By BERNARD ORSMAN
A start on a new public transport system for Auckland is only months away after a $45 million grant cleared the way for the Britomart project.
The funding almost certainly means work can begin on the Britomart transport terminal in downtown Auckland after nine years of planning and delays.
"To the blessed relief of a lot of Aucklanders, Britomart is go," said Auckland Mayor Christine Fletcher.
Britomart will be followed by work on the North Shore busway and new rail services to Swanson in the west and Papakura in the south - all part of a $1.2 billion public-transport cure for Greater Auckland's traffic woes.
The breakthrough follows a decision by Infrastructure Auckland to make its first major public-transport funding decision with $45 million for Britomart.
Last month, Infrastructure indicated that it would give only between $30 million and $35 million to Britomart, sparking howls of political outrage.
Since then, it has changed its funding formula and come up with a politically acceptable sum, subject to several conditions.
One is that the region gains access to the rail corridors - a deal the Government hopes to wrap up this month with Tranz Rail.
In a spirit of compromise, the Auckland City Council has cut back Britomart's costs from $249 million to $199 million.
When interest charges of $12 million are included, the final cost is expected to be $211 million.
The council is expected to call tenders on Friday from a pre-selected group of seven contractors.
Work could begin before the end of the year and is expected to take 18 months.
Mrs Fletcher said she felt profound relief that finally the region had united to make progress on public transport after nine years.
The plans include building an underground railway station with access from the old Chief Post Office.
Within a block of the railway station, five city bus locations will be centralised at 50 new bus stops.
As part of the cost-cutting, the council has replaced a $26 million subway linking train, bus and ferry services with Queen St with a revised subway and walkway costing $10 million.
The new scheme will provide a 10m covered walkway the length of Queen Elizabeth Square.
At the mid-point of the walkway there will be stairs and lifts to a subway to take commuters to the underground train station.
Not everyone is happy with the outcome.
Automobile Association Auckland regional manager Stephen Selwood said it was good to see progress on a central-city public transport interchange but questions remained about the emphasis on rail, how many people would use Britomart and how many cars it would take off the road.
Auckland mayoral candidate John Banks said the city needed a transport centre but he was nervous about the final cost of the "temple" at the bottom of Queen St, unconvinced about the costs relative to the benefits and worried the contracts would be rushed and poorly executed.
Infrastructure Auckland chairman John Robertson said the funding body had now accepted the council's figures on how many people might use Britomart as the basis for making a $45 million grant.
Only three weeks ago his officers had said there were "no robust" figures for patronage.
National transport spokeswoman Belinda Vernon and the Greens' associate transport spokesman, Keith Locke, welcomed the Infrastructure decision.
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By BERNARD ORSMAN