Transport Minister Phil Twyford has confirmed a Cabinet decision on the Auckland light rail project will be made "shortly", countering a suggestion by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters yesterday that the ambitious project had been suspended.
However, Twyford dodged questions in Parliament this afternoon from National Party transport spokesman Chris Bishop, who sought confirmation of suggestions the cost of the project was blowing out.
Technically two separate projects, the light rail proposal involves a 22-kilometre track from the Auckland CBD through the city's central and southern suburbs to the airport, and a second line to be built later, linking West Auckland with the CBD.
Total costing for the two projects has been put at near $6 billion but progress has stalled since the 2017 election when Twyford was suggesting light rail development would be under way by the time of the 2020 election, scheduled for September 19.
Since then, the project has faced various delays, including the unexpected offer by NZ Infra – a consortium involving the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and a Canadian pension fund with infrastructure project experience – to build the Auckland-to-airport link on a private-public partnership model rather than having it overseen by the government's road and rail authority, the New Zealand Transport Agency.
The NZ Infra bid offers the government a chance to fund the project from sources other than its own balance sheet but critics fear it will lock Auckland transport users into a century-long repayment schedule with too many inbuilt uncertainties and the potential for non-government ownership to frustrate public transport policy.
Heavy rail preferred
NZ First has also been less than enthusiastic about the project.
"It's not going to happen in the immediate term," Peters said yesterday. "We've always been for heavy rail around this country. Our programme is on target, as you know, and light rail has been suspended in terms of planning for the immediate future."
However, Twyford made clear the suspension only related to the recent period of the government's Covid-19 response and that there were still discussions to be had with the NZ First and Green parties.
"The decision on Auckland light rail was on hold for a number of weeks while the Cabinet was fully focused on Covid-19," said Twyford, in comments supplied by his office to BusinessDesk. "The Cabinet will shortly decide who will be the preferred provider for Auckland light rail; the NZ Infra consortium or the New Zealand Transport Agency's proposal.
"Part of the Cabinet process involves consultation with coalition partners, which will begin again shortly."
Asked by Bishop in Parliament whether he agreed with a statement by Peters that the light rail project "doesn't make sense," Twyford said he declined to express a view about comments made by Peters as leader of the NZ First party. Around the Cabinet table there were "different views between parties, and within parties on this issue, as with any issue," he said.
'Only the first step'
Twyford sought to decline answering a further question on Peters' view that the light rail project budget had "blown out" but was required to do so by Speaker Trevor Mallard.
"I'm not going to venture a view because the matter is subject to a Cabinet process," the minister said.
He also reiterated that the choice of a model and partner for the project was only the first step in the process of confirming how and who would do the work of building an Auckland light rail service.
"There will be ample opportunity for New Zealand and overseas firms to bid for the design, the construction and the delivery of the project," Twyford said.