Auckland Transport says link needed to keep fast-growing city moving while councillor questions spending and business owners and lawyers express concern at prices being offered.
Properties worth $35 million have been bought to secure the route for Auckland's proposed $2.86 billion City Rail Link.
Although it would not list them, Auckland Transport told the Herald it had bought 27 of 73 above-ground properties it needs to create entranceways to proposed underground stations and train lines along the 3.4km route from Britomart to Mt Eden. It also needs land for its major construction yard at Eden Terrace.
The Auckland Council-owned authority said the most expensive property it had bought was an empty site near Mt Eden Prison for just over $6 million.
It was bought "as an advance agreement with the final amount to be determined by the Land Valuation Tribunal". The tribunal, under the Ministry of Justice, hears cases where buyers and sellers can't agree on prices and terms.
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One Auckland councillor questioned why properties were being bought before Government funding had been secured.
Auckland Transport said the City Rail Link (CRL) is a top transport priority for a city predicted to grow by more than 700,000 people in the next 30 years.
"The CRL coupled with bus improvements is the only way to keep Auckland moving," a spokeswoman said. "Current public transport will be unable to cater for this growth, hindering economic development.
"The CRL will provide opportunities for development, particularly around the stations."
Auckland lawyer Adina Thorn, acting for clients with properties on the rail link route, said Eden Terrace business owners were struggling to find suitable alternative premises because the prices being offered were too low.
"Eden Terrace has always offered good value, central business premises. Many are having to move down south or out west as neighbouring suburbs with commercial property like Ponsonby are too expensive.
"In every case there has been a significant difference between [Auckland Transport]'s valuation and the owners' valuation. There is tolerance for some difference, but having a large difference in relation to lots of properties raises questions," Ms Thorn said.
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But Auckland Transport said the organisation had an obligation to be fair and accountable and ensure the money of taxpayers and ratepayers is spent properly.
"The negotiations/purchases are progressing at a good rate. We have negotiated willing-seller/willing-buyer agreements on almost half of properties in the first full year of acquisitions which illustrates that our processes are working well.
"The majority of these have been commercial owners who have engaged with us with the support of professional advisers. All outcomes are fair and responsive to individual circumstances," the spokeswoman said.
Auckland councillor Dick Quax said it was wrong that properties were being bought before funding from the Government had been secured.
"We're boxing ahead and we don't have any money for it. It's a silly thing to do," he said.
The CRL will be predominantly underground. Auckland Transport is planning three new city centre stations so the link will double the number of people within 30 minutes' travel time of the city and shorten travel times across the entire rail network.
"A recent study shows that without the CRL, Auckland's existing public transport services will be at over capacity within a decade and city traffic will slow to walking speed," Auckland Transport said.
The Life Church at 95 Mt Eden Rd, near TV3 in Flower St, is one of the larger properties required to make way for the project and Auckland Transport said negotiations were being carried out. No agreement has been reached.
Rob Taylor, who owns Robert's Automotive in a two-level building in Nikau St opposite TV3, is unhappy that his leased premises have been sold.
Auckland Transport now has to find new premises for him but he doesn't know when he will need to move or where.
"We've been asked to come up with a list of our equipment, what the building is, the storage, office space and lunchroom. We face north, it's great premises for us," said Mr Taylor, who employs two people and is worried about moving to an apartment zone where fewer people own cars. Robert's has been on the site 14 years.
Overall, he backs the City Rail Link, but his customers' access to public transport when his business is moved is of concern.
The Government has offered to split the $2.86 billion cost of the link with Auckland Council. But it won't start funding the project until 2020, unless tough rail patronage and employment targets are met.
Mayor Len Brown wants construction started in 2016. He has said an early start would minimise disruption and provide "a more effective and investment-friendly approach" to the development of the CBD.
Homeowner leaves path of link with less than hoped
Ben Basevi wanted around $600,000 for his inner-city Auckland home, which is in the way of the City Rail Link, but he ended up getting $540,000.
"You become aware quite quickly you are very small and insignificant and the council's the council," he said. Two years ago, he said he was notified by Auckland Transport that his apartment in Mercury Lane, behind the Mercury Theatre, off Karangahape Rd, may have to make way for the City Rail Link.
"The council were horrible. They didn't negotiate, or there was very little negotiation," he said.
He has bought another place but remains upset.
An Auckland Transport spokeswoman said: "Mr Basevi was treated fairly, reasonably and respectfully ...
"There was no compulsory process in place. AT met with Mr Basevi several times during negotiations, including a meeting almost a year ago in June 2013 to discuss and address any concerns about the purchase process," she said.
"Mr Basevi requested an additional amount to reflect market change since the valuers met and AT agreed to this.
"AT paid for the reasonable costs associated with the sale of his original property, the purchase of his new one and relocation costs."
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