There is something to commend in the latest version of light rail for Auckland. If we ignore the additional cost for the moment, as this Government seems blithely able to do, putting a line underground is vastly preferable to light rail on streets.
It removes the nightmare of trams running between lanes of traffic in already congested streets such as Dominion Rd, stopping with the traffic at intersection lights and forcing traffic to stop for people crossing to tram stops in the middle of the road.
That was a nightmare that could only be dreamed up by city planners who believe light rail marketing art depicting streets miraculously cleared of all but the odd car. Next time these dreamers are in London, Tokyo, Melbourne or anywhere with an enviable urban rail system, they should look at the streets. They are full of cars.
The reason should be obvious – most people prefer to travel by car. It is not until their route becomes too congested for their patience that they might use public transport, and if enough of them switch to create available space on the road, others will quickly fill.
Road traffic thus tends to remain at an optimum tolerable capacity and, as Aucklanders know, the optimum is fairly high. Traffic on the city's motorways is crawling at peak times. Drivers constantly complain about this but their actions belie their words. They continue to take the car.
They will say, if guilted, they would use public transport if it was any good, which means they have probably never tried it. Auckland's bus service is surprisingly good. I live in a small, fairly distant suburb and a bus comes every 20 minutes. It passes the Northern Busway where I've waited at most three minutes for a connection that gets to the CBD in eight minutes.
Those who say they would use public transport if it was better are probably comparing it to their car, which the best public transport could never match for convenience, comfort, privacy and the ability to go anywhere they might need to go. I usually take the car.
Opponents of more roading implicitly acknowledge its optimum use when they point out, quite rightly, new roads quickly fill up with cars. But they do not realise the same thing happens if they reduce a busy road's capacity. Displaced traffic will find another.
So it is better that the latest light rail scheme puts the line underground from the city to Mt Roskill, before surfacing to continue alongside (not on) the motorway to the airport. But the cost cannot be ignored. The long tunnel would lift the line's estimate from $9 billion to $15 billion.
Whenever we talk billions, we are making a very big bet for an economy or our size. The right infrastructure can add to a country's productive capacity, the wrong sort subtracts wealth. Broadband cable has created wealth, railways lose it. Our national railway survives from one capital injection to the next and governments no longer pretend the next tranche will turn it around.
Rail costs more than it can earn because fixed tracks severely limit the destinations trains can serve. Beats me why anyone would want to convert the Northern Busway to a railway, which has been the plan. Buses can, and do, range more widely when required.
But whether we're contemplating buses or trains, this is a bad time to be making a major investment in public transport. As everyone has noticed, buses are being driven around Auckland these days mostly empty because the roads are within their optimum capacity.
Lockdowns have given more people a taste for working at home. This looks likely to be the most significant social change wrought by Covid-19.
Roads will be less congested, cars will continue to be preferred, owned or on-call, with climate friendlier fuel, self-driven or with sensors enabling drivers to form trains, joining and exiting at will. That, I suspect, is the future for urban transport.
Beware of "visions" though. It's not 10 years since Len Brown persuaded Auckland a rail tunnel from the CBD to Mt Eden was the key to an integrated public transport system.
Now, with that tunnel under way, we're told we need another, longer, duplicating a stretch of an existing line.
Its viability depends on persuading more people to live in an area of the western isthmus that has never attracted much development. I doubt the reason was a lack of public transport. The municipal bus depot was right there.
Let bigger, richer countries indulge in light rail. We are the smallest and most remote of trading nations, we can't afford to lumber our trim little economy with unnecessary costs.