, either through reports, workshops or memos.
Then on Saturday a NZ Herald article raised some more questions about the project, especially in relation to a proposal from the NZ SuperFund.
A radical plan to tunnel below Queen St for modern trams is being considered by the New Zealand Super Fund, which wants to roll out Auckland’s $6 billion light rail project with an international partner.
A political source has told the Weekend Herald the country’s pension fund was looking at tunnelling below Queen St to provide a faster and safer route through the city centre…
…Last April, the NZ Super Fund teamed up with a Canadian pension fund, CDPQ, with funds of about $350b worldwide, to submit an unsolicited proposal to the Government to design, build, own and operate light rail in Auckland. Government ministers welcomed the proposal, but said the project would be open to all comers.
At the time, Super Fund chief executive Matt Whineray said the fund was attracted to the development risk, size and scale light rail offered to make a difference to the performance of the fund, which stands at about $40b. It would only go ahead on a prudent, commercial basis, he said…
…While NZTA officials beaver away on the business case, including preferred routes and the indicative location of stops for the CBD to airport line, the Super Fund has been working with CDPQ on its own proposal for light rail.
The proposal has been drawing on CDPQ’s experience building light rail between Vancouver’s CBD and airport, and construction under way on a 67km light rail network in Montreal costing $7.3b.
“It’s important to note that our plans aren’t finalised and will ultimately depend on extensive public consultation.
“We continue to be committed to partnering with Government on the project and remain an active participant in the Government procurement process,” the spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Phil Twyford said it was not appropriate to comment on speculation while decisions around procurement were still being made by NZTA.
The involvement of the Super Fund has been around for some time. But what seems a bit new here – and is potentially quite odd and concerning – is the Super Fund (with their partners) seem to planning and designing a completely different project, rather than just looking at options to finance what has already been planned.
It would be interesting to learn more about the Super Fund proposal, but the mention of both the Canada Line in Vancouver and Montreal’s REM project suggests they’re looking at a fully automated light metro system. To do this they’d not only be tunnelling under Queen St but it would need a fully grade separated route down Dominion Rd too – most of the rest of the route is already planned to be grade separated. To build the city and Dominion Rd sections it means either extensive and expensive tunnelling or building an elevated line down Dominion Rd – I can just imagine those public meetings already.
This isn’t to say that a fully automated metro type system would necessarily be bad but it would be quite different and more expensive than what’s been proposed. Cost is an important component as Auckland has a lot of things to build and doesn’t have an unlimited ability to pay for it all. The huge benefit of surface level light-rail is that you can build the entire 23 kilometre line between the city centre and the Airport for around the same price as the 3.5 kilometre City Rail Link. More and more sections of underground, while nice in theory, mean that the project either becomes a lot more expensive, or that it will need to be phased and delivered over a much longer period of time.
There also seems to be a view from some that surface level transit is not ideal. In city and town centres it can help in creating vibrant and active public realm. More so, the fact that it creates disruption, particularly to those driving, can be a feature, not a bug. It can help to force us prioritise what we value as we’re less able to fall back on the status quo of accommodating driving everywhere. For example, imagine not just Queen St but all of the town centres along Dominion Rd looking like Bourke St in Melbourne.
Even if were to look at an underground light metro system like Super Fund seem to be suggesting, the idea of tunnelling under Queen Street is pretty strange. For starters it’s already in valley and so would require a even deeper tunnel, and stations approaching the city centre. Instead, going under the other north/south ridge in the city, along Symonds St, would surely make the grades easier and provide other options, such as a dedicated Uni station. Going under Queen St also has potential cultural implications given the location of Te Wai Horotiu.
But if nothing else, going underground here doesn’t achieve all that much. The tunnels would allow the trains to travel a little faster, using the calculator I built suggests perhaps it could save about 1-1½ minutes, but that has to be offset against it taking longer from the time you get off the train and make your way back to the surface. Even if you still saved a minute all up, that doesn’t justify spending another $3 billion to achieve.
Finally, let’s remember what we’re building light rail for. It’s about
- connecting communities along the route to each other and some of the biggest employment/activity generators in the region
- reducing the number of buses in the city centre by upgrading/replacing the busiest bus route on the isthmus
- enabling a lot more housing along the route
A light metro system with likely wide station spacing may help in achieving some of these goals but is not as likely to achieve them in the same way or as completely. Let’s also remember that we’re trying to solve the problems of the next 10-30 years, not the next 30-100 – although it’s always good to have an eye to the future. There’s no reason why in the future we couldn’t create an automated light metro system, perhaps even using some parts of the light rail corridor given most of it is already going to be grade separated anyway, but it isn’t going to take away from the need for a high capacity, surface level Dominion Rd corridor.
Hopefully we learn more about what’s happening with this project in the near future, so that NZTA can get on with making light rail happen.