Transport Minister and now also Minister for Auckland, Michael Wood has confirmed that the light rail project is part of the government’s policy refocus.
Wood said the light rail project was under review as part of a ministerial refocus on key Government projects.
“We are undertaking a stocktake about how we move things forward. We will be able to confirm the direction in a couple of weeks,” he said.
He said he did want to focus on fixing Auckland congestion and said public transport, even if it wasn’t light rail, would be a priority.
“The scale of Auckland in terms of population and economic activity means that if we do well in Auckland, the whole country will be better off. For example, we currently lose about $2 billion worth of economic activity every year because of the congestion in Auckland.”
Asked if he was still committed to Auckland Light Rail, Wood said the Government was “in general, committed to high quality public transport”.
He said other projects would include water infrastructure, especially storm water. He said there needed to be better coordination between transport, council, and water agencies about storm water – which had meant the flooding was impacting some suburbs more severely than others.
The wording used by Wood is ominous and suggests a major change is potentially coming, including potentially dropping it altogether.
We’ve long criticised the project in its current form and hope as part of this review that the project is right-sized not dropped.
As I wrote late last year, we think a more sensible plan would be to first scale the project back to something that is achievable but that can be delivered and upgraded over time rather than trying to do a massive project all in one go.
The first stage should be to build a surface line down Dominion Rd to Mt Roskill. As I said at the time, we will always need some form of surface solution on Dominion Rd and it doesn’t preclude us building tunnels in the future to compliment it and would be a sign of success if we needed to.
That could also include green tracking in parts to provide both amenity benefits but also to help manage stormwater better.
Later stages could include extensions to Onehunga, Mangere, our crosstown option and of course to the Northwest. Given the government are so keen on improving access to tie into their housing programme, building the first stage of the Northwest as far as Pt Chev to help serve the Unitec site could be a good idea.
A key thing to make this right-sizing work though is to get the costs more realistic. When the light rail team presented their work at the end of 2020 their costs for the surface solution were astronomically high compared to many other cities, averaging nearly $300 million per km, 2-3 times what most other cities are able to achieve, even after adjusting for currency and inflation.
I know some of the costs for projects in this graph have increased since I first made it but even $200 million per km seems more than reasonable for Auckland to achieve. At that price, a line from Britomart to Mt Roskill would come in at under $2 billion with the total cost for city centre to Mangere at around $4.5 billion.
In fact based on $200m per km, the entire network shown above of City Centre to Mangere, Northwest and Crosstown LR could be delivered for about $9.5b, that’s still about $5 billion less than the tunnelled light rail option and I would bet, if modelled, would provide far greater benefits than a single gold-plated line.
If the government were to commit the $15 billion for the current proposal to rapid transit projects it would also be enough to fund other projects proposed for the city’s rapid transit network. Projects like Airport to Botany (about $2 billion), something for the Upper Harbour corridor, improvements to the Northern Busway and for between Albany and Silverdale. There may even be money left over for improvements to bus priority on local roads.
Effectively, spent differently, the $15 billion (or more) currently planned to be spent on light rail could fund a region-wide PT upgrade programme. A programme that would be much easier to break up and deliver into smaller, independent projects and one that would drastically improve the usefulness of PT, thereby truly helping us to meet our goals for addressing climate change, improving accessibility across the region, reducing congestion and improving safety.
So I hope as part of this process the government think about how they can deliver high quality public transport to the entire region. That would be a far greater legacy to leave than a single, expensive tunnel.