Auckland's $4.4 billion City Rail Link faces ballooning costs and may not open on time after enduring 205 days of Covid-19 lockdowns and restricted working conditions.
The pandemic has also led to the city's public transport trips plummeting from 100 million trips pre-Covid to 64 million and threatens to push back the opening of the Pūhoi to Warkworth highway from Queens Birthday Weekend next year.
City Rail Link Ltd chief executive Dr Sean Sweeney said the project is still working towards a 2024 completion date but added "it is inevitable that the pandemic will impact on costs and timing".
He said since the first lockdown in March last year, the project has endured an "awful lot of disruption", comprising 205 days of lockdowns or restricted working conditions under levels 4, 3, 2.5 and 2.
The biggest challenge remained Covid and its very long shadow, he said.
"Will it be contained or will we be faced again with further lockdowns and restriction conditions for work that disrupt our programme," he said.
Sweeney said work has started on getting a clear picture of how significant the impact will be with the aim of having clarity by the end of the year.
As well as the impact on work sites, the CRL is having to manage rising costs for materials, supply chain issues, particularly shipping, and getting skilled workers from overseas in a very long queue for the few places in MIQ, he said.
The City Rail Link is a 3.4km underground rail line running from Britomart to Mt Eden jointly funded by Auckland Council and the Government. Work started in June 2016. In early 2019 the cost shot up by $1b to $4.4b.
Sweeney said the council and the Government had been briefed in detail about the problems facing the project. A further cost blowout could be a serious headache for the council, which has limited borrowing capacity and had Covid blow a $750m hole in budgets out of 2024.
The CRL is not alone when it comes to problems with transport projects in Auckland. The second biggest project, the $1.4 billion Eastern Busway, has been put back by two years because of a funding wrangle between Auckland and Wellington.
What's more, Auckland Transport chairwoman Adrienne Young-Cooper has told councillors public transport continues to be "significantly impacted" by Covid-19 and it will be years before the numbers return to pre-Covid levels because demand and travel patterns, particularly to the city centre, have changed.
She said the ongoing impact of the border being closed, lack of international students and behavioural changes meant AT was unable to meet the target of 80 per cent pre-Covid patronage levels in the 2020-2021 financial year.
Public transport trips fell to 64 million in the 12 months to June 2021, with the 48.7m bus trips down 18.7 per cent on the previous year, 11.1m train trips down 36.2 per cent and 4.2m ferry trips down 15.5 per cent.
"Patronage reached 74 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels and it is expected to be several years before PT returns to pre-Covid levels," said Young-Cooper.
In 2019, PT patronage reached the milestone of 100 million trips.
Young-Cooper told the Herald AT is planning for how living in the next phase of Covid will be and what that means for public transport.
"The issues are about what is the role of the central city, how are people going to commute, where are tertiary institutions going to go," said Young-Cooper, adding figures showed 40 per cent of the people who can work from home want to work from home some of the time.
One year ago the thought was of a big lockdown and the country would come out of it, "but now we realise we have got certain uncertainty", she said.
AT is actively investigating how to attract new and existing customers to boost the number of trips of buses, trains and ferries. Financial incentives include short-term pricing offers and a $50 HOP credit to previously regular train customers who have not used a train since the KiwiRail track renewal work.
Other initiatives include a "back on track" campaign to win back rail passengers following the disruptive rail track renewal programme, secondary and tertiary student campaigns and a new video to overcome bias associated with public transport.
AT chief executive Shane Ellison said AT has been running to a Saturday timetable through level 4 and now level 3 lockdown, which had meant using double-decker buses on some routes, such as the Northern Busway, because they are the only buses used by the operators.
Waka Kotahi national manager of infrastructure delivery Andy Thackwray said the level 4 lockdown shut down all non-essential works on the Pūhoi to Warkworth four-lane highway and impacted on construction but it's too early to say if it will impact the opening date.
"Waka Kotahi will continue to work closely with the Northern Express Group (NX2) which is in charge of the construction of Ara Tūhono to understand the full impacts," he said.