As regular readers will know, we’ve been concerned about the process currently underway to decide on who builds light rail as the whole project has been delayed by years thanks to the mess caused by the NZ Super Fund and their Canadian partners. We last covered the topic two months ago but it has continued to be in the headlines so I thought it would be good to cover some of the key bits off that have happened over that time.
Light Rail Letters
Just before Christmas we teamed up with a handful of other organisations, a few of whom some may think are unlikely allies, to write the Minister of Transport expressing our concern. The letter was signed by Bike Auckland, the EMA, Generation Zero, the AA, Heart of The City and ourselves. You may have seen some coverage of this but the full text of the letter is below.
Auckland Rapid Transit Programme
We write to you to express our serious concern at the Government’s approach to delivering the rapid transit programme in Auckland, which was included in the 2018 ATAP Package agreed between the Government and Auckland Council.
As a group, we have a wide variety of views and priorities when it comes to investment in the Auckland transport network. We are, however, united in the belief that Auckland desperately needs a high-quality rapid transit system, and in our doubt that the current delivery process – in particular, the lack of transparency – will lead to the best outcome for Auckland and New Zealand.
Through the early stages of this project, and particularly since the announcement of an unsolicited bid, the public and different stakeholder groups (advocacy organisations, land owners and business owners alike) have been kept in the dark. No information has been shared on the factors that have guided decision-making, or on the steps that were followed prior to settling on two preferred bidders.
Nor has there been any opportunity for the public to provide feedback and help inform the Government’s approach. Assuming there is an opportunity for engagement further ahead, it now appears that it will only come towards the end of the process, after the key decisions have already been made.
All of this is a worrying departure from best-practice business case development, where – from the outset of a project – engagement with the public is recognised as a critical opportunity to incorporate the views of the community, demonstrate the robustness of decision-making, and secure buy-in.
This is a once-in-a-generation project that will impact on lives of all New Zealanders, now and in the future, and the consequences of not getting it right would be enormous.
By shutting the public out, there is a risk that this process will result in a sub-optimal solution that fails to secure broad-based, lasting support or, worse still, is rejected by the public. Our fear is that this could lead to a situation where rapid transit becomes a political ‘no-go zone’, and subsequent rapid transit projects that are urgently needed are held back or cancelled.
An additional concern is that a non-transparent, irregular process could expose the project to the risk of a judicial review in the future – which, again, would undermine the progress of the rapid transit programme.
We therefore urge you to immediately provide the public and stakeholders with sufficient information to understand and assess the work programme to date, and the two bids currently being evaluated. In particular, we would like to know:
- The requirements the Government is seeking from the project, in terms of outcomes
- The extent to which financing questions have been decoupled from technical questions
- How much consideration was given to other delivery options and approaches
- The extent to which the project has been considered as part of a network-wide solution, versus in isolation
- How value for money and affordability have been incorporated into the analysis
- Further, once this information has been made available, we urge you to provide key stakeholders with the opportunity to give feedback prior to binding decisions being made. This should be done in conjunction with establishing a stakeholder reference group – comprised of, but not limited to, the signatories of this letter – for the remainder of this project.
We are very happy to meet with you as a group to discuss these concerns in more detail.
In reply, we received this letter. At its core it repeats an the claim that emerged only over the last month or two, that the process is only about choosing who the government will work with and that after that they’ll work with them to decide on what exactly they’ll build. This seems an incredibly strange process and I can’t think of anything else where you work out who will deliver something before you work out what you’re going to deliver.
Let me start by reassuring you that there is only one decision being made through this structured process and that is the appointment of the preferred delivery partner. The Government is not locked into accepting a particular solution, but the Proposal represents the Respondents recommended approach and is the starting point for negotiations. Stakeholders and communities will be asked for input by the preferred delivery partner before key decisions are made.
Below is the response to most of the questions we posed above. One of the things I continue to find bizarre is why there is such secrecy around the requirements the bidders were asked to respond to.
The proposals by both the NZTA and Superfund/CDPQ were submitted last year and the expectation is to make a decision on them in February.
It’s possible another spanner could be thrown in the process with the Auditor General potentially looking to start an investigation of it.
The government auditor is weighing up investigating the Auckland light rail project after concerns were raised about the project’s procurement process.
The Office of the Auditor-General confirmed to Stuff that it received a correspondence raising concerns about the procurement process for the project, which is expected to cost anywhere between $6 and $10 billion.
Paul Evans, chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers New Zealand (ACENZ) said that firms had spent millions bidding for work on the project, money that was wasted when the government decided to change its mind on light rail.
If the Auditor-General’s office does decide the issue warrants further attention, it could launch an inquiry.
In an interview on the AM show yesterday Minister Phil Twyford spoke a bit about Light Rail and when asked if it would be open by 2030, said it “absolutely” would be but also that it’s now not likely to start construction for another few years. This is extremely frustrating given the NZTA were ready to start works in 2018 before the Super Fund got involved and messed it all up.
“The light rail connection I think will probably be another two years in the planning, the funding, the land acquisitions…Then you’ve got another several years to build it – so it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
The rail line had effectively been given the green light, it was just a question of who the Government would partner with to build it, he said.
“We’ve been running a process over the last few months looking at the proposal that the New Zealand Super Fund with their Canadian partners have put forward and also looking in parallel to that at a more conventional public-private partnership (PPP) or design-and-build approach,” Twyford told The AM Show.
“What the Super Fund proposed is that they would design, build and operate the light rail line for the next 50 years. This would mean that every time you ride a train to work, you’re effectively paying for your retirement.”
He stressed that the rail line would benefit many people in the city, not just those travelling to the airport.
The minister still seems overly enamoured by the Super Fund proposal and I wonder what impact that will have on the final decision. Also, if they’re picked, you may be paying for some of your retirement by using it but you’ll likely also be paying for the retirements of Québécois too.
Overall we really are in a holding pattern right now and will have to wait to see the outcome of the process next month. Let’s just hope the government do the most sensible thing and go with the NZTA.