After the machines have gone, will life return to the Queen St Canyon?

The streets in Auckland's commercial hub these days are a slalom course. Construction barriers close off one side of them at several points, and road cones channel traffic past them in makeshift single lanes. Down Albert St, past our old abandoned building, the Downtown centre is being demolished and the street lighting is dim. The reason, the construction barriers proudly proclaim, is that work has started on the City Rail Link.

Preparatory work, I think, moving service lines out of the way of the tunnel that will cut and cover its way from Britomart to lower Albert St and up to Wyndham St before going fully underground for the rest of its route.

Meanwhile, the heart of Auckland looks like a body in the first phase of drastic surgery. It lies stunned, wan, with opened wounds and heavy bandaging. The barriers at the most blocked points proclaim the vicinity is still open for business, but I wonder how the lunch bars and other shops are faring. I wonder how bigger cities dealt with the shock of subway construction. I wonder if the champions of this historic project - mayors, councillors, city planners and engineers, past and present - gave much thought to how the eggs would break when they make the omelette.

Will the heartbeat come back into the Queen St canyon? There was already a drift around the corner into Freemans Bay. Take a walk around Victoria Park, the reclaimed bay, these days and you'll notice Fanshawe St seems to be becoming the corporate headquarters of the country. Air New Zealand is there. So is Fonterra. Vodafone is along the street, with another glassy medium-rise under construction in between. Behind them, more cranes are building the new waterfront residential and commercial precinct called the Wynyard Quarter.


Cities are amoebic. Already, you have to wonder whether this rail route is the right one.

I'd be a lot more confident if the national Treasury and the NZ Transport Agency were wholeheartedly backing the operation but it is proceeding with not much more than a dubious nod from John Key and no solid financing for the full scheme. The only reason it is proceeding is that Len Brown was so very effective in his first mayoral term.

The heart of Auckland looks like a body in the first phase of drastic surgery. It lies stunned, wan, with opened wounds and heavy bandaging.

As one who has never had any faith in Auckland's railways I am better placed than most to attest to his achievement. The underground link wasn't his idea by any means. It had been an essential element of every Auckland public transport plan of the previous 50 years and, contrary to the Super City creation myth, there was not much disagreement about it among the "fractious and divided" previous councils.

But the myth gave a new impetus to the project and the amalgamated region's first mayor rode it brilliantly.

Previously, underground rail was something I felt sure Auckland would never see. After Brown had banged the drum for three years the project had acquired an air of inevitability even for me, and the Government was getting on the wrong side of the future. Key's decision to exit that position, as currency traders say, was purely political. The economic advice was still against it.

And still is. In documents attached to this year's Budget, the Treasury makes references to poor quality investment in Auckland and you know what they mean. The best that can be said for the City Rail Link is, build it and they will come. The trouble with "build it and they will come" from an economist's viewpoint is that it is often true.

Entire economies can be distorted by big investments that may not be the most efficient use of the nation's resources but pull activity into and around themselves. The scale of the project becomes self-justifying and the distortion does not matter until someone asks why the economy's return on overall investment is low and it is struggling to keep pace with living standards in the modern world.

As nominations for the local elections closed yesterday and the retiring mayor looked out of his top floor window in the new council building at the corner of Albert and Wellesley, he had a right to feel a surge of pride at the trenches he can probably see better than me on the street.


It wasn't his role to worry about the national economy, and as for the city's transitional wounds? Relentlessly upbeat as he was, he will not suffer the slightest doubt the CBD will recover from its surgery and spring back to life, invigorated by the numbers of people surfacing from the trains beneath it.

He can entertain the hope that the agony and ignominy of his second term will fade in public memory and his name will forever be on the railway. We should give him that.