We understand the government may soon be making an announcement about the next steps for light rail. We have no idea what they plan to announce but given where things are in the process, it will likely either be:
- the recommendations from the light rail process that will be taken cabinet
- that it has already been to cabinet and a decision has been made
I hope it’s the former so that the public can start to get an idea of what has been going on with the project before the government commit to anything. Here’s why.
In my post about the death of the Northern Path I mentioned how I worried that Light Rail might meet the same fate. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot more about these two projects and why I think they’re similar. Perhaps what strikes me the most about both is how much they’ve been developed under a cloak of secrecy, and that secrecy is damaging transport outcomes. Let’s take a look at them.
The Northern Path started out life as Skypath, an advocate driven project to get a walking and cycling connection on the bridge due to Waka Kotahi and its predecessors refusing to do anything to accommodate anything but road vehicles. After many battles, consent for the project was granted in 2015.
In 2018 the new government took over the project and suddenly the same engineers who had spent years fighting it were tasked with delivering it. In mid-2019 the agency announced they’d significantly changed and upgraded the design. At the time we saw the change as somewhat of a surprise but not an unwelcome one. The upgrade also came with a higher cost of around $100 million.
The expected cost jumped again to around $290 million just eight months later when at the beginning of last year when the government announced the NZ Upgrade Programme (NZUP). The cost increase had started to attract the attention, such as by those in the media who like to use cycling as a clickbait generator. This was the time for Waka Kotahi to be out explaining why the project was needed and to build up even more understanding and expectation for it but instead silence fell until June when the government announced the project, along with most of the other NZUP projects, had doubled in cost. For the bridge they blamed the outcome of geotechnical investigations meaning an entirely separate structure would be needed.
The complete silence about what was happening resulted in two things.
- The Liberate the Lane protest that happened two weeks before the announcement, which some twisted to feed their desired narrative about people on bikes.
- Advocates being surprised by the announcement and lukewarm on the idea, compared to either a cheaper and faster option such as liberating a lane or a slightly more expensive combined rapid transit and active bridge.
Had there not been the silence about what was happening a different outcome may have been possible. Under one hypothetical scenario, Waka Kotahi could have announced the geotechnical issues much earlier and explained how they were looking at what options were available. Well before making a recommendation to cabinet, the various options they came up with could have been explained to the public which would have at least allowed for discussion about them. This could have helped both Waka Kotahi and the government understand the public sentiment better before any funding decisions were made and perhaps steered them to a more palatable solution and prevented the need for an embarrassing backdown.
Light rail first emerged in 2015 from Auckland Transport as a way to address forecast bus congestion in the city centre and as to serve the central isthmus ‘void’ of rapid transit. A year later AT started talking about extending light rail to the airport too instead of a previously expected heavy rail extension. Previous studies had put both heavy and light rail as both being effective solutions but with light rail now needing to be built on the isthmus anyway, it tipped the balance.
But then things started to go wrong. As the 2016 mayoral election approached Auckland Transport went silent so as to not get in the way of the political debate happening about it. That had only just started to change after Phil Goff was elected and light rail was moved up the priority in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project update in 2017. But silence fell again in the lead up to the general election in which Labour had promised to take over and build the project. By this point, nearly a year of almost complete silence about the project had allowed all sorts of misinformation about it to spread and continue to sprout up like the weeds in my garden.
Waka Kotahi don’t have any history with delivering urban public transport let alone rail projects so with them in charge they were looking to push ahead with ATs design including an early works programme to get started on some of the bridge and underpass structures that would be needed. They had started engaging with the industry and were gearing up for a public information campaign when out of nowhere, the NZ Super Fund along with Canadian pension fund CDPQ announced they wanted to deliver the project.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, they wanted to deliver something completely different. Waka Kotahi rejected their proposal but government ministers were enamoured by the promises they made and kicked off what ended up being a two-year sham process to assess the idea which only ended earlier this year when they decided to start the current process. Outrageously, despite millions being spent on it there is nothing to show from the previous process, not even route maps or an understanding of what was proposed other than it was some form of automated Light Metro system. In the meantime, the weeds of misinformation that had sprouted in 2016/17 had quickly grown into a thick forest.
This new process hasn’t been any better. About all we know of the key aspects is that it will be either light rail or light metro, that it will go via either Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd and that it will have a station in Mangere Town Centre. They did tell me there are three options they’re looking at more closely
- A surface Light Rail option which takes a slow tiki-tour through Mangere
- A light metro solution that will be in a bored tunnel at least on the Isthmus
- A Hybrid solution which sounds like the light rail option above but in a tunnel on some or all of the isthmus.
There has been no real discussion of what is in those options or what the trade-offs of them are. For example, the metro option is likely considerably more expensive. Instead of the meaningless engagement they undertook, a proper discussion about the trade-offs, including the costs of them, would have helped give the government a better understanding of what the public sentiment about them actually is.
The risk here is that like the Northern Pathway, cabinet may decide on a recommended option that is unpalatable to the public, such as it being too expensive and see it facing a Northern Pathway style campaign against it. Alternatively, Cabinet may reject the proposal outright and end the project altogether.
Mill Rd and other NZUP projects
At the other end of the spectrum where secrecy is damaging outcomes are projects like Mill Rd and some of the other NZUP Projects. Back in 2018 the new Labour government updated ATAP to reflect their priorities. It looked great and even included a section on where any additional funding should be focused:
The highest priority future investments that should be progressed as funding becomes available are:
- Further bus priority improvements. These are considered the highest priority for additional funding
- More investment for walking and cycling, a more extensive optimisation programme, increased funding for greenfield growth and further rail network upgrades.
But when more funding became available by way of the NZUP, these weren’t the priorities. Instead projects were secretly selected between central and local government politicians and likely recommended by Waka Kotahi engineers.
Those engineers then went away to design it behind closed doors, coming up with what I understand was close to motorway scale design that would have bowled hundreds of houses and ended up blowing out in cost from $1.35 billion to $3.5 billion and resulting in parts of it being cancelled – it should never have been approved in the first place
To compare what’s been happening recently, let’s look at a quick history of Auckland’s current biggest project, the CRL.
City Rail Link
The CRL or something similar to it has been talked about on and off for the last 100 or so years but serious discussion of current incarnation of it began in the mid-2000’s after Britomart was built, starting with a feasibility study in 2004. The project had appeared in various planning documents but things kicked off more seriously around 2009 when the first discussions of what ultimately became the Commercial Bay development started. The original proposal was to build a big underground carpark on the site which would have prevented the ability to build the CRL in the future.
The then new National Government weren’t supportive of the project and frequently ridiculed it, however, at least they let it be investigated. In 2009 the ARC’s transport agency ARTA announced a joint study with Kiwirail into the CRL including investigating routes and station locations. What is most relevant for this post is what happened next.
In early 2010 the first phase of that study was released. This initial phase came up with a long list of options for routes and station locations and then narrowed that down to a short list. It also included a high-level look at the benefits of the project.
Not long later the preferred route and station locations were announced. It was only after this stage that the work on a detailed business case kicked into higher gear.
Much to the chagrin of the government, both main candidates to be the first mayor of all of Auckland supported the project. Newly elected mayor Len Brown released the business case just over a month after winning the mayoralty. The government weren’t happy and delayed the project for years and kicked off a bunch of dodgy reviews and other studies to try and avoid it – though ironically some of those studies ended up making the case for it stronger and one even resulted in the emergence of light rail – the City Centre Future Access Study highlighted that even with the CRL there would still be bus congestion issues in the city.
The key point to all of this is that key information like route options and initial costings were made public well before any decision was made on whether to fund the project. That allowed for the public to start gaining and understanding of the project and people living along the proposed route could start to understand what might happen. It also meant sites like this could discuss the issues and help imagine a better future for Auckland and build greater social licence for the project.
We’re now nearly seven years on since light rail was first announced. If we’re to beat the 12 years it took for the CRL to go from that initial feasibility study to construction then the government need to shift away from secrecy and start having proper conversations about what the options and trade-offs are.
Something needs to change or the shift to secrecy will keep damaging transport outcomes.