An article yesterday by Simon Wilson in the NZ herald (paywalled) seems to suggest that the government will select the “tunnelled light rail” option for the City Centre to Māngere project.
In October last year, Transport Minister Michael Wood said he was taking a recommendation to Cabinet for a line to run from Wynyard Quarter to the airport. It’s called City Centre to Māngere, or CC2M. The ALR working group Wood set up midyear had given him three options and recommended one of them. Cabinet made its decision in November. We’re still waiting to hear what it was. It is highly likely the Government has accepted the choice of the working group. This is for light rail that will run in tunnels all the way from Wynyard to Mt Roskill, before surfacing to run alongside state highway 20B to the airport, deviating into Onehunga and Māngere town centres along the way.
There are rumours a formal announcement may be as early as later this week.
I have written a lot about the merits of different options for the CC2M corridor in recent months, including why tunnelled light-rail is a “worst of both worlds” option: having the extremely high cost of tunnelled metro but still some of the limitations of an on-street system. Rather than rehashing those points, in this post I want to focus on some of the other things I will be looking out for in the upcoming announcement. In particular:
- What justification the government uses for their decision.
- What ‘wriggle room’ there is for further design refinement in the next stage.
- What the government says about the Northwest and North Shore rapid transit corridors.
- Which organisation will take the project forward.
- What happens to Dominion Rd if a tunnelled option is chosen
Justifying their decision
The very first thing to look out for is how the government justifies their decision, whatever it is. In particular, if they do go with the “worst of both worlds” tunnelled light-rail option, I will be very curious to understand why they have done so. Simon Wilson seems to suggest that a key factor may be minimising business disruption:
But Cabinet has decided. The Prime Minister, presumably, wants those tunnels. Social equity, transport efficiency, climate change? Please tell me they won’t be sacrificed just to keep the retailers of Dominion Rd from complaining about the construction fuss. Here’s a thought: Why not find better ways to help them through that fuss?
While Auckland Light Rail (ALR) recommended the tunnelled light-rail option, they were clear that all three options achieved the desired goals and delivered broadly similar value for money. Even spending a few hundred million on compensating retailers is still a much cheaper option that a tunnel.
Given this, it will be a very big call to go with something other than the cheapest option – and that huge decision will need to be very well justified.
Room for future design refinement
The next thing I will be looking out for is how much detail the government has ‘decided’ on and how much they leave to future work. ALR only had six months to prepare their business case and came up with a new recommended option compared to the seven years of previous work on the project. This means there’s probably loads of detail that needs to be worked through, even if a major call is made on mode and route. Questions I’m especially interested in are things like:
- If a tunnelled option is chosen, is it clear where the tunnel begins and ends? Could future work on the project refine it to just a tunnel in the city centre but surface running on Dominion Rd or will they set in stone a tunnel all the way through the isthmus?
- ALR’s tunnelled light-rail option went under Sandringham Road, or at least close to it, but the extra distance compared to Dominion negated much of the time saved from going underground rather than being at surface, especially once you count the time it takes to access an underground station. The route from Sandringham Rd to the city also seems to duplicate most what we’re building the City Rail Link for. Could the route be reworked in the future?
- What route will be taken through Onehunga and Māngere? Unlike the metro option, tunnelled light-rail only worries about disrupting Dominion Road businesses during construction and is quite happy to run at surface through Onehunga and Māngere. This means important decisions need to be made, such as whether the line will take a slow indirect route through Māngere that loses most of the time gained by the expensive isthmus tunnel, or whether there is still room to explore more efficient options while still serving those communities.
- I will also keep an eye out on the city centre route and station locations. Previous tunnelled options in the city centre have had a ‘university’ station around the top of Wyndham Street – which is about as close to most of Auckland University as Aotea Station. Given the extremely high cost of building city centre stations (just ask CRL) I doubt this will survive for long. It will also be interesting to see what’s proposed in terms of serving Wynyard Quarter and what that tells us about future plans to extend to the North Shore. I get the feeling that we are being set up for a stupid combined road/rail harbour tunnel project even though a road crossing can’t be justified and will make congestion worse.
What this means for the Northwest and North Shore
My biggest concern about the tunnelled light-rail option is its cost – at over $10 billion in today’s value, this would be more than twice as expensive as CRL which is the currently the largest transport project we’ve attempted. With inflation that cost goes up to nearly $15 billion by the time it’s finished which is not much less than half the current entire 10-year ATAP programme (which has to cover all transport investment, including public transport operations, maintenance etc.). I’ve discussed before how all the light-rail options have laughably high costs when you compare them against projects overseas, but this should push us even more toward the cheaper option.
If the government goes with tunnelled light-rail, then I am very worried what the $5 billion (or so) extra spend compared to surface light-rail means for other important rapid transit projects across Auckland – especially to the Northwest and the North Shore. It was only last year that ATAP reinforced the urgency of getting on with implementing full rapid transit (not just the relatively modest bus lane upgrades) to the Northwest:
It’s coming up to 5 years since any significant work was done on planning proper rapid transit to the northwest.
Michael Wood has been pretty good at emphasising the importance of thinking about Auckland’s various rapid transit projects as a network, but we are yet to see that actually mean anything on the ground. I will be especially interested to see what the government say around how the torturously slow progress on planning and designing rapid transit in Auckland might be sped up and done in a far more integrated way across different projects in the future.
Who will take the project forward?
ALR progressed the CC2M business case with a strange mix of central government and local government decision-makers on its board. One of ALR’s tasks was meant to be providing advice on what entity will deliver the project, but they essentially ran away from doing this – instead saying that options should be kept open for now.
Working out the best delivery agency for CC2M is the wrong question though. Ultimately CC2M is just another part of Auckland’s rapid transit network, like the Northwest, North Shore, Airport to Botany, City Rail Link and many other future projects. The mess that every rapid transit project has to go through to get designed, funding and built means that we actually need a proper resolution to the question of “who should do rapid transit in New Zealand?”
In theory this should be Waka Kotahi’s job – as rapid transit is simply the public transport version of the motorway network – but they still seem stuck in last century’s road building paradigm and still appear to be actively trying to delay rapid transit projects. So perhaps a new national organisation (Rapid Transit Aotearoa?) should take this project – and others – forwards?
Either way, it’s critical that there’s clarity about not only how CC2M will move ahead, but also some reassurance that the government is thinking about rapid transit as a whole and how we can make future projects much simpler to progress.
What happens to Dominion Rd
One of the super powers of surface light rail on Dominion Rd is that not only is it a transport project but it also requires us to upgrade the town centres along the way. Those town centres have been in limbo for decades as successive transport plans for light rail and bus improvements have come and gone.
With a tunnelled light rail option the job of improving public transport and the town centres on this corridor will still exist but now with presumably no plans or funding. Will the government address this?
And if the answer is to leave it to the Council and Auckland Transport, I wonder what those businesses concerned about disruption will think of now getting nothing.