The Minister of Transport has announced deferral of the decision on Auckland Light Rail Transit until after the election.
This looks like a kick for touch after the game is over. There has never been clear justification for light rail. The impact of Covid-19 and its long tail may well be the final whistle in a game with no winners.
The economic rationale for LRT has not been established and the inconsistency of official thinking over the years raises questions over whether it is about providing access to jobs, cutting down on car use, easing congestion, or transforming the CBD as part of a "global city" agenda.
The very different roles and routes proposed over the last decade confirm a lack of clarity of purpose. The 2009 Auckland Transport Plan and 2010 Regional Land Transport Strategy suggested that rapid transit (bus or rail) may be needed in the very long term to relieve commuting congestion on cross-city routes. In contrast, the 2015 Regional Transport Strategy promoted rapid transit to fill the gap left by heavy rail services (including the Central Rail Link) between the inner suburbs and the CBD.
Through a series of studies in 2016 and 2017 Auckland Transport shifted the emphasis yet again, to focus on "high capacity rapid transit" on the Auckland isthmus. It then moved to a much narrower focus in the 2018 Auckland Regional Land Transport Plan, opting for light rail between the CBD (running down Queen St) and the airport at Mangere and between the CBD and Westgate (the Northwest Corridor).
These options were also contained in the final report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), a collaboration between Auckland Council and central government. This, too, was a shift; from the 2017 ATAP report which favoured cross-isthmus rapid transit without expressing a preference for mode.
The final ATAP report committed $8.4bn (to cover heavy rail, busways, and light rail to the airport after 2024) from a $28bn transport package for Auckland for the 10 years to 2028.
In July 2018 the Minister of Transport prioritised the CBD-Airport link, requesting NZTA to prepare a business case and called on the agency to accelerate the project.
Treasury and the Ministry of Transport reported on an early draft of the requested business case in November 2018. The officials noted their expectations for "balanced and robust" economic analysis, a "rigorous process" for considering risks to government, "clearly articulated financial implications", and "appropriate" governance arrangements.
Their advice was redacted from the public report but it was revealing that the NZTA Board was said to be unlikely to be "in a position to resolve all issues that a business case requires as a minimum" at its November meeting.
While the rigorous analysis recommended by Treasury has not surfaced, NZ Infra, a joint venture between Canadian investor CDPQ Infra and the NZ Superannuation Fund, proposed building and running the city-airport light rail. This must have been an appealing prospect for the government, funding the LRT off its books.
The minister subsequently requested that NZ Infra and the NZTA prepare competing proposals. These were received in August and $1.8bn was committed to seed funding against a new $6bn cost estimate for the airport link.
As yet, no decision has been made regarding the preferred partner. However, it is reported that the NZ Infra proposal provides for grade separation at a higher cost again (around $10b).
Despite changing technical and financial parameters, and the uncertainties of a post-Covid world, the NZ Super Fund was reported in early May to remain "enthusiastic". That is not surprising: securing long-term, government-guaranteed returns makes sense in an uncertain economic environment.
It may not make as much sense for taxpayers if the cost of the project and return remain unknown and the need for it decidedly uncertain, because they will be paying the return to the promoters for a very long time.
If nothing else, the initial shock of Covid-19 provides the opportunity – and excuse – to avoid repeating the Central Rail Link experiment. The CRL was never an economically rational project, even at its original $2.3bn budget.
Its impost on ratepayers and taxpayers will be compounded by time and cost overruns and, now, lower-than-expected patronage. Any over-runs on an LRT project which is likely to be budgeted upward of four times as much cost will be far more damaging.
If we are serious about enhancing public transport, perhaps it is time to think about continuing to develop and extend our bus-based system.
This offers the advantage of flexibility in uncertain times, incremental spending on technical improvements in rolling stock and operating advances as and when it is appropriate (and when we can afford it), and the use of largely existing corridors to serve communities and commercial activities across Auckland.
• Dr Phil McDermott is a retired consultant in development planning who has worked for government agencies and the private sector throughout New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific.