On January 23, 2015, Auckland Transport sprung a huge surprise on everyone, including then Mayor Len Brown, by announcing a plan to introduce light-rail on several key isthmus corridors to fill the rapid transit void on the Isthmus. The announcement was timed so that it could be included in the draft 2015 Regional Land Transport Plan. As well as being surprising because it came out of the blue, it was also surprising given the Council and the Government were still arguing over the timing and funding of City Rail Link and here was AT suggesting another major rail project. The Council were also about to embark on public discussion over new transport funding mechanisms like a motorway tolling scheme.
However, when you dug beneath the surface, it actually became quite clear why light-rail had emerged – ironically it was the end result of a study the previous government had insisted upon in its attempts to delay or kill CRL. It found that not only was the CRL needed, but that even with it in place, bus volumes would eventually overwhelm the city centre.
This volume of buses on key city centre streets would not only result in increasingly slow and unreliable services, it would also create a ‘wall of buses’, undermining efforts to turn the city centre into a high quality pedestrian focused space:
The light rail plans came from trying to solve this problem and complemented the CRL by providing high quality public transport access to parts of the city not served by rail and some of the highest bus volumes.
While the original proposal did not include a map of the routes, it discussed a number of isthmus corridors: Sandringham Road, Dominion Road, Mt Eden Road and Manukau Road.
Almost exactly a year later we learnt AT were considering extending light rail to the airport. Previous investigations into airport rail had seen light rail score well in the analysis but the issue was always the need to build the entire 22km line to the city. However, if were building light rail on the isthmus anyway, that changed the equation and it became the preferred option.
The change of government in 2017 saw them take over the project. Initially this was positive and they even added to plans our ideas to also extend light rail to the Northwest. However, cusp of starting to deliver the first parts of the project, the NZ Super Fund got involved and everything stalled.
This post isn’t intended to outline the entire long and torturous history the project has had over the past six years, but I do think that its somewhat secretive initial work, surprising release and ongoing changes have had a negative long-term effect on the project.
The way the project came about, having been developed entirely within AT, left many government officials suspicious and/or upset about not having had a say in it. There has also tended to exist with government officials a strong anti-rail attitude and an even stronger anti-Auckland bias. As a combination of all of these, many then set out to delay or even stop the project as a result.
The negative effect hasn’t just been felt from officials. Even though six years have passed, there has never been proper public engagement on the project and that haunts it to this day. Light rail was meant to be about filling the void but instead there’s been a void of information and that has enabled all sorts of misunderstandings, misinformation and suspicion about the project to take hold within both the media and public – some of this has been generated often not in particularly good faith
Yet the lack of engagement is somewhat understandable. The changes, both in scope and politics have meant we still don’t have a finalised route – let alone a design, confirmation of mode, station locations, property acquisition, consents or even purpose. Is it about getting people to the airport? Is it about reducing buses in the city? Is it about filling a big gap in the rapid transit network? Is it about enabling growth and development? How much weight should be put on some of these objectives over others?
Despite all this, I remain fairly optimistic that we might actually see some progress this year. It seems like Minister of Transport Michael Wood is much more pragmatic than his predecessor Phil Twyford when it comes to light-rail, and understands the need for a sensible ‘step by step’ approach here – to rebuild a social license for the project, to not be too grandiose about its scale or optimistic about timeframes for “spades in the ground”. In his Guest Post for us before Christmas, the Minister showed a nuanced understanding of the project’s many drivers and – as the MP for Mt Roskill and a regular user of Dominion Road buses – an intimate knowledge of the many issues the project is aimed at addressing:
I’m personally committed to light rail. I announced Labour’s commitment to it back in 2016 and it’s an issue I’ve campaigned on for years. I live down the far end of Dominion Road and while I still sometimes take the 27W or the 25L into town, pre-COVID it was at capacity. When we go back to the levels of ridership we achieved last year, our city centre will once again be clogged with buses. Add in the huge housing growth expected in Mt Roskill and Māngere, and we simply have to get light rail done to avoid clogging our streets. I expect to make an announcement on next steps next year and the Government will engage with Aucklanders much more on this important project.
Over the next few months I suspect we will see some proper public engagement on routes, station locations, modes (street level, elevated or underground) and more. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government went back towards the street-level design Auckland Transport had been progressing prior to Waka Kotahi taking over the project in 2018, especially given the impacts of Covid on Government debt levels and the absolute mess of the NZ Super Fund debacle.
Hopefully when we hit the 7th anniversary of the project’s emergence – this time next year – we will finally know for certain what we’re going to be building and we can start to put this project’s messy history behind us and get on with it.