Businesses along Dominion Rd in Auckland are promoting trackless trams to run along the iconic route, saying they are far cheaper and less disruptive than light rail.
Many shopkeepers and restaurants believe they could not survive years of disruption if the Government presses ahead with light rail, according to a recent sentiment survey by the Dominion Rd Business Association.
Association manager Gary Holmes said local businesses are scared about their livelihoods after seeing the financial and mental misery of businesses in the path of the City Rail Link in the central city.
He said the association, with more than 300 members, supports the development of mass transit in principle and likes what is happening with new high-density housing developments, but is not keen on four or five years of disruption to build light rail.
"Dominion Rd has thrived in one of Auckland's most loved and iconic destinations that offers a vibrant and diverse culture experience.
"We don't want to destroy what we know is special about Dominion Rd. It would just become another bland district with no character or culture," said Holmes.
The association believes trackless trams offer the best mass transit solution because they avoid the worst features of light rail - disruption and cost, he said.
"Light rail in Sydney is costing about $120 million per kilometre, whereas trackless trams cost about $6m to $8m per kilometre. They can go in on existing road services and be installed in weeks or months, not years," said Holmes.
Transport Minister Michael Wood said he understood the association's concerns around disruption and expected to have a comprehensive business support package in place before work starts on light rail.
A proposal for a support package for businesses affected by the City Rail Link works has been before Wood since January, but Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck is appalled at the lack of progress. Last month, a long-time Italian restaurant closed, leaving its owner a broken man.
Wood said trackless trams could bring disruption if Dominion Rd has to be dug up to be strengthened and widened.
He encouraged the association to keep engaging with the light rail group he set up to engage with Aucklanders, saying the group is looking at a range of options to inform recommendations to the Government. He did not say if trackless trams are among the options.
It has fallen on Wood's shoulders to get light rail back on track after the flagship transport policy went through a wretched process last term before being finally blocked by NZ First, whose leader Winston Peter said it could cost between $10 billion and $15b and lead to a "decade of chaos".
One new option along the CBD-to-airport route is to run light rail down Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd.
Restaurant owner Grant Zang said businesses want to see improvements made to Dominion Rd but are "really, really worried" when they see businesses being destroyed by the City Rail Link.
Zang has seven restaurants across Auckland, but his Taiwanese restaurant on Dominion Rd is the largest, serving 100 to 150 customers a day.
He has two questions for the Government. How long will the disruption last? And who is going to cover our losses?
Zang said a lot of people just had one restaurant or retail business.
"This is their life. They work really hard. If something happens, what is their future?"
For the past 20 years, Paul Halliwell has owned two hi-fi shops on Dominion Rd, but is currently on a month-by-month lease because of the ongoing uncertainty.
"All the retail businesses that were around us 10 years ago (when he opened a new business) have left and I think it is partly because of this light rail thing. It's quite disruptive when you don't know what is happening.
"When you see what they have done in town over the last few years, it worries me that this is going to take four years and businesses will be pretty much destroyed," said Halliwell.
He said Dominion Rd had become a restaurant area that relied on people driving to the area, saying if the road becomes inaccessible "it is going to turn into a ghost town".
Holmes said parking will have to go for mass transit along Dominion Rd, but some of the savings from trackless trams should be spent on a couple of new carpark buildings.
One of the real concerns raised in the survey, said Holmes, was that a large number of businesses still depend on customers that arrive by car and park close to their premises.
Fears about disruption by Dominion Rd businesses are shared by the Auckland Business Forum, which says the disruption from light rail will be on an unprecedented scale in New Zealand.
In a letter to the light rail group, forum chairman Michael Barnett said the disruption will affect one-sixth of the arterial road capacity on the isthmus, plus sections of the CBD, for eight years or more.
"Disruption and impacts must be front and centre in future public engagement. The CRL experience will offer a wealth of insights into the challenges that disruption will present," he said.
Former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Sir Michael Cullen has also warned the Government about the disruption light rail would cause and suggested electric buses as a better solution.
"It 's worth reminding ourselves in all of this that there are inherent problems with light rail. It is dependent on fixed infrastructure which means a higher exposure to disruption from many causes. It is not fast - unless practically everything goes underground with a corresponding escalation of costs and disruption," he told the Herald.
Supporters of light rail have airily dismissed the enormous cost and disruption as of little consequence and arrived at the solution before adequately analysing the problem, said Cullen, a former Minister of Finance and board member of Auckland Transport.
What are trackless trams?
Trackless trams are like articulated light rail trams that do not run on tracks, but on existing roads. They have rubber tyres, are electric and optically guided by GPS positioning along an invisible track.
The technology was first developed in China about four years ago and Perth is looking to build a 7km line from the northern suburbs to Scarborough Beach.
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, said trackless trams are neither a tram or a bus, rather a high-speed rail innovation transforming a bus into something with all the best features of light rail.
Writing for the academic publication, The Conversation, Newman said trackless trams avoid the worst features of light rail - disruption and cost.
"It can slide into the station with millimetre accuracy. It passed the ride quality test when I saw kids running up and down while it was going at 70km/h. You never see this on a bus due to the sway," Newman said about a ride on a trackless tram in China.