With everything that’s going on right now, there is perhaps no better time for the government to reconsider its approach to light rail.
As regular readers will know, over the last year or so we’ve become increasingly concerned about what is and isn’t happening with light rail. In 2017 the new government took over the project from Auckland Transport and tasked the NZTA with delivering it. At that time the project had been sufficiently advanced that you could call it “shovel ready” and in and just over six monthly later they started the procurement process.
Things were looking positive but also announced at the same was something that has turned out to be the project’s undoing, an unsolicited bid from NZ Infra, a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and their Canadian partners Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), a Quebec-based pension fund.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the NZ Infra proposal wasn’t to build and operate the light rail scheme that had been developed over many years prior to that point but to build something entirely different, a driverless metro-style system, similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Copenhagen’s Metro – as well as a line CDPQ is currently building in Montreal. A system such as this could have many benefits but also would come at considerable extra cost, such as needing a second City Rail Link on top of the rest of route which would be via a combination of elevated, trenched and underground sections.
Part of the problem here is the minister appears to have been seduced by the sales pitch and the dream of building a metro, not to mention the funding model which I’ll come back to shortly. He’s been convinced that the only thing that matters is the speed from the city to the airport instead of serving well the communities along the way and that the original proposal was slow ‘streetcars’ – implying they would be mixed with traffic, which is not what the proposal was.
The minister himself has also admitted that these metro plans will require many more years of work to design and consent before we can start building it.
More concerning that the ‘technology’ aspect is the financing one if NZ Infra is chosen. The minister has characterised it as a “Public-Public Partnership”, saying “every time you ride a train to work, you’re effectively paying for your retirement”. But as we’ve discovered we’d be also be helping pay for the retirements of many Canadians.
We don’t know the full details but it appears that their proposal would involve taxpayers paying so that NZ Infra can obtain a 7% return for 50 years with about half of that going offshore. This is at a time when the government can borrow at around 1%. If needlessly sending a huge stack of money offshore seemed like a bad idea a few months ago, it seems a much much worse idea now when that money could be going towards other local projects.
Focusing on how fast you can get to the airport now seems a bit redundant. Sure, once restrictions start to lift flights will increase again but they will still remain low for the foreseeable future. More importantly, changes to society such as a continued greater use of technology to connect instead of travelling combined with our need to better respond to climate change, the world feels like it could end up a vastly different to the direction things were going even just a month or two ago.
For one thing this likely means the work being done to connect the airport with Puhinui will be more than sufficient for the time being and the more import focus for light rail should shift back to being about better connecting communities on the central isthmus and in Mangere to the city centre.
With all of this in mind, here’s what the government should do.
- Cancel the bizarre bidding process they’ve been running – buy out the IP from NZ Infra if they have to
- Dig the original light rail plans out of the drawers
- Refine the designs if needed to reflect some of the learnings from the bidding process so far or things we know we should be doing, such as ensuring things like cycle lanes are included and making the town centres transit malls.
- Immediately start procurement for the City Centre to Mt Roskill section to kick things off.
Doing this doesn’t mean we can’t ever have light metro and as I’ve pointed out before, perhaps there are other, better long term options for that anyway.
So, how about it Phil?