Following the surprise resignation of Jacinda Ardern last week, her replacement, Chis Hipkins, has said:
Over the coming week, Cabinet will be making decisions on reining in some programs and projects that aren’t essential right now
That messaging is similar to what Jacinda Ardern said late last year and as with then, it’s unclear yet what projects will be reined in. But surely one of the potential candidates is light rail – though interestingly light rail had the highest net-positive rating in a poll taken following Ardern’s resignation.
Two policies that were more popular than unpopular were KiwiBuild and the plan to build Auckland light rail. Forty-three per cent of voters want KiwiBuild kept, compared to just 28 per cent who want it gone. The margin for Auckland light rail was similar: 45 per cent want it kept and 27 per cent want it scrapped.
I wonder how many people still think light rail is a a surface solution given most of the images from the Light Rail team, and media show it on the surface?
The change in government leadership hopefully now gives the government an even greater chance to break out of the tunnel they’re digging themselves into and rethink light rail.
As I wrote last month, the experience from the CRL with COVID disruption and global inflation issues show there’s a good chance the project is now even more expensive than the $15 billion suggested in the business case just a few years ago. I still think the best way for them to rethink the project is to shift back to a cheaper and faster to deliver surface option on Dominion Rd. This doesn’t mean we should never build tunnels but that they be part of future stages in the development of our rapid transit network.
But if the government are still committed to tunnels, or if they’re wanting to think about what one of those future stages could be, then perhaps one option for them to consider is Manukau Rd as an alternative.
This is an option I’ve covered before but to recap.
For trips from the city to Onehunga, Mangere or the airport, Manukau Rd is a far more direct route than the current light rail plan to go via Sandringham Rd, or even via Dominion Rd. At potentially just over 9km to get from Aotea to Onehunga, it is over 4km shorter than going via Sandringham Rd.
A shorter route means a faster route plus it also hopefully means it is cheaper (though there are other factors at play here). Auckland Light Rail currently estimate their plan will take 21 minutes to get from Aotea to Onehunga going via Sandringham Rd. By comparison, by using the shorter Manukau Rd route it would only be around 13-14 minutes. While the airport shouldn’t be the primary focus, it could make for a city to airport trip of only around 25 minutes.
It’s a route that, with a future extension to the North Shore, would see it link up three hospitals (North Shore, Auckland, Greenlane) and six university campuses (Albany,Akoranga, AUT & UoA in the City, Grafton & Newmarket).
At least pre-COVID, Manukau Rd is a busier PT route than Sandringham Rd but key for either option will be future development capacity and on this metric Maunkau Rd looks to be a good option too.
While we don’t yet know for sure what the council have planned for zoning changes in the currently planned light rail corridor, the indications from the draft plans in April last year suggested there would still be some large areas where special character protection still existed – based on the council dodgy process for determining special character – especially around Kingsland. We don’t have that issue for Manukau Rd though and the notified plan shows only a few streets where the special character zoning applies. Even before the recent government mandated changes to increase zoning, this corridor already had a lot of mixed use and apartment zoning.
There are a couple of main challenges for this idea though:
- There isn’t much in the way of government owned property along the route. The main driver for choosing Sandringham Rd as the preferred option is that there is a large number of Kāinga Ora properties around Wesley that are due to be redeveloped and the government are keen to tie light rail into that development. This, and that there are not a lot of large sites for easy redevelopment appears to be the main reasons it was excluded from consideration by the Light Rail team.
- The Manukau Rd route is likely to have a lot more hard basalt rock to deal with and that may make tunnelling much harder and more expensive.
Ultimately, we should probably be aiming for both surface light rail (initially) with a Manukau Rd route at some point in the future. This would provide great coverage across the central isthmus.