Before the end of this year, the Government will decide on the route, mode, and delivery for the project for the light rail project, which will run between Auckland's city centre and Māngere, connecting major employment hubs in the city and the airport at each end.
Transport Minister Michael Wood acknowledges the decision has been a long time coming. He first launched the promise of light rail during his campaign for the Mount Roskill by-election in 2016 which brought him into Parliament. Labour campaigned on light rail at the 2017 election, but the move was stymied by Labour's coalition partner New Zealand First in the last term of Government.
"It is no secret that it was in a fairly challenging stage at the end of the last term, and it had the political knockback between parties," Wood says. "We had to have a reset which is effectively what happened this year. But it's put us in a good position to take it to the next stage."
The three options under consideration are:
• Light rail, a modern tram on city streets;
• Light metro, underground in a tunnel under the isthmus, and underground in Māngere and Onehunga, and at street level in other areas; and
• Tunnelled light rail, underground from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill, and then up at street level to Auckland airport.
They were chosen after an assessment by the Auckland Light Rail team from over 50 different options for modes and routes against the project's three objectives: improving accessibility, reducing Auckland's carbon footprint, and unlocking urban development in the corridor.
Not a simple decision
The Auckland Light Rail project team say tunnelled light rail from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill is their recommended option, as it gives the best transport and urban benefit, with the least disruption and the best fit with the network in future. Wood says this first line will provide a base for the additional Waitematā harbour crossing and a line to the Northwest.
"It's also important to understand that this is just the start of light rail lines in Auckland to create a joined-up rapid transit network with our separated bus lanes and heavy rail network — all of which we are currently extending and upgrading."
The three options will be able to accommodate between 19 and 24 per cent of Auckland's growth along the corridor. The key thing about that is it supports us with housing growth, but it also supports us with a more compact urban form," says Wood.
"This is actually one of the more structural things that we can do to reduce emissions, because if you put someone on the fringes of the city, by definition, many of their journeys are going to be long journeys.
"If you build houses next to an amazing rapid transit network, close to schools, employment and recreation, people are going to emit much less by definition."
Each of the three options enable a mode shift away from private vehicles and therefore a reduction in Auckland's carbon emissions.
The light metro and tunnelled light rail options encourage higher numbers of people and therefore result in fewer emissions, however light rail on the surface has less embedded carbon because less concrete and steel is involved in the construction.
"We get to a point of carbon neutrality and start reducing carbon more quickly with surface light rail, but over the long run the others catch up," says Wood. "At 2050, surface light rail is the better option for carbon reduction, but over the long-run, the others are."
Cabinet's decision later this month will weigh up all aspects including climate, cost, disruption, value for money, and the ability to open up housing. "I want to be clear with the trade-offs," says Wood, "and in this case, it's not a simple one."
Opportunity for the private sector. But no PPP
Wood says a public-private partnership (PPP) has been ruled out for the Auckland light rail project, with Cabinet having already decided it will be taken forward using a public service delivery model. This is partly due to the previous iteration of the project floundering during the PPP selection process. Wood says many months could have been spent debating the merits of the delivery model, but for him, the most important thing is to move forward and deliver it.
He adds he also has a personal view that bringing PPP into public transport projects is a little more complex, "because the integration with existing networks and existing public transport operations is more complex if you have another player in the mix."
Wood says the Government is open to PPPs when it stacks up, but stresses that there are "significant opportunities for investment right across the board" for the private sector for this project and other transport projects across New Zealand.
This will be the biggest transport project in New Zealand's modern history, and the start of a broader programme of investing in mass rapid transport, beginning a pipeline of city-wide mass rapid transit work over the coming 20-plus years. That's the first time we've really been able to say that as a Government," he says.
"It offers industry the opportunity to start doing some forward planning. Obviously, the core transport infrastructure job needs to be done that will require both a high level of technical expertise, but also just a lot of work, as well.
"From the broader planning and urban design community, there will be a wholesale urban regeneration along this corridor that will offer opportunities for investment in commercial property, residential property — we are talking about an urban uplift of between 20,000 and 35,000 houses along the corridor."
Community engagement encouraged
Wood says engagement from the community will be important for the project to succeed, and is a core part of the Light Rail team's remit.
It has already been gathering the views of Aucklanders, and has found considerable excitement about light rail and the reduction in carbon footprint. But there are concerns about affordability of use, construction disruption and environmental, cultural, civic and heritage impacts.
He says the master planning phase of the project will be a critical point at which communities are brought in to share their views on what the vision should be for various communities and town centres along the light rail route.
"We want to hear the vision for communities in Eden Terrace, Mt Roskill and Onehunga over the next 50 years, and how we can bring together transport with housing, public open spaces and lively town centres."
Auckland's 2050 public transport network
Transport Minister Michael Wood says his vision for Auckland's transport network in 2050 is one that is clean, carbon-neutral, and connects and enhances communities — instead of bypassing and gutting them, "as our transport network sometimes has in the past. It supports a high level of good quality, compact urban growth, and enables more affordable, accessible places for people to live.
"Fundamentally it enables a good standard of living and enables connection to employment, recreation and to other things that are important for people's lives."
But the key, Wood says, is for a genuinely linked-up public transport network across all aspects of the region that people and freight can move around efficiently.
"That's something we haven't ever quite cracked in Auckland.
"But it's something that all grown up, successful international cities have."
Three options for light rail
Light rail: consisting of modern trams running on tracks embedded into the road but separated from traffic. It would travel totally on the surface. Sometimes that would be on roads and sometimes along the motorway.
The Auckland Light Rail team investigated Light Rail on Dominion Road and on Sandringham Road, and on balance, its investigations favoured Dominion Road.
One consideration was that a light rail route on Sandringham Road would require a significant power cable to be relocated to Dominion Road, which would delay works by up to two years and would mean that businesses and residents on both Dominion Road and Sandringham Road would be affected by construction disruption.
Light metro: a rail-based mode that is grade-separated (it is elevated or underground).
The Light Metro option would travel through tunnels built under densely populated urban areas and on the surface through non-urban areas, such as motorways.
Tunnelled light rail: like light rail, this option would also consist of modern trams, but would be partly tunnelled from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill, with the balance of the route running on the surface (on roads and sometimes along the motorway). It would incorporate underground stations in the city centre and on the isthmus including the University precinct.
For the tunnelled portion, the alignment does not need to follow the road, so the actual route and station locations would be developed in the detailed planning phase, including through consultation with communities, iwi and stakeholders.
History of light rail in Auckland
Electric trams ran from downtown at the Waitematā Harbour and across to Onehunga on the Manukau Harbour. They were then the world's only coast to coast tramway system.
The decision was made to rip up the tramlines and use buses.
Auckland's longest-serving mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, pushed for an underground rail loop known as Robbie's Rapid Rail, including connections to Whangaparāoa, Hobsonville, Howick, the airport and an underground CBD rail loop.
Robbie's Rapid Rail was scuppered by the newly elected National government led by Muldoon.
AT suggested light rail from CBD to Mt Roskill with main roads into the city reaching near capacity.
Mayor Len Brown wanted the focus to stay on getting government approval for the City Rail Link.
During his by-election campaign in Mt Roskill, Michael Wood promised to fast-track a light rail system from Auckland's Wynyard quarter to Mt Roskill.
During the election campaign, Labour pledged it would build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport within a decade.
Then-Transport Minister Phil Twyford announced Cabinet had agreed to suspend the project until after the election because Government parties were unable to reach an agreement, with the Greens in favour but NZ First refusing to support it.
Transport Minister Michael Wood sent light rail back to the drawing board, tasking a group of experts to develop a business case to revive the project.