On Friday the government announced their decision on Light Rail.
I should start by pointing out that it’s fantastic the government have agreed to invest so much in public transport in Auckland. At $10.3 billion in today’s value, or $14.6 billion with inflation by the time it is finished, this will easily be the largest single transport project ever attempted in New Zealand. It’s more than double the current biggest, the $4.4 billion City Rail Link. The scale of the investment is something far beyond what I think most would have imagined possible.
So, it’s odd then to feel somewhat disappointed by it all. Thinking about it all over the weekend I think this is primarily for two reasons.
- That the government have chosen what we think is the ‘worst of both world’s‘ option of tunnelled light rail, the poor process that led to it and the huge opportunity cost it entails.
- Because of the scale of the investment, there is an ongoing concern that this will end up the same way as the Northern Path bridge, with the government cancelling it in a few months/years – or, given how long it will take to get spades in the ground, that a future government will do so.
I’ll cover both of those points later in the post, but first: here’s the actual announcement (and you can watch the whole thing here), which also included a bonus announcement about a future harbour crossing.
Overall, the government have gone with exactly the same tunnelled light rail proposal as outlined in the summary released last year by the Auckland Light Rail team (ALR).
I had wondered if they may have asked for more work to confirm if it should just be a tunnel in the city centre and then surface-running beyond, but they haven’t. Their press release states the following features of the option:
- 24km route with up to 18 stations or stops from the City Centre to Māngere and the airport, running every five minutes so people can turn up and go.
- Capable of carrying up to 15,000 passengers per hour at peak, which is four times more passengers than a dedicated busway or trackless trams.
- Removal of up to 13 car lanes or taking 12,000* cars off the road, which is a great result for local streets, communities and carbon emissions (*average of 1.2 people per car).
- Integrates with current train and bus hubs and the City Rail Link stations and connections. Light rail can also be extended to the North Shore and North West without having to transfer from one line to the other.
- Includes safe walking and cycling along the corridor and with connections to all stations.
- Estimated to bring up to 66,000 new homes by 2051 and open up housing along the corridor in Mt Roskill, Onehunga and Māngere.
- Creation of up to 97,000 new jobs by 2051.
They’ve also released this video of the route:
A couple of comments about the features and the maps.
- It is absurd that the ALR team still won’t show the locations of stations, especially as they would have needed to make decisions about this for the modelling in their business case.
- Capacity of 15,000 passengers an hour might sound like a lot, but it’s not that much for a $15 billion project. Based on a services every five minutes, the actual capacity being discussed is more like 5,000 per per hour.
- Which 13 car lanes are we taking off the road?
- Given safe walking and cycling options to stations are promised, can they be delivered now?
- A lot of the housing estimates seem based on potential densities much higher than Kāinga Ora plan on delivering, or than the private sector are delivering even on sites that allow it next to existing train stations.
- ALR have been careful to note that because it’s tunnelled, the route doesn’t have to follow roads. If you look closely at the video above and also if you superimpose the first map over a street map of Auckland, it suggests that between Kingsland and Wesley the route isn’t actually on Sandringham Rd but swings west of it, possibly in order to serve St Lukes mall. This may just be how it’s been represented on the maps though.
- It’s notable that none of the maps show the existing rail network. If they did, I suspect a lot people would ask why we need so much extra capacity between Kingsland and Aotea. With Kingsland set to become the best connected suburb in the region, how many towers will it be zoned for? The route as shown also leaves a very big hole in rapid transit right through the middle of the isthmus.
- What on earth is with that alignment at the airport end of the route? That is not how you build a rail line. It’s odd that we’d go to so much expense to tunnel the route through the isthmus only to wiggle around like that at the airport end. Also note, the line seems to stop well short of the terminal. While this may just be a drawing error, it does line up with rumours we’ve heard in the past.
- At the city end, there is also a somewhat odd wiggle to get from Aotea to Wynyard. This seems to be similar to what was shown in the 2012 City Centre Masterplan, and seems primarily about connecting to a road harbour crossing.
Speaking of a harbour crossing, the announcement also included that the government were bringing decisions on that forward too.
“The Government is also committed to an additional Waitematā Harbour crossing, and has brought forward planning for the crossing to ensure a fully integrated transport network for Auckland. Public consultation on options for the additional Waitematā Harbour crossing will begin this year, with a preferred option selected in 2023.
“To kick the can down the road could either preclude a second crossing from being a possibility in the future, or require what will be established transport infrastructure to be reconstructed meaning additional costs.
“The Northern Busway is growing by 20 percent a year and will run out of capacity in 10-15 years, so new transport options for the future are needed, and the planning must begin now. This decision alongside the City Rail Link means that we can now ensure rapid transit to the North as well as the South, East and West.
It does make some sense to work out where the tunnel needs to go, and the government have been clear that rapid transit will form the basis for it. However, it still remains unclear if it will include lanes for general traffic, even though the most recent analyses show a road crossing would increase congestion and undermine the city’s goals to make the city centre more people-focused. To his credit, Mayor Phil Goff in his speech said another road crossing would be a disaster.
Of course, there’s also the question still to answer of how (or whether) people will be able to walk, bike, scoot, roll etc across the harbour too. We still think a combined PT and active mode bridge would be best (not least because active modes are all about fresh air!) but that’s harder to deliver if rail is already in a tunnel.
A wider view
Stepping back from the detail a bit, I think the wider question here is how we got to this point of being disappointed by a nearly $15 billion PT project. To me, this is in part the result of our broken business case processes that are simply not fit for answering the questions that needed to be answered.
The light rail team’s analysis has shown that there’s value in connecting a wide range of places to transit: the universities, Wesley, Mangere Town Centre, etc. But the business case processes – and the short timeframe to deliver a recommended option – boxed them into thinking that the way to connect them all is with one line zig-zagging all over the city.
To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should“.
Had they known from the start that the government would sign off $15 billion, what kind of surface light rail and busway network, serving a wide part of the region, could have been designed? And how would the benefits of that network stack up against this single-line project?
For example, even at the internationally high cost-per-km surface option the ALR team suggested, with $15 billion they could have delivered another 15km+ of surface light rail. That would be enough to also build the proposed NW line as far as Westgate, or alternatively surface light rail for Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd as well as for our proposed crosstown route, complete with green tracks.
Put another way, two good lines are better than one great line (and this proposal isn’t a great line to start with).
There is also a need for funding for projects like the Airport to Botany Busway, an Upper Harbour Busway, and a vast amount of local bus improvements – not to mention a need for rapid transit projects in other cities around NZ.
Interestingly, a lot of the justification for the chosen option is about future-proofing for lines to the North Shore and Northwest. But perversely, this solution has possibly done the opposite of that. Previous modelling has suggested that both of those lines could each end up busier than this one, and both lines will almost certainly be fully grade-separated. By taking up the most ideal next city centre tunnel corridor, the proposed plan may lock those other routes into a lower capacity solution and prevent them from being able to run driverless services.
As for the $14.6 billion cost, it is also worth noting that it is just a P50 estimate – meaning there’s a 50% chance the actual cost will end up higher, which is quite likely with the way construction costs have been going up in recent years. Any increase in costs will only increase the chance of the project being scaled back or scrapped altogether, as well as potentially sucking funding away from other beneficial projects across the city.
Since the announcement, there has been some criticism that all the concrete and steel needed will see emissions from construction will increase at a time we need them to be going dramatically in the opposite direction (see graph below from the Auckland Light Rail business case).
While I think it is a fair criticism, especially given the surface option would see emissions increase far less (and that we should be highly sceptical of any modelling predicting usage 60 years out), in part this criticism is only possible because the ALR team have done the work to actually assess the emissions.
Assessing emissions is something that just doesn’t tend to happen on other transport business cases, so generally gets completely ignored by media.
For example, we’re now being subjected by media to daily complaints about Transmission Gully not being open. Yet that I can think of, not one is bothered by the lifetime emissions from that project, even though it is expected to result in more driving including people shifting trips from electric trains into their cars.
As you can imagine, we’re going to have quite a bit more coverage of this in the coming days and weeks, including a dive through the now released Indicative Business Case and some ideas we’ve had to improve what’s been proposed.