The Government's latest plans for light rail in Auckland are being cautiously welcomed, but concerns are being raised about the estimated $15 billion cost and the likelihood of the price skyrocketing.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said light rail is a major project, but was worried about the price tag without knowing more detail about long-term impacts for the city centre.
"If we could click our fingers and have it, people would love it, but other people are saying how can we justify this type of money? Is it the right option and is it the right cost?" she said.
National Party leader Judith Collins and transport spokesman David Bennett said the $14.6b preferred option being considered by the Government was an astronomical amount of money.
"This would be by far our biggest ever infrastructure investment and for what? A leisurely trundle up Dominion Rd," they said.
The Opposition MPs said the decision is purely political to allow Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to save face from a 2017 promise to deliver light rail.
Bennett also criticised the Government's urban growth rationale for the light rail route, saying it was costing $600 million per kilometre in an area covering just 10 per cent of Auckland's anticipated growth by 2050.
NZ First leader Winston Peters, whose party blocked the proposal last year when it was in coalition with Labour, said then it was a massive cost blowout and would lead to 10 years of chaos for Auckland.
"Back then Labour was pressing forward with their plans in the coalition Cabinet when the original costs were so farcical that we refused to support it. Not one of the questions we asked about the potential for a blowout in costings were back then seriously answered," he said.
Transport Minister Michael Wood has acknowledged the significant cost of the project, but said an indicative business case concludes that light rail is a necessary investment to lessen congestion, future proof Auckland, support more housing and give people real transport choices.
"We're being open about the pros and cons across the options, like disruption to businesses, value for money, the shape of our public transport network, and the ability to open up housing along the corridor in Mt Roskill, Onehunga and Māngere. These will all be factors we consider before making a decision," he said.
Wood today unveiled the three shortlisted options for the 22km light rail route from the central city to the airport: light rail runs at street level and mingles with traffic ($9b); light metro runs down a dedicated route above or below ground for $16.3b; and a $14.6b tunnelled option is a hybrid of the two.
An establishment unit set up by Wood in March to get the troubled project back on track, has recommended the tunnel option.
Most of the funding is expected to come from the Government, which is also doing the $4.4b City Rail Link, which is facing cost pressures; a $6.7b upgrade of existing rail network over several decades after the CRL opens in 2024; and a new harbour crossing that has ballooned in cost to $15b, and due to be built after 2030.
One political source said the project had become about how much to spend to make light rail work, saying the New Zealand experience on projects like these is the cost doubles.
"I would be amazed if Treasury isn't working out how to cut it off," the source said.
Auckland Business Forum chairman Michael Barnett is not impressed with the latest plans for light rail, calling it another chapter in a story of really shoddy public engagement where the Government will make key decisions before the full business case is done.
"If we get this, what do we miss out on? Will there be any money left for the other projects that Auckland desperately needs, like another harbour crossing? And how much benefit do other transport users get out of it? Will it do anything to ease crippling congestion on Auckland's roads and motorways?"
But Infrastructure New Zealand general manager Clair Edmondson said light rail is a massive catalyst for economic development, will create jobs, reduce travel times and connect Auckland's communities.
"We need to get cracking," she said, saying light rail is important to reduce public transport congestion as Auckland grows to 2.4 million people by 2050.
Dominion Road Business Association manager Gary Holmes welcomed the recommendation for the tunnelled option, saying light rail at street level could destroy businesses along the popular dining and retail strip.
"The real impacts of the City Rail Link have weighed heavily on the minds of our businesses who understandably fear they would not survive the disruption during what would be a multi-year construction period, if light rail at street level was the chosen mode.
"Many of our unique ethnic restaurants and eateries are owned by families who have invested their life savings into creating something special for Auckland. If it is lost, it cannot be replaced," said Holmes.
The cabinet is due to decide before Christmas whether to proceed with light rail, what option to adopt and the next steps forward.
If the Government proceeds, it will be at least two years before a detailed business case, design works, consents are completed and there are shovels in the ground. Construction is expected to take six-to-eight years.