Prime Minister John Key says the Government may give Auckland's $2.86 billion underground railway project a jump-start ahead of a 2020 construction go-date - if the city can prove urgency.
That would depend on boosting rail patronage significantly above current trends and showing a 25 per cent leap in CBD jobs, he told business leaders in the city yesterday.
"We will be prepared to consider an earlier start date if it becomes clear that Auckland's CBD employment and rail patronage growth hit thresholds faster than current rates of growth suggest," Mr Key said.
His laying down of the gauntlet came after he confirmed the Government support for motorway tunnels to be "future-proofed" for rail under Waitemata Harbour by 2030 for $4.6 billion - part of an $11 billion package of transport projects announced yesterday.
The overall effects of the six projects would be to complete both roading and rail networks to make Auckland a successful city "not just for Aucklanders but for all New Zealanders" although Labour and the Greens believe public transport improvements should come first.
"It is crucial for every New Zealander that Auckland succeeds," Mr Key said.
He told reporters that his CBD jobs challenge represented just half of an increase predicted by an Auckland Transport study so "that's pretty generous".
"We are not expecting it to live up to the modelling - only half the modelling."
But an ultimatum he has given to Auckland Transport to put annual train patronage on track to hit 20 million passenger trips "well before 2020" to ensure an accelerated start for the City Rail Link will be tough for the council organisation to pull off.
Although patronage more than quadrupled from Britomart's 2003 opening to almost 11 million last year - fuelled by the Rugby World Cup - it has slumped to just 10.1 million this year.
That led Auckland Transport's board this week to slash 4 million trips off council patronage targets - from 14 million next year and 17 million by 2016 - just a day before Government revealed its remarkable u-turn in pledging 50 per cent funding for a 3.4km pair of rail tunnels from Britomart to Mt Eden.
Council transport chairman Mike Lee, who recorded his vote against lowering the targets at the board meeting, says the council must abandon its "defeatism" and match the leadership he says has been demonstrated by Mr Key and Auckland Mayor Len Brown.
Mr Brown told the Weekend Herald earlier that it was "critical" for Auckland Transport to be very strongly focused on boosting patronage and he was monitoring its performance constantly.
But the transport organisation's chairman, Lester Levy, said yesterday that his main concern was not to "keep running the same race" that had seen passenger numbers stagnate, and it was important to bed in a culture change towards putting customers first, before lifting patronage targets.
"We can talk about [council] statements of intent til the cows come home, but we need to change our total mindset and that is starting to happen," he said.
Dr Levy said the changes to ensure "more attractive" pricing and greater reliability of all public transport - not just rail, which will be boosted by the introduction of electric trains next year - should ultimately set a solid foundation for healthy patronage increases. "This is a big mountain to climb, and it's not just about rail, but we will put in every effort possible in getting that done," he said.
"We need the whole public to change the way they think about this, because people are ground down by congestion.
"But in the end, the person who loves being in their car the most is the person who should love public transport the most, because the only way the car journey is going to be pleasant is when we get a significant number of people using public transport."