The roll-out of light rail across Auckland is set to dominate the transport debate for the foreseeable future, writes Tony Garnier.

It will be the job of NZTA to make light rail happen, more or less in a parallel to its responsibility to Government to design, build and manage Auckland's motorway network.

When around 500 NZ and overseas supplier industry representatives recently packed out a NZ Transport Agency briefing on Auckland's light rail plans, it would seem they sensed something big was in the wind.

Or was it just curiosity — to see whether the Government's announced plans for a rapid transport network in Auckland were for real and going to be quickly converted into runs on the board?

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"We want the best and brightest in the industry to be part of this first for New Zealand, our largest ever infrastructure project," NZTA head Fergus Gammie informed the gathering.

Early market engagement will help establish a robust and open process to ensure all options for procurement and financing are considered in the delivery of what Gammie says will be a world-class rapid transport system that benefits Auckland and the rest of NZ.

The NZTA, through its independent board and new chair Michael Stiassny, has been given the responsibility by the Labour-led Government for leading the delivery of light rail and will be the decision-maker on the project.

There are three project partners, Auckland Council (AC), Auckland Transport (AT) and HLC (Houses, Land, Community).

HLC is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of Housing NZ tasked to deliver the Auckland housing programme. A key role will be delivering housing development opportunities to support urban growth along the proposed light rail routes, particularly in Māngere and Mt Roskill.

As custodians of the Auckland Unitary Plan, AC's role will be to lead the urban development framework, planning and decision-making regarding corridor land use to optimise development opportunities aligned with light rail, as well as responsibility for regulatory consent.

AT's specific role will be to prepare a Rail Safety Case for NZTA to review and approve, and to input practical and customer-centric "whole of transport system planning, design and operations".

Two government agencies also have key roles. The Ministry of Transport will lead legislative amendments needed to support light rail. Although NZTA will be responsible for preparing the business case for light rail, Treasury will advise on budget/appropriations — affordability, core Crown debt, value for money — and also public-private partnership (PPP) options.

The seeming complexity of the governance arrangements involving multiple agencies, roles and responsibilities — against the obvious business-like option to establish a single dedicated special purpose vehicle (SPV) "Auckland Light Rail Ltd" company, as has been done for the CRL project — suggest a project with a high level of risk.

The bottom line, however, is clear. It will be the job of NZTA to make light rail happen, more or less in a parallel to its responsibility to Government to design, build and manage Auckland's motorway network.

The outcome or legacy Gammie is wanting NZTA to create is to make light rail a key part of an integrated public transport system that links communities and supports their development.

Against the scale of big infrastructure Auckland has built over the past 70 years — Harbour Bridge, Airport, motorway network and tunnels — Gammie envisages the light rail rapid transit network in Auckland will be unparalleled in its size, cost and ambition. "It is set to deliver a public transport network and urban development transformation that will focus and connect the city's growth for decades to come."

The initial network will comprise:

● A light rail line from the City Centre (Britomart) to Aotea Square, Mt Roskill, Onehunga, Māngere Centre and Auckland Airport employment precinct.

● A western light rail line from the City Centre to Aotea, Karangahape, Lincoln Road, Westgate and Kumeū/Huapai.

An adjunct project includes a rapid bus priority route (future-proofed for rapid rail) from the airport to Puhinui train station by 2021 (linking to train services to the city centre), and extending by 2030 a rapid transit service from Puhinui to Botany and south-eastern suburbs (see separate Airport access story).

The Government has already committed $1.8b in seed funding to progress the network within 10 years and left open the possibility of private funding — a much bigger capital investment will be needed, likely to be around $6 billion-plus judging from the cost of other city light rail systems.

The NZ Super Fund has put its hand up to build, operate and own the light rail system. It has put forward an unsolicited proposal to form an international consortium of infrastructure investors to carry out the work with CDPQ Infra, who are developing Montreal's 26-station light rail network, as a proposed partner.

But there are no promises the Super Fund proposal will be accepted — and that's far from the end of the project's procurement story.

First, other interested parties have also been invited to express their interest and provide suggestions for a procurement process and the factors they believe are critical to the project's success.

NZTA indicates it will develop a process to assess those proposals.

Second, a business case for the City to Māngere and City to Kumeū projects is under way which includes identifying the opportunities that integrating light rail with urban development enables. Project notes indicate that both the project cost and timing for delivery will become clearer as the business case and procurement strategy progresses.

Third, the full scope of the project is dynamic and a work in progress.

Extending the western light rail corridor from Westgate to Kumeū reflects the fast-paced housing growth and congested roads in this part of Auckland — with a further 25,000 homes projected by 2032.

Similar logic applies to the faster-than-projected housing growth occurring in the Unitary Plan's designated Silverdale-Dairy Flat-Wainui precinct, including Whangaparāoa Peninsula.

In a recent report, council chief economist David Norman notes that total dwellings consented are up 27 per cent compared to a year earlier, with almost all the growth in the four areas designated for intensified housing and business growth — Drury, West Auckland and Silverdale and long term Warkworth.

He notes people by and large prefer to live closer to jobs, infrastructure that works, public transport, schools, shops and other amenities. As a result, developers are showing a preference for delivering development in brownfield areas.

"This highlights that people value rapid transit access, and that development enabled by the unitary plan is responding," says Norman. But as every Aucklander knows, the existing transport infrastructure serving these areas is already heavily congested.

Using Norman's logic there is a clear demand — of similar magnitude to the case for the western corridor extension to Kumeū — for a rapid rail line to the North Shore, extending to Silverdale and possibly Warkworth and taking advantage of the long-proposed third Harbour crossing.

The North Shore busway is already future-proofed for rapid rail, and could be included in the proposed widening of the Northern motorway from Albany to Silverdale to help ease the traffic congestion now creeping well into the working day.

Like Kumeū, a further 27,000-plus houses and 100,000 residents are planned in the Silverdale area over the next 30 years.

The point: Auckland's under-planning against its fast-paced growth curve is legendary. It happened when we built the Harbour Bridge in the 1950s, requiring clip-on lanes from day one. It happened when provision for public transport was removed from the motorway network proposed in the 1960s, and tramways were ripped up. It has happened on the Central Rail Link (CRL) project, with stations not having enough platform length to cope with demand for longer trains.

The CRL example appears to have been rescued just in time.

Without a bit more foresight in light rail planning, could Auckland be about to make the same mistake again? Will we fail to learn from the experience of numerous other cities that have short-changed their introduction of a light rail system and are now playing catch-up big time?

If light rail is to be Auckland's 21st century transformational circuit breaker, let's put all our cards on the table and commit to do the build once and do it properly.

We are heading to become a city of 2 million-plus by 2028 — almost 10 years ahead of projections made as recently as 2010.

Our grandchildren deserve to be given a legacy they would like to thank us for and not be yet another generation of Aucklanders whose lives become pre-occupied with "catch-up" and fixing past failures.

Sydney's light rail: Exisiting inner west route and CBD and South East light rail, expected to be opened next year.
Sydney's light rail: Exisiting inner west route and CBD and South East light rail, expected to be opened next year.

Lessons from other cities

There are around 60 cities worldwide with light rail systems integrated with other public transport services. Most started this century and most are extending further into city suburbs because patronage has outstripped planning predictions.

NZTA wants Auckland's light rail to be of a comparable standard to those in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Portland and Manchester. There are lessons for Auckland from these and numerous other cities that have established and are expanding light rail systems:

● Sydney — Took from 1991 to 1997 to build a 12.8km line with 23 stations. In its first year, 2010/11, it attracted 2.7 million passengers. In 2016/17, passenger numbers were up to 10 million. Run as a PPP and despite a cost blowout from $1.5b to 2.1b when it opened, two further lines are under construction, one is due to open this year and a further four lines, including a new system connecting suburbs in western Sydney.

● Manchester — Took from 1982 to 1988 to decide to build a light rail system which opened in 1992 on 30km of converted rail track. The immediate success of the system has meant expansion has been a key strategy of Greater Manchester planners, with a programme of 5 phased extensions under way to provide 92km of light rail track.

● Denver — A car-choked city that overcame years of distrust by opening 8.5km of light rail in 1994, and now has eight lines that cost US$7.6b with 76km of track with extensions planned. Run as a PPP it combines private funding, local tax dollars and state and federal grants. And it happened, says Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (who championed the systems extension in the early 2000s), because Coloradans were willing to set aside crippling rivalries and make some big collective investments in themselves.

● Phoenix — Approved in 2000, construction of a 32km line started in early 2005 and opened in 2008 with 28 stations. Part of an integrated metro public transit system, linking three cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, the system has been extended to 42km with 35 stations. Seven new lines are planned in a phased construction programme out to 2034. The system is funded through state and federal money, a sales tax and around 44 per cent from fare box revenue — one of the highest in the US's light rail system — and is branded as "a machine to transform urban life".

● Gold Coast — Proposed in 1996 and opened in 2014, patronage on the 14km system costing about Aus$1.6b has grown from 6.3m in 2014/15 to 8m in 2016/17. Run as a PPP consortium of 5 major transport and financing groups, 4 extensions are under way or planned that will add a further 20km of track. Revenue includes taxes generated from property values uplift.

The messages for Auckland are clear: Expect cost blowouts, but also higher than projected patronage. With Auckland's population on target to be above 2 million by 2030 and 3 million by 2050, if light rail is to be used as the public transport and urban transformation vehicle for Auckland, then a long-term vision, strategy and roll-out would seem to be required.

The construction industry would also welcome the certainty of seeing a confirmed pipeline of work for the next 10-20 years. Or should they be like most other Aucklanders and take a chance that Auckland is finally getting past its decades of transport debate and committing to ongoing forward-thinking and ambitious action to build a world-class integrated transport system that links roads and public transport?

Getting to the airport quickly

Light rail as a primary mode for getting to Auckland Airport appears to be off the table.

Instead, NZTA is designing the light rail system primarily to link communities and support their growth and development as places to live, work and play.

That's how successful light rail services have been developed in other cities, and the change of emphasis away from encouraging use of light rail as a service for getting to-from the airport makes sense. Who wants to lug suitcases, kids, surfboards and golf clubs on a suburban light rail service, which in peak hours is crowded with workers and stops frequently?

Passengers come to the Airport from across Auckland and beyond. There is a 45-minute bus service from the city centre, and a dedicated service from North Shore and Manukau. The opening of the Waterview Tunnels has helped North Shore people travel directly to and from the airport.

The Government wants rapid bus services from the airport to connect to the main trunk rail at Puhinui in time for the America's Cup and Apec in 2021. With the bus taking 10 minutes, and an efficient connection to a train, the total trip time is projected to be around 40 minutes. Long-term a rapid transit (bus/light rail) service from the airport to Botany and Howick is planned.

If Auckland is serious about providing rapid transfer service, a dedicated line will be needed. London has introduced a rapid train service that takes 15 minutes to Heathrow against the 70 minutes by conventional rail and hour by bus. EU cities have started building direct rapid rail services.

● Tony Garnier is an Auckland-based business consultant.