Transport Minister Steven Joyce is being accused of trying to thwart Auckland Mayor Len Brown's vision for rail by pre-empting an agreed process for analysing train running costs.
"He is trying to stymie the mayor's vision," Auckland Council transport chairman Mike Lee said yesterday of a letter from the minister to Mr Brown saying the Government cannot consider expanding the rail network until an expected $30 million annual operating deficit is fixed.
Mr Joyce referred specifically to the mayor's highest-priority transport project, a 3.5km rail tunnel from the western end of Britomart to Mt Eden to double the reach of trains into central Auckland, which a draft business case is costing at about $2 billion.
Although the final document will be completed next month for presentation to KiwiRail and the new Auckland Transport agency, the minister told Mr Brown it was "imperative that we resolve the current metro rail funding shortfalls before we consider broader capital programmes to expand the network".
The mayor, who told the Herald earlier that the Government must not allow infrastructure needed to support Auckland's population growth to be halted by "short-term funding issues", yesterday chose not to comment further.
But Mr Lee, former chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, said much of a threatened operating deficit due to hit passengers and ratepayers next winter would be the result of Government transport funding changes in favour of more roads.
"This is a problem which has been created by the minister himself by and large," he said.
Mr Lee said he had told the minister in May that Auckland was prepared to pay its fair share for running trains, subject to an analysis agreed to by Mr Joyce of the region's rail costs compared with those of Wellington.
"But Minister Joyce hasn't waited for this."
Mr Joyce said last night it would have been irresponsible not to apprise the new mayor of rail funding issues that needed resolving before contemplating expanding the region's network, and his letter was follow-up correspondence to a meeting between the pair in the first days of the new Super City council.
He denied trying to stymie the mayor's vision, although he said the problem of the rail operating shortfall would be eclipsed by the challenge of paying for the tunnel.
"The council will need to come up with a significant share of the funding for the vision and I would point out that the total council asset base in the new Super City is $32.4 billion," the minister said.
"It's a large healthy baby of its own, and central Government will be looking for it to make its contribution.
"I said to Len we need to get this bit tidied up first because this [the operating shortfall] is small beer by comparison and we need to make sure we've got the immediate issues solved before we get too heavily into discussing the big issues."
Mr Joyce believes an annual track access charge of $5 million paid by Auckland to KiwiRail needs to more than treble in the financial year starting next July to cover full maintenance costs, and the rest of a $30 million annual deficit for each year until 2014 will result from new and more frequent rail services.
Although the Government's Transport Agency pays 60 per cent of an annual rail operating bill of $86 million, the balance of which is covered by Auckland ratepayers and passengers, he said funds to cover the shortfall were not in that organisation's budget and the parties needed to negotiate what each was prepared to pay.
But Mr Lee blamed the shortfall on the Government's decision to transfer more money to roads in its three-yearly transport policy statement, and said a cap on the agency's subsidies would undermine Auckland's transport plan to increase rail patronage to 17 million passenger trips by 2016 - from nine million now and 2.5 million in 2003.