The new Government couldn't be clearer in showing how determined it is to do what it takes to get on top of Auckland's deep-seated transport problems — it will use enabling legislation to fast-track the mass public transit projects it has flagged it wants built with speed and urgency.
A revised Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) package is close to being signed off between the key sponsors, Transport Minister Phil Twyford, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Mayor Phil Goff and deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore.
Light rail, or what some cities call a fast tram and others rapid rail, will be at the heart of the transport transformation facing Auckland over the next decade.
It will be the most transformational transport project since the building of the Waitemata Harbour Bridge and associated Northern and Southern motorway corridors in the 1960s.
Auckland Transport has been assessing routes and undertaking design work, including patronage modelling and traffic-congestion impacts over the past two-three years, which means the project can "hit the ground running".
The network as broadly envisaged is now well known:
• A light rail line from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill completed by 2021 and the America's Cup and APEC events, then, long-term an extension to Auckland Airport.
• A bus priority route initially from the Airport to Puhinui train station completed within a year and then a rapid transit extension option to Auckland's south-eastern suburbs. Te Irirangi Drive from Manukau to Botany is designed for a mass transit option to be added.
• A Northwestern line to the western suburbs; and
• A line to the North Shore taking advantage of the long-proposed third Harbour crossing that transport planners agree will be needed from the mid-2020s.
Other ramped up improvements to support an Auckland-wide mass transit network include upscaled feeder bus services to the main trunk rail and bus services, and much improved park and ride facilities.
Also flagged for inclusion in the upscaled ATAP agenda are the third rail line between Westfied and Papakura and a number of cross-city bus priority routes.
That is, it won't just be a network giving access to the city centre, but provide a transformed public transport system for moving around the whole of Auckland.
A key outcome that Auckland Council in particular is wanting is to ensure the new rapid transit network hooks up with the three urban intensification areas set out in the Unitary Plan — Drury, West Auckland and Silverdale and long term Warkworth — where housing developments are already under way to provide 110,000 new homes and 50,000 new jobs over the next 30 years.
As every Aucklander knows, the existing transport infrastructure serving these areas is already heavily congested.
Light rail or its mass transit equivalent into these areas will be Auckland's 21st Century transformational circuit breaker!
Another key takeaway likely to be broadcast when the package is announced is that the "One Network" or integrated approach Auckland Transport and NZTA are already applying to solving major transport problems is giving Aucklanders public transport options for moving around the whole of Auckland without necessarily having to go into central Auckland.
Quite simply, encouraging people to use public transport frees up roads for freight and commercial traffic, as well as those who can't or won't get out of their private vehicle.
A 2012 study showed that Auckland's growth will outstrip its road capacity and maximising rail — heavy and light — is an essential part of a long-term integrated transport solution. The number of trips to the city centre in the morning peak will increase by about 85 per cent from 70,000 to more than 130,000 over the next 30 years.
The City Rail Link helps access to the centre from the south and north, but the study found that increasing the number of buses from areas not served by heavy rail will create significant congestion and be a "drag" on economic growth. A light rail network is the answer.
Public transport trips around Auckland — west-to-east — are forecast to grow from the current 90 million trips to more than 230 million trips per year by 2046. A combination of bus and light rail options for getting across Auckland has been flagged by Government as a priority for its transformation package.
Getting to the airport quickly
Finding a more reliable, rapid transit option for getting to-from Auckland Airport will be a crucial test of the plan, not just for the more than 10,000 people who work there but the 14 million plus airline passengers and tourists who use it.
Passengers come to the Airport from across Auckland. There is a 45-minute bus service from the city centre.
The opening of the Waterview Tunnels has helped North Shore travel to-from the Airport.
An early aim is to improve bus services from the Airport to connect to the main trunk rail at Puhinui and then extend bus rapid transit to Howick.
But long-term a fast, dedicated rapid transit service will likely be needed. London has introduced a rapid train service from the centre of London that takes 15 minutes to Heathrow against the 70 minutes by conventional rail on the Piccadilly Line and hour by bus.
EU cities have started building rapid rail services direct to city airports; Bologna in Italy is planning to compliment a 40-minute bus and local rail service that stops along the way with a six minutes rapid rail service direct to the airport.
What some cities have discovered is that light rail services to their airport that stops at street lights and for passengers to hop on and off en route doesn't cut it for getting to an airport, especially if you have suitcases and the train is packed with commuters. Instead, a fast, dedicated and reliable service for getting to airports is preferred.
Melbourne, a city which has traditionally relied on bus to get to-from its airport to the city centre, has started planning a dedicated rapid rail line service to the airport from areas of fast population growth.
How will the mass transit network projects be funded? The regional fuel tax (RFT), infrastructure bonds, targeted rates and value capture has been mentioned as part of the package. Funding as usual will be a critical part of the upcoming debate on Auckland's transformed transport agenda.
But if Aucklanders want to be living in a world-class city, a great place to live, as Mayor Phil Goff has put up as his vision for Auckland, finding a way to pay for the privilege and the enjoyment has to be part of the package.
There should be no debate about that — surely?
- Tony Garnier is an Auckland-based business consultant.