Mayor Len Brown sounds keener than ever, for obvious reasons, to see work start on the Auckland central rail link. He needs to be seen to be effective again. But his proposal to the Prime Minister for part of the project to start next year is premature. Mr Brown has offered $250 million from the city to pay for a cut and cover tunnel from Britomart to some point in Albert St, on the condition that the Government confirms its commitment to meet half the cost of the entire project.
The Government has made a tentative commitment to start no earlier than 2020. The mayor obviously hopes his offer will entice the Government to strengthen its commitment and bring it forward a few years. Starting the first stage in 2015-16, he points out, would enable the Downtown redevelopment and possibly the SkyCity conference centre to begin.
The conference centre may be as important to John Key as the rail link is to the mayor, but it is not wise to start a project of this scale until the entire plan is finalised, with firm financial commitments and reasonable certainty that it will be completed.
As yet the Government has not budgeted for the project and remains concerned that the $2.8 billion it would cost on current estimates would shut out just about all other items on the transport improvement programme for the Auckland region over the same period.
Undeterred, the mayor and council have spent $100 million buying property along their envisaged route from Britomart to Mt Eden passing under Aotea Square, Karangahape Rd and Newton gully.
That route has its critics - some suggest the line should be closer to the universities and the hospital. Others advocate a wider loop, along Fanshawe St and around Victoria Park, then alongside the southern motorway to Mt Eden.
But if the route is changed the council can probably recover its outlay on the properties. Not so, any money spent on construction.
The costs of a cut and cover tunnel go far beyond its construction. Albert St would be dug up, one block at a time over several years, causing traffic diversions throughout the central city and adding greatly to congestion. Citizens and commerce should not have to bear the costs and inconvenience until the full project is finalised, financed and ready to go.
The Government has yet to be convinced that train patronage would increase by enough to justify the $2.8 billion bill.
The mayor has no such doubt. He is so convinced the project will meet increased patronage and employment targets set by the Government that effectively, he says, the council would be underwriting the Government's 50 per cent contribution until 2020, or whenever the full scheme is approved.
Auckland Transport will soon introduce electric locomotives to its commuters. If they make the journey as attractive as they look, they could improve the council's case for the central link to be scheduled somewhat sooner than 2020. An earlier start is bound to be promised by Labour and the Greens at the general election this year. They can plausibly argue that by putting off the project for six years National is passing the buck to the next government.
All sides seem to accept now that the central rail link will happen. That is largely the mayor's achievement. If his offer for an early start forces the Government to make a more firm commitment to the entire project, so much the better. Yet if it is going to be built, it should be properly programmed, to completion, beforehand.
To incur the starting cost without a definite finish planned would tempt fate. The mayor's monument could be a tunnel to nowhere.