Last Monday I wrote about some of the trade-offs we can expect will need to be made when the government make a decision on Light Rail, something we originally expected later this month. Then on Wednesday, Transport Minister Michael Wood made an announcement on it, setting up a group look at the trade-offs of the various options that have arisen for light rail.
Transport Minister Michael Wood is getting Auckland light rail back on track with the announcement of an establishment unit to progress this important city-shaping project and engage with Aucklanders.
Michael Wood said the previous process didn’t involve Aucklanders enough.
“There’s wide-ranging support for rapid transit but Aucklanders felt shut out of the project. Today I’m drawing a line under that and involving Aucklanders from the get-go.
“Light rail is a critical investment to develop a modern, connected mass-transit system in New Zealand’s largest city, supporting jobs, growth, and housing.
“Without decisive investment in mass transit Auckland will choke on its own growth. Light rail will support growth in Māngere, Onehunga, and Mount Roskill in particular, connecting these communities and giving people the option to leave the car at home, which will help reduce congestion and emissions.
“As the new Transport Minister, I’ve been tasked with getting the project moving and I acknowledge Aucklanders were shut out of the previous process. We’ve had calls for Government to involve communities and stakeholders – I’ve listened and this is what we’ll do.
“The Government has tasked an Establishment Unit with a six-month work programme including:
- partnering with Māori,
- engaging with stakeholders and communities,
- developing a business case so evidence-based decisions can be made on mode and route, providing cost estimates, and funding and financing options which includes looking at value capture,
- determining the best form for the delivery entity, which will be either City Rail Link Limited or a new joint venture with Auckland Council.
“The Establishment Unit will be led by an inclusive governance board, involving an independent chair, local government, key agencies and community and Māori representatives. Taking this inclusive approach allows for a strong focus on engagement – which is crucial to getting the best outcome for Auckland.
“Involving Auckland Council is critical, so the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor of Auckland will work with me and the Minister of Finance to oversee this work.
“Once the Government receives the advice from the establishment unit at the end of the year, we will make the key decisions on route, mode, and delivery entity. We will then be able to give the public certainty on issues like cost and timeframes.
“I know some would have liked me to announce a shovel-ready project today, but I also want to be absolutely certain that the plan we move forward with is the right one. That’s why this fresh start is involving Aucklanders and doing the work alongside them.
“Our vision for Auckland is to create a vibrant connected city that’s easier, cleaner and safer to get around – light rail will help make that happen. The city centre to Māngere line will be a backbone that eventually will link with the North and North-west, forming a rapid transit network that fully integrates with other forms of transport across the city.
There is somewhat of an element of the government setting up yet another working group but at the same time it does feel like the right move for gaining clarity on the best way forward. The addition of light metro to the discussion over the last few years has raised a heap of new questions and getting a clear answer on them wasn’t helped by the Ministry of Transports dodgy process.
Perhaps most importantly is that Auckland will be involved in the process this time. During the last process the Ministry did seek some feedback from Auckland Council and Auckland Transport but clearly ignored much of it and were happy to ignore any existing plans, policies and strategies in order to get an outcome. For example, the Ministry refused to rule out letting the winner set fares instead of requiring them to work within Auckland’s existing integrated fares structure. It was even possible AT may have been excluded from having any involvement in the running of services, which would be like the issues we have with the Devonport and Waiheke ferries on steroids.
Following the announcement I also saw some concern about the suggestion of engaging with the community and if would result all sorts of weird and wacky ideas. However, if that discussion is kept focused on the trade-offs and with good supporting information it could be quite useful for fleshing out public support. I also think the issues could be somewhat mitigated by another important part of the announcement, the modes and routes.
The Minister confirmed that the trade-offs meant either a light rail or a light metro option would be chosen. I think this is useful and should allow this new establishment unit to focus on optimising what each of these look like. If this is done in a fair and transparent way then whatever the outcome it will help in building support for it. So while we think a surface light rail solution is the better outcome for Auckland at this stage, if the case for a metro solution is strong then we’ll absolutely get behind it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement was that two routes are being considered, Dominion Rd as we’ve known but also Sandringham Rd. I’ve looked at Sandringham Rd and other isthmus corridors as options in the past.
My understanding is Sandringham Rd emerged from the Waka Kotahi bid on the previous process and the main reason for it is that the government, by way of Kāinga Ora, own a huge amount of land near the southern end of Sandringham Rd. This presents them with the potential to tie in light rail to the redevelopment of that land, and ensure that redevelopment happens as opposed to waiting on the private sector to deliver change around Dominion Rd – though the National Policy Statement on Urban Development should see a lot more of the land around Dominion Rd up-zoned for development. You can see the scale of the Kāinga Ora land in the map below with the grey squares being their properties.
The downsides to Sandringham Rd are that it currently has the lowest bus usage of the central isthmus corridors and most obviously creates a longer route than Dominion Rd, by about 1.5km. That means comparatively it would be both slower and more expensive to build.
It would also see the system duplicate the Western Line more and I think that development could be just as well served by our crosstown light rail proposal giving locals a quick and easy transfer to either the western line or Dominion Rd services. Combined with a future route on Manukau Rd we could aim for a network that looks something like this.
With this process the government are intended to have a decision on the mode and route by the end of the year.
Finally, one thing I forgot to add to my post last week and is relevant for this discussion is the recent Sydney experience. While it won’t be completely comparable, it is the kind of difference I expect we’ll see when talking about this in Auckland.
The first part of Sydney’s new light rail opened in December-2019 and the second part in April last year in the midst of COVID. Even with those impacts, there were about 9.2 million trips in the 12-months to the end of February. Comparatively, the first stage of their new Metro system opened six months earlier in May-2019 and in the same 12-month period it carried about 11.3 million people. The metro system clearly carried more, though would have also benefited from being open sooner and light rail was very slow initially but has since improved. But there is a real difference in the cost. Light Rail cost about A$2.2 billion while the metro line cost about A$8.3 billion.
Put another way, the surface light rail option is moving about 80% of the people for a quarter of the cost.