Six years ago at her first public outing as party leader, Jacinda Ardern promised supporters at a rally on Auckland’s waterfront that Labour would build light rail to Mt Roskill in four years and to the airport and West Auckland within a decade.
Six years later, on March 30, her predecessor as Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, stood in front of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and announced a plan to begin construction of a new Waitematā Harbour crossing by 2029.
What he didn’t expand on was each of the five options costing up to $25 billion - either a tunnel, bridge or combination of both - contains a plan for light rail to Takapuna.
Hipkins took a leaf out of Ardern’s 2017 “Let’s do this” playbook, promising “shovels will be in the ground within six years”, saying parts of the new crossing project could be delivered within the following decade.
The announcement was met with cries of “this is a distraction from Government failures” by opposition MPs and cynicism from others.
“This Government can’t be trusted to deliver a pizza, let alone a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project,” Stephen Schultz said in a letter to the Herald.
Six years after Ardern excited adoring supporters with her vision for a world-class transport system, not a single metre of light rail has been built.
Since then the cost of light rail has soared from $3.7 billion in 2018 to anywhere between $14.6b and $29.2b and plans for light rail out west were quietly dropped in 2019.
Transport Minister Michael Wood, who stood alongside Hipkins at the latest plan to ease the city’s transport woes, said the Government has been clear that a new harbour crossing would include light rail.
“We announced in January 2022, that we were moving ahead with an integrated transport network for Auckland that includes our work on the alternative Waitematā Harbour Connections, Auckland Light Rail, rapid transit to the North-West, major improvements to the heavy rail network, and the Eastern Busway. This is why each scenario includes a light rail connection,” he said.
Wood said while the Northern Busway has been a great success, huge ongoing growth on the North Shore means it will not have enough capacity by the 2030s and light rail will be part of a broader network.
Labour and National’s new intensification rules allowing homes of up to three storeys 1m from the boundary on most sites without resource consent could result in hundreds of thousands of new properties on the North Shore, according to council research.
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown is sceptical about light rail, baulking at a price tag of up to $29b the Treasury put on the new mode to the airport and wants to wait and see what impact the $5.5b City Rail Link will have before forging ahead.
He thinks the new intensification rules make the need for light rail on specific routes redundant and wants an “Integrated Transport Plan” for Auckland and he is working up with Wood to consider the impacts of light rail and moving the city’s port.
Labour would have to win at least the next two elections to make a start on building light rail to Takapuna because National is committed to scrapping light rail in Auckland. National transport spokesman Simeon Brown said the party’s bottom line for a new harbour crossing is more vehicle lanes to reduce congestion and improve reliability for freight users, and improved public transport.
He said National will start construction before 2029, but when pressed on when Brown said the date will be confirmed as part of the party’s wider transport policy heading into October’s general elections.
North Shore councillor Chris Darby is not surprised the Government is expanding its light rail horizons to Takapuna, saying “rail to the Shore” has been his mantra for the past 15 years.
The Northern Busway had been future-proofed for light rail, said Darby, but to convert a busway to light rail would mean taking sections out of action during construction, which official documents warn would cause a “significant impact” and cripple the busway for years.
Darby would like to see work done on taking light rail towards the Glenfield ridge through to Sunset Rd, crossing to Rosedale and the North Harbour industrial estate and back towards Albany. This would compliment the work of the Northern Busway, he said.
Wood acknowledged the new harbour crossing, estimated to cost between $15b and $25b, represents a substantial investment but is vague about how to pay for it.
“As well as government funding, a wide range of tools are being considered. The indicative business case will identify a short list of funding and financing options that will be explored in greater detail as the project progresses,” he said.
The Government’s latest mega-transport plan for the Super City adds to an already eye-watering transport bill running into the tens of billions of dollars.
On top of the $15b to $25b for a new harbour crossing, light rail to the airport is costed at between $14.6b and $29.2b. The latest blowout for the City Rail Link is costing the Government an extra $500m and once it opens, according to the Auditor-General, it will cost a further $7.5b to upgrade the existing rail network to reach its full capacity of carrying 54,000 passengers an hour.
Wood confirmed the Government plans to build rapid transit - most likely light rail - to the northwest which will cost billions of dollars.
Then there’s the latest Government directive to slash the number of kilometres Aucklanders drive in their cars by nearly a third - the equivalent of 4.5b kilometres each year - by 2035. There are no costs yet, but the investments needed will run into billions of dollars.
For example, an Auckland Transport report last year said it would cost about $5b to increase cycling’s share of travel by distance from 0.4 per cent to about 5 per cent over the next decade.
Last month, Hipkins said projects like light rail to the airport would be staged and align with other large-scale transport investments, particularly the second Waitematā Harbour crossing.
“The Waikato Expressway started in 1993, with the Bombay Hills to Mercer construction, and was only finished last year,” said Hipkins.
John Tookey, Professor of Construction at Auckland University of Technology, said he was not being mean but would be surprised if anything gets built with the construction of a new harbour crossing a long way off and big calls to be made.
“My concern is what we have here is the potential for an almighty political football…it’s going to be an operation for a minimum of two political cycles.
“This is big. It’s going to be a massive undertaking. The very easy option politicians can take in the absence of the intestinal fortitude necessary is you kick it down the track and let someone else decide in a few years’ time.
“I would be very pleased if we can come up with a decision within the foreseeable future because the implications are huge.”
The release of the five options is the latest in a long line of studies and plans for a new harbour crossing - the last being the walking and cycling bridge costing $785 million that swallowed $51m on consultants and design work before being scrapped in October 2021 by its instigator, Michael Wood.
Tookey said there are pros and cons with each of the five options and has no particular preference, but said the city is probably going to need both rail and road because the amount of traffic on the existing bridge will need to be scaled back in future.
In terms of construction, he said, tunnels are easier to maintain but more costly, while bridges are easier to do but more costly to maintain because they get beaten up by the weather.
Marrying up road or rail tunnels to existing infrastructure also presents geotechnical challenges, said Tookey. He said the gradients for rail would require burrowing long tunnels to go under the harbour, and anything going to the Devonport peninsula would create huge problems with traffic integration.
Tookey said from an economic perspective, the benefits are massive and stretch well beyond the here and now, citing the 150 years of benefit from Premier Sir Julius Vogel’s rail infrastructure and the early naysayers being proved wrong about the benefits of the Waterview road tunnel that has changed how people get around Auckland.
He said it is possible to begin construction of a new harbour crossing by 2029, but added it is going to be a huge financial challenge with potential “showstoppers”, such as economic conditions and other issues impacting scope and scale.
Grant Kirby, who was project director for the Britomart train station and early work on the Eastern Busway, is keen for greater vehicle access across the harbour.
He said the Government’s plans for light rail - mostly underground on the route to the airport - is more like metro rail, saying the better option is heavy rail with the advantages of carrying more people and an existing network.
If Kirby had his way, he would build a heavy rail tunnel from Britomart to Smales Farm.
Writing in the Herald, Tim Welch, a senior lecturer in urban planning at Auckland University, said some scepticism is warranted about the latest plans given a long history of studying, gathering feedback and then doing nothing about a second harbour crossing.
Since 1998, there have been eight studies into a new harbour crossing, according to the NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi.
With the projected finishing dates from 2039 to 2044 coming a few years before the Government’s Emission Reduction Plan’s 2050 target for net zero emissions, Welch said a more sustainable solution would be to introduce a CBD congestion charge and reallocate lanes on the existing bridge for public transport, cycling and walking.
“This would reduce the number of CBD car trips and contribute to meeting those climate goals. If a second crossing is still needed, taking this more immediate action would at least offer additional and more climate-friendly travel options in the meantime.”
Said Wood: “Aucklanders and businesses have made it clear that the biggest barrier to the success of Auckland is persistent congestion, and after decades of inaction our Government is on track to fix it.
“The additional Waitematā Harbour connections, for which construction will begin in 2029, will provide a future-proofed solution for people wanting to travel across Te Waitematā be it by car, bus, light rail, walking, cycling, or truck as fast as possible. Aucklanders have consistently told us they want these choices.”
Public consultation on the five options closes on May 1 and the Government will confirm the preferred option in June.
What are the five options?
The first has tunnels for light rail and road traffic running east of the existing bridge. Light rail would connect to Takapuna and onto Smales Farm via the Devonport peninsula. The existing bridge would be used by cars, buses, walking and cycling. It is the most expensive option costing an estimated $25b and takes 15 years to build.
The second is a bridge for light rail, walking and cycling, and three lanes for vehicles running parallel to the existing bridge. Light rail would run to Takapuna via Akoranga. This is the cheapest option at $15b and takes 10 years to build..
The third is a tunnel for light rail to the west via Birkenhead, Northcote and Akoranga station to Takapuna and a new road bridge for traffic, walking and cycling to the east of the existing bridge, which would be kept for local traffic and buses. The cost is $20b and takes 15 years to build.
The fourth is a new bridge next to the existing bridge for light rail, walking and cycling landing at Sulphur Beach and a new traffic tunnel between the central motorway and Akoranga Drive. Both are to the east of the existing bridge. The cost is $20b and takes 15 years to build.
The fifth is a variation on option four with a new light rail, walking and cycling bridge and a new road tunnel, again running to the east of the existing bridge. The cost is $20b and takes 15 years to build.