The Labour Government's failure to deliver on light rail in Auckland last term has brought a new minister and a new plan to get the multi-billion dollar project back on track. Super City reporter Bernard Orsman explains Light Rail Mark II.
What is light rail?
Light right is the modern-day equivalent of trams, which once carried more passengers than today's combined public transport network of buses, trains and ferries. At the time, Auckland's population was 500,000. Today it is 1.7 million.
Light rail is a form of urban mass transit that runs at street level, mingles with traffic and is becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world.
Light metro is a variation of light rail that runs above or below ground and does not mix with traffic.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern championed light rail in 2017. What went wrong?
After promising to build light rail to the airport within 10 years and to Westgate in West Auckland (abandoned in 2019), the Labour-led Government and former Transport Minister Phil Twyford went down a rabbit hole.
At first, Labour directed the NZ Transport Agency to take over from Auckland Transport and lead work on light rail, then stopped the process after receiving an unsolicited bid from NZ Infra, a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian pension fund. This pitched NZTA against NZ Infra.
No one in Auckland had a clue what was going on and when the two bids reached Cabinet last year, NZ First blocked a recommendation to go with the NZ Infra scheme, believed to be an extremely expensive metro system guaranteeing a commercial return to the fund and Canadians.
Back on track
New Transport Minister Michael Wood has promised to resurrect light rail, and this time involve Aucklanders in the process.
The Mt Roskill MP is not underestimating the scale of the challenge, telling his colleagues in a Cabinet paper light rail "is the largest and most complex infrastructure project in New Zealand".
Where to from here?
First up, the Government is setting up an establishment unit with an ambitious six-month timetable to engage with Aucklanders and mana whenua to decide the mode, route and cost estimates for an indicative business case for Cabinet to consider later this year. The unit will also decide who will deliver light rail - City Rail Link Ltd, which is developing the expertise for an infrastructure project on the scale of light rail, but reaching a critical phase on its own project; or a new venture with Auckland Council.
Former Manukau City chief executive Leigh Auton has been appointed chair of the unit. Other appointments have still to be made to the board.
The unit will not be able to recommend anything other than light rail from the central city to the airport. Heavy rail to the airport has been ruled out by the Government.
What is known about light rail at this stage?
Wood told a public meeting this month that light rail is not a "point-to-point city to the airport" project, but about supporting communities, planned growth in Māngere, Onehunga and Mt Roskill and integration with Auckland's current and future transport network.
The so-called city centre to Māngere project is planned to become the backbone for rapid transit (heavy rail/light rail/dedicated busway) to the North Shore and West Auckland.
The big issues to be thrashed out
Light rail or light metro? Street-level light rail was favoured in the early days by Auckland Transport. This allows for more stations along the 23km route, is cheaper, but awfully disruptive to communities and business during construction, which Wood said will take six to eight years.
Light metro was favoured by NZ Infra. Its scheme was understood to be mostly underground between the central city and Mt Roskill with about 14 stops and a journey time of about 30 minutes to the airport.
NZ First leader Winston Peter said the scheme would cost between $10 billion and $15b and lead to a "decade of chaos".
Whatever mode is chosen, the route from Mt Roskill will straddle Highway 20 to Onehunga, Māngere and the airport.
Dominion Rd - Auckland's second busiest bus corridor - was initially envisaged as the street-level route through the isthmus, but Sandringham Rd has now been suggested because of its proximity to a large-scale housing redevelopment by Kāinga Ora at the southern end.
Because light rail at street level is typically kerb-protected in the middle of the road, right turns for motorists in and out of Dominion or Sandringham Rds will not be possible.
It is understood there are two options at the city end, starting at Wynyard Quarter or the new Aotea station being built as part of the $4.4b City Rail Link.
Either option presents big challenges. Wynyard Quarter is on reclaimed land and poses problems for building underground. Then there's the route from Wynyard Quarter to downtown, which could comfortably run along Fanshawe St before hitting a bottleneck at Customs St and cause massive disruption on Queen St.
Previous plans included an underpass at the intersection of Queen St and Karangahape Rd to manage the gradient.
Work is well advanced on the Aotea Station, which makes connecting it to light rail or light metro tricky to say the least. Changing the current work programme would have a major impact on the project and disruption in the central city.
How much will it cost and how will it be funded?
The cost of light rail has risen from an early estimate of $2.3b to $3.8b to between $10b and $15b for light metro.
After NZ Infra promised to fully fund light rail in return for development rights and a commercial return, the Government has gone back to a "public service delivery" model with $1.8b set aside as seed funding. Wood has called for a "significant Crown contribution" to fund light rail.
A Cabinet paper says the Government does not have "robust cost estimates ... but we know it will be a high cost".
The NZ Super Fund said it will not be involved in delivering the project, but remains open to exploring options "for applying our investment approach to other projects to help New Zealand bridge its infrastructure deficit".
The key players
Michael Wood is the salesman who has acknowledged the Government made a hash of things last term and must win the hearts and minds of Aucklanders over the next six months. "Ultimately you can judge us on the progress by year's end," he said.
The rookie minister is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the main power broker will be Finance and Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson, who will bring a hard-nosed edge to the economics, practicalities and politics at play. Let's not forget, Robertson's home town of Wellington is also crying out for $6.4b to fund light rail and other transport projects under the banner of "Let's Get Wellington Moving".
After picking up the microphone in 2017 and promising light rail to the airport and West Auckland, the Prime Minister has been strangely quiet about an infrastructure project to rival the Think Big projects of the Muldoon era.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has ushered a few soundbites in favour of light rail, but left the issue to his former Labour colleagues. His only commitment is not to put a cent of ratepayers' money on the table.
Leigh Auton has the daunting task of pulling the rabbit out of the hat in six months. He has strong Auckland connections and an inclusive manner, but has never overseen a project of this scale.
Aucklanders are key to the success or failure this time around. But whether Wood and co can build what he calls a "social licence" with Aucklanders ground down by orange traffic cones and years of disruption in the central city remains to be seen.
Wood puts it another way: "Aucklanders know that we will choke on our own growth without significant investment in mass transit."
Where do other parties stand on light rail?
National does not support light rail. Transport spokesman Michael Woodhouse said the party's position at the election was to build heavy rail to the airport from Puhinui and Onehunga, bus rapid transit from Onehunga to the central city and invest in other rail initiatives, including a fourth main line and electrification to Pokeno.
He said light rail represents everything that is wrong with the Government - "big talk but useless on delivery", saying Labour has wasted $35m on the project since 2017.
The Greens are all for street-level light rail, saying it can deliver the benefits of a light metro system at lower cost. "Street-level light rail is also more easily accessible for people with mobility issues and avoids the significant property purchases and disruption that comes with tunnelling and building underground stations," transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said.
The establishment unit will be unable to complete its work in six months and will be given an extension. No shovels in the ground this term.