The NZ Herald reports:
Leaked emails between senior officials at Auckland Light Rail, Waka Kotahi and Auckland Transport have revealed a surprising twist in the long-running saga of the Auckland Light Rail project.
A stack of emails between Auckland Light Rail and an unnamed senior official at Waka Kotahi, who appears to have been a close colleague for many years in his former role at Waka Kotahi, have been leaked to the NZ Herald. These reveal damning insights into the Auckland Light Rail project, and suggest a highly controversial change to the project’s design might be on the cards. The emails, some of which also included senior officials from other national and regional transport agencies in Auckland, also provide revealing insights into the culture of these often unknown but highly powerful bureaucrats.
The emails, which date from mid-2021, provide never seen before insights into decision-making processes on the $15-29 billion Auckland Light Rail project, which has proven to be highly controversial. They initially focus on work undertaken by Auckland Light Rail on an ‘indicative business case‘, which led to the government selecting “Tunnelled Light Rail” as the preferred option for the project.
“We’re not sure whether to recommend light-rail or light-metro,” a senior staffer from Auckland light-rail writes in an early email to his former colleague at Waka Kotahi. “Light-rail is significantly cheaper, but takes away traffic lanes and parking on Dominion Road and we’re going to get hell for that. I’m thinking about whether we go for some hybrid option between the two, to try to get as many of the benefits of light-metro but at a lower cost.”
The Waka Kotahi official’s reply doesn’t answer the question on this key issue, but simply states “Mate, don’t forget about the Waitemata Harbour Crossing. You know that that is the most important project in Auckland. Don’t try to create a bigger project than my big project. I’m the guy with the biggest project.”
The light-rail official simply responded with. “Don’t worry, I know. The whole idea is to create something so stupid that a future government will cancel this and shift the money across to your road tunnels. That’s why we’re going with such a daftly expensive option. Robbo [presumably Finance Minister Grant Robertson] tried to make us go with the much more sensible surface light-rail option, but thankfully Jacinda overruled him because she’s worried about disruption to shopkeepers in Balmoral!”
Much more recent correspondence though, suggests a significant change in plans. In early 2023 the same senior official at Auckland Light Rail provides an update on progress to his Waka Kotahi colleague:
“Mate, we’ve got a problem. Our technical guys have run the numbers and it seems like the capacity gain we get from tunnelled light rail compared to surface light-rail is pretty tiny. We thought we could do 40 an hour, but it’s looking more like 24 unless we build massive tunnels or viaducts through Onehunga and Mangere – which is barely more than surface light rail. We’re also really worried about building a complicated underground junction with the northwest corridor so we want to separate ourselves from that project and just run through to the North Shore. But that kills our argument for a tunnel because we only needed that through the city if the northwest plugged into the same section of track. It feels like we’re back to square one.”
The Waka Kotahi official’s response again focuses mainly on his desire to make sure that the harbour crossing project is “the bigger project”, in what reads like a battle of egos, but offers some advice too:
“Mate, what if you turn your light-rail tunnel into a road tunnel and then link it up with my (bigger) harbour crossing tunnel? Then we could have a really really big tunnel and would stop needing to worry about who has the biggest tunnel? We’ve gotta work out how to sell this idea to Woodsy [presumably Transport Minister Michael Wood] though.”
“Just tell him it will reduce emissions heaps,” helpfully responds the Auckland Light Rail official.
“Will it though?”
“Who cares? We’ve bullshitted him so many times over emissions in the past and always got away with it. Can you believe he stood there with a straight face when announcing Penlink saying that a big new road will reduce emissions, gotta hand it to the guy,” responded the Auckland Light Rail official. “God I love the smell of fresh tarmac.”
At this point, an Auckland Transport senior official joins the discussion to add in “You guys are amateurs at this. We managed to somehow ignore Auckland Council’s wishes for us to build cycleways for years, while convincing the public that we were building them everywhere. We even got a new mayor and balance to the council, at least partly driven by backlash against cycleways we didn’t even build – it’s hilarious!”
The most recent email provided to the NZ Herald suggests that the 250 consultants working on Auckland Light Rail, at vast cost to the taxpayer, have subsequently “pivoted to a highly secret new mode” in their design work – which is understood to be a big fat road.
The Herald contacted Minister of Transport Michael Wood for comment. He replied with a statement saying “I continue to believe that my officials are acting in good faith, and doing their very best to provide me with good advice about what the best transport decisions to make in the interests of Auckland and New Zealand are.”
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown initially replied with “piss off drongos I’m playing tennis because it’s Friday” before his office issued a more fulsome statement. “Mayor Wayne Brown was elected by over 180,000 Aucklanders and has a strong mandate to fix Auckland and move the Port. The mayor is generally worried about fat-cat officials making billion dollar recommendations in this way, but last week he had a beer or two with these guys and he reckons they’re all good. He’s happy to slash community services so they can continue their ego trips about who has the biggest …tunnel.”
North Shore Councillor Richard Hills was approached for comment, stating: “Look, this is seriously concerning to see into the culture of senior people in our transport organisations. I’ve long wondered why there was such a gap between what we put in our plans and what ended up happening on the ground. I have to say that I almost didn’t want to believe that senior officials would hold elected members and Ministers in such contempt, but perhaps at the back of my mind all along I had this sneaking suspicion that has sadly turned out to be true. Auckland does not need a massive new road tunnel, this scheme is like a zombie from the 1950s.”
Other stakeholders were more supportive of the idea, with a spokesperson from the AA saying “I’ve long been concerned that the AWHC project would simply feed a bunch of traffic into spaghetti junction unless substantial extra capacity was provided on the isthmus. I perhaps thought that might come in the form of the long-forgotten Eastern Highway, but I guess a revival of the long forgotten Dominion Road motorway is just as good. Brrrm brrrrrm!”
A spokeperson for the Road Transport Forum said “I’m glad to see the back of that namby pamby light rail and a good return to the days of building rrrrrrrrrrroads for big trucks!”
Nowhere in the leaked emails was there any mention of the possible cost of the road tunnel. A word search for “cost” revealed one point where a senior official said “don’t worry about cost, the politicians always stump up the money eventually.”