With the government now seemingly open to investing big on rapid transit in Auckland and with Wellington also now proposing a big active mode and Rapid Transit programme, it is clear we are at a critical moment in the long road to fixing our cities. To make them great places to live and work, to study and play by kitting them out with the vital infrastructure we know they need to thrive. Thrive and de-carbonise, of course.
This moment has a great deal at stake, one that calls for both vision and prudence. Vision in leadership to choose to change our cities, and the smarts and the prudence to balance off the wider needs of other calls on our nation’s resources, as well as the need to add the other parts of our currently incomplete rapid transit network.
It would be disastrous if light rail followed the same failed process as the Northern Pathway and got cancelled, because – underneath the often baffling assumptions made by Auckland Light Rail (ALR) in putting together their advice – there is clearly an essential and incredibly valuable project at the heart of it.
One of the key concerns with what we’ve seen so far is that the costs, particularly of the surface option, are completely out of scale compared to similar international projects.
There’s also the issue that ALR say the cost figures given so far have an of accuracy of around -50% to +60%. That means the two tunnelled options could potentially end up costing $23-26 billion.
I’ve gone through the history of this project many times before, and a couple of months ago we outlined in a lot of detail how we would recommend progressing light-rail, making a series of staged expansions that ultimately deliver light-rail to many parts of Auckland.
Even with the expensive ‘per km’ surface costing above, the project could be expanded to include the Northwest Line to Westgate and most of the crosstown route – for about the same price as the light metro option on just the CC2M corridor. It would be fascinating to see how that combined network would score in an assessment against the tunnelled options.
How can we get this network focused concept off the page and into the ground with nationwide buy-in, avoiding the fate of the Northern Pathway? By not pouring the entirety of our investment into one single corridor.
The key will be to emphasise that we can (and we must) incrementally develop a rapid transit network. One that – along with the existing rail network and other planned rapid transit projects like the Eastern Busway – covers all major parts of Auckland.
To do this, the Government needs to make the first step a realistic one – something with a cost that’s in the region of comparable international projects and doesn’t use up all available money for decades to come.
At the same time, the Government also needs to clearly outline how this first incremental step will ultimately work towards a fantastic and constantly evolving rapid transit network for Auckland. A network that will, over the coming decades, support and shape its growth, allow many more people to move around the city congestion free, and contribute to a transformational reduction in vehicle travel and emissions.
This surely means the ‘tunnelled light rail’ and ‘light metro’ are simply over-scaled and too expensive to be smart first stages. A single line that cost $14-16 billion but that could end up in excess of $20 billion is too much and with too much risk for a city Auckland’s size, especially when we have so many other transport investment needs such as long overdue networks of bus and bike lanes.
It also means we need to find ways to sensibly reduce the cost of the surface light-rail option – at least its first stage. It seems there is an assumption by ALR that whatever system is chosen here must be the same as eventually crosses the harbour. That needn’t be the case at all. In fact, if you put surface light rail on Queen St you preserve an ideal underground crosstown route perpendicular to the CRL under Wellesley St, which in future can run to the North Shore and use any form of rail that’s most appropriate at that point in time.
In other words, light rail here doesn’t preclude light metro there. “Future proofing” doesn’t mean making every future decision now, it means not closing possible futures off.
Indeed, future-proofing can be best achieved by returning to some key features of AT’s original surface light rail option from the middle of last decade:
- Staying within the existing Dominion Road corridor, thus avoiding the need to buy and demolish so many properties – ALR suggested 489 properties were needed for their surface option
- Keep a faster and more efficient route through Mangere while still serving Mangere Town Centre. This will ‘make back’ the additional time from travelling at surface along Dominion Road rather than being in a tunnel.
- Looking at staging the project, as part of a comprehensive plan to incrementally develop Auckland’s rapid transit network. Very few cities build 20+ km long rapid transit projects in one go – they usually start with a viable inner section and then slowly expand it outwards.
- Recognising that tunnelling, rather than ‘avoiding disruption’, involves a longer construction period at larger scale, and huge complex work sites (see: CRL). No project is without disruption – but the ALR seems to have misjudged the public appetite for massive numbers of trucks transporting tunnel spoil on our streets over many, many years.
- Acknowledge that tunnelling also doesn’t deliver the good kind of “disruption” enjoyed by cities that add surface light rail. Not only would it leave our arterials the traffic and bus-dominated places they are today, we’d also miss out on the permanently transformed streetscapes, the people-focused thriving communities around local stops, the benefits of having public transport in the open, a moving billboard of a better way to get around that is attractive and accessible for everyone, including children, the elderly, and visitors to our city.
Next are the issues around delivery and here too there are surely opportunities for transformation. With rapid transit, bike networks, and urban transformations now coming to more parts of Auckland, Wellington, and hopefully other cities too, we will need more competence and focus in these fields both locally and nationally.
Decisions have not yet been made on a delivery entity for the project, with either a new company or Waka Kotahi being considered as options.
In theory, delivering this kind of project should be the job of Waka Kotahi – after all, our national transport agency should be the ones building nationally significant transport infrastructure. But with Waka Kotahi seeming to spoil everything it touches in recent years (Northern Pathway and previous iterations of light rail come to mind, alongside massive NZUP cost blowouts and appalling slowly progress on improving safety) I’m not so sure.
With both Auckland and Wellington looking at rapid transit, and possibly other cities eventually too, perhaps the government should look to establish a national rapid transit delivery group that can plan and deliver a pipeline of light rail and busway projects around the country. This could help in bringing costs down, speeding up delivery and ensure common minimum quality standards for all systems.
We are so close to a fantastic outcome here, one that will change our city permanently and proportionately. But the Government will need to avoid the pitfalls it’s fallen into over transport projects in recent years.
Ultimately, the Government should make clear that surface light rail is the Goldilocks choice (“just right”, in terms of scale, deliverability, and speed at which we’ll see benefits). Then it should set a strict budget that’s well below the $9 billion and much more in line with international benchmarks – even if that requires a few trade-offs to the design or sequencing. It also wouldn’t hurt to insist on getting much better quality advice in the future.
If the government can do this, and then work through design details (like station locations) at pace and with much less secrecy, then – hopefully – we will get a great project that’s successfully underway in a couple of years.