Congratulations on becoming the third Mayor of Auckland. You have some big footsteps to follow. While voter turnout was unacceptably low – and you really need to work with government to change how local government elections work – there’s no doubt your call to “fix Auckland” struck a chord with many Aucklanders.
We all want to fix something about this city. And there is a lot of work to do, which will keep you and the rest of the council very busy over the next three years.
So let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first.
Our sense is that we have a different vision for Auckland than you do. We think Auckland’s generally getting better, just not fast enough – whereas we worry you may be inclined to slow down or even undo some of the best progress the city has made in recent years.
We look to the future, rather than the past. We seek inspiration, examples, and evidence from here and elsewhere of what’s possible – and we encourage you to do the same.
To tell the truth, it’s hard to compare your vision with ours, because your campaign didn’t really spell out a vision of what Auckland could become, preferring a list of things you wanted to do. In place of a vision, you led with a motto: “Let’s Fix Auckland, Together.”
All right then: let’s. Because we’re keen to be constructive in finding a better way forward, and it might come as a surprise that we agree with you on a number of important areas. Even if we’re coming at these issues from different angles, you’ve identified some pretty big problems with how Auckland Council and its CCOs work.
Here are five key things we agree need fixing…
1. The light rail project needs a fundamental reset
We agree with you that this project has got completely out of control over the past few years. It makes absolutely no sense to spend $15-30 billion on a single project in Auckland, no matter how amazing it might be. The government has been let down by terrible advice, but has also made a series of awful decisions on this project over the past five years.
Even before that, Auckland Transport developed this project in secret, before surprising everyone with it in early 2015 – yes, more than seven years ago. And yet, nothing to show for it in all that time.
Auckland Council has been an oddly silent bystander to this debacle over recent years – probably because your predecessor wanted to play nicely with some of his former colleagues. This has not been a successful strategy, and key decisions have been made in Wellington – which has been about as disastrous as you might expect.
You will have a key role in the governance for this project, so we suggest you use that role quickly to demand a fundamental reset before even more money is wasted on design details for something nearly everyone knows is a non-starter.
That said, the key issues driving the need for something in the light-rail corridor haven’t gone away:
- Our inner city streets can’t handle more buses. While Covid-19 has dampened public transport ridership – especially for trips to the city centre – over time, this will return. And while CRL will play its part, there really isn’t much more capacity on city streets to add more buses.
- Meanwhile, Māngere still has unacceptably bad public transport access to major job centres, holding back the area’s potential and forcing a very poor part of the city to be highly car dependent.
- Also, the government is still building thousands of new homes in Mt Roskill and Māngere – and these people will need good public transport options, to avoid jamming the isthmus with more cars.
- We still have an airport that’s not really well served by rapid transit, although the Puhinui bus/rail interchange means this is less pressing an issue than it used to be.
The project doesn’t have to solve every potential problem for the next 100 years. The important part is to get something affordable and effective in place now and we can enhance or add to it in the future as required. As such, we think the light rail design Auckland Transport originally came up with more than five years ago is the strongest work done to date here. But we also think that whatever solution is required must come from a robust planning process, one that properly involves the people and decision-makers of Auckland and gives them all the information, not just pretty pictures.
You’ll have some councillors who think expanding the heavy rail network is the way to go, and given the scale of investment the government is considering for the corridor, that should definitely be looked at. But there are pretty sound reasons why – way back in 2016 – light rail was the preferred way forward. And that goes for the Northwest as well as the isthmus; you’ll get way more bang for Auckland’s buck that way.
2. The way Auckland Transport works needs a proper review
You’re right when you say that nobody is happy with how Auckland Transport works. There’s a lot of frustration out there about what Auckland Transport is doing, and also a lot of frustration about what it isn’t doing.
While we might have different opinions about what AT should do more or less of, we agree that something is fundamentally broken in the way this important organisation works.
AT simply isn’t delivering a transport system that works for Aucklanders; we don’t feel safe and we don’t feel we can move around freely. AT has become an organisation of delay rather than delivery. Too many business cases, too many layers of consultation, too many redesigns at the slightest hint of opposition; these delays have depleted our city’s resilience, productivity and quality of life, and they’ve pushed costs up enormously.
And it’s making it harder than it should be to lay the foundations for a liveable future for our children and your grandchildren. We bet this weighs on your mind as heavily as it does on ours.
We’re as keen as you are to unstick the managerial “clay layer” at AT, break people out of their silos, recruit and promote the most brilliant talent, and get things moving.
That said, you will find major reform of Auckland Transport challenging. Unlike the other CCOs, AT has a lot of independent statutory authority, and you’ll need to work constructively with the government to change this.
Simply firing the board or embarking upon yet another CCO review won’t really change anything. If you put two councillors back on the AT board just make sure they’re willing to work constructively with other board members and with government. After all, most of the city’s transport funding comes from the government.
The AT board is just the start of what needs to change there. It is 10 months since the former CEO announced his resignation and there appears to be no progress on his replacement.
Importantly there’s an opportunity to shine some more light on AT’s processes. AT board meetings are currently 95% on the closed agenda, which is completely unnecessary aside from a few contractually privileged items. We all deserve more transparency about what goes on at those meetings and how the decisions are made.
3. We should absolutely be building more affordable cycleways
In a previous mayoral role, you were eloquent about the benefits of getting on a bike. “The cycling thing is good for the Far North and for every one of us,” you said, welcoming the “tourism and job creation potential” of bike routes and leveraging government funding to connect your towns. You get it.
Auckland’s cycleway network is woefully incomplete. Having only a fraction of a safe network has made this smart, simple, affordable form of transport for all kinds of Aucklanders very dangerous, as we have seen this year through a series of absolutely preventable tragedies, a terrible trend you won’t want to continue on your watch.
In fact, the safety benefits of having a full, protected cycling network extend to everyone, whether they’re driving, walking, or cycling. So do the public health benefits, and the productivity benefits. With a complete network in place, people of all ages can use it, from kids to retirees, replacing a lot of car trips, and unlocking hours in the day currently spent sitting in queues or chauffeuring family members.
So we need to build a functional cycle network rapidly. This is fundamentally one of the cheapest and fastest ways to help people get out of traffic, which you’ve rightly identified as a top concern for Aucklanders of all ages.
And we couldn’t agree with you more that it needs to be done far cheaper and faster. It simply shouldn’t take months of roadworks to install a cycleway at the cost of millions of dollars per kilometre.
At the current rate of delivery, it would take something like 160 years to complete a basic cycling network for this city. That’s not just shocking, it’s frankly embarrassing – especially as we watch the mayors of other cities assemble networks within a single electoral term.
You’ve said you’re up to the task of reapportioning space on the roads for cycle lanes, and really, any other option is unaffordable at the scale we need to work.
You have our full support in requiring Auckland Transport to find efficiencies and ways to speed this up.
At the same time, when undertaking multimillion-dollar full road rebuilds including pipes, electrics, lights, planting, rain gardens, bus lanes, it’s a no-brainer to include cycleways – as happened on your beloved Karangahape Road, which is now officially one of the world’s top ten coolest streets.
Improving our network for cycling has been where Auckland Transport has failed us the most. It’s also where Greater Auckland will be watching most closely – and we’ll be calling out anyone who tries to attribute other roading costs to cycle lanes.
4. You need to put a rocket under KiwiRail
Underinvestment in Auckland’s rail network over many decades has come back to bite us in recent years, with lengthy closures. This will only get worse next year when KiwiRail close major sections of the network for months at a time.
This is a disaster for Auckland, with rail already lagging behind other modes in recovering from the impacts of Covid-19 on ridership. While we obviously want to get the rail network in good shape before CRL opens, simply closing the network down for months on end without consultation – and without a serious mitigation package in place – is a sick joke.
KiwiRail has long screwed Auckland over, and you shouldn’t stand for it. They haven’t properly looked after the rail network for decades, treating it like a low-frequency freight system rather than a modern metro for a world-class city. They prioritise freight trains over passenger trains at any opportunity they have.
This recent news really raises the question of whether KiwiRail should continue to own and control the rail network, especially in Auckland. Please look into it.
5. Get Auckland a better deal on City Rail Link costs
You’ve talked a lot about City Rail Link costs during your campaign. While as you know, there are good reasons to not release updated costs while contractual negotiations are underway – lest that ending up costing us more – you’re right to be concerned about this.
Most transport projects have experienced significant cost increases in recent years and – with a cost of already $4.4 billion – any escalation for CRL will be some big numbers. And it will be incredibly difficult for Auckland Council to meet its half of this increase, as per the current funding arrangements for this project.
You should demand government pay the vast bulk of any increase in costs for CRL. It’s never really made sense for the Council to fund 50% of this project – it’s totally inconsistent with any other major strategic project in the country. That’s just a legacy of a past compromise between Len Brown and sceptical National Party ministers.
Government will probably demand some concessions for such an agreement – like keeping the Regional Fuel Tax in place – and you should find a way to do a good deal. Otherwise CRL will eat up even more of your transport budget, and if you were to get rid of the Regional Fuel Tax you’d definitely have nothing left to make any progress whatsoever on transport matters.
One more thing. Auckland is a young and diverse city. It’s a complex place, with a wide variety of needs and a wide range of voices that need to be heard and respected. At Greater Auckland, we are doing everything we can to make sure Auckland moves forward on the big issues it faces: most notably, addressing the climate crisis, the housing crisis, and the road safety crisis.
We will hold you and the council to account on this each and every day.
You must know that these crises are intertwined, and thus so are the solutions. The work ahead will require a deep, smart, and creative understanding of how all the levers are connected, and how they affect the lives of the people you’ve been elected to serve.
You are going to need your best systems thinking, and your best systems thinkers. A piecemeal approach – cutting this, abolishing that, keeping an eye merely on the bottom line – just won’t fly. So we look forward to seeing who you elevate to the most critical roles in this most crucial of decades.
As you make those appointments, you might want to look at the scorecards of serving councillors recently compiled by Bernard Orsman and Simon Wilson. While these two veteran reporters generally come from opposite perspectives, their scores were surprisingly consistent.
Guess what: in general, they rated the progressive councillors as much more competent at delivering than those who’ve been content to sit back, gripe, and resist change in the last few years.
This might offer you a strong steer as to who your best allies will be for the task ahead.
Best of luck!