Mayor’s tunnel vision is stopping him from realising light rail is the key cog in fixing city’s congestion woes

Mayor Len Brown is suffering from tunnel vision. When Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy unwrapped his new light rail set for isthmus Auckland, suggesting it was a snip at less than $1 billion, Mr Brown seemed miffed.

"There's no funding, nothing in the timetable, no decisions made," he harumphed, saying it would go in the also-ran pile "beside all the other work that is presently unfunded in the budget".

The mayor is struggling to put together a budget that will accommodate his magnificent obsession, the $2.5 billion underground City Rail Link (CRL), without triggering a ratepayer revolt, so his testiness over Dr Levy's light rail proposal is understandable.

But if Mr Brown wants to be remembered as the mayor who solved Auckland's transport congestion problems, he should be embracing the light rail proposal as though it was his idea.

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His single-mindedness over the CRL is admirable. Such projects need a 24-hour-a-day champion. But it shouldn't blind him to the bigger picture - that the heavy rail network, while vital, is only a small part of the city's overall transport system, and that regardless of how much money is thrown at roads and buses, which the majority of commuters use, increasing congestion will inevitably induce cardiac arrest.

This was spelt out in March 2013 when Auckland Transport (AT) revealed its Integrated Transport Programme, with the dire warning that even if the $34 billion allocated to transport in the city's proposed 30-year plan was spent as planned, the end result would be gridlock.

Worse, AT admitted that even if the city funded the alternative $59 billion gold-plated plan the transport boffins wanted, the outcome would still be dire.

"Even with the fully funded programme," admitted the report authors, "road congestion levels will deteriorate with volume/capacity ratios exceeding 100 per cent on most of our arterial road network by 2041 and emission levels exceeding current levels".

It was all self-explanatory. The mayor's vision of squeezing 700,000 to 1 million people into the compact isthmus city by 2041 was going to put an unsustainable pressure on the roading network. There wouldn't be room for the extra cars and buses.

The main arterial roads, such as Symonds St and Albert St, would be jammed with buses.

At the time, the mayor refused to see the futility of pursuing this inevitable endgame. He still doesn't. Instead he appointed a "consensus building group" to select ways of extracting another $12 billion from Aucklanders through fuel taxes or road tolls, to help fund the gold-plated scenario.

The group proposes the inevitable mix of taxes, all of which the Government has indicated it won't allow. Yet the mayor won't budge.

Thankfully, AT now acknowledges the flaw in its earlier 30-year plan, and is suggesting a solution employed by liveable cities all around the world. Modern trams.

In AT's draft Regional Land Transport Plan 2015-2025, it repeats the earlier warning that "the city centre is already facing access capacity issues across all road entry points which, if not addressed now will steadily worsen".

It says bus routes along "key arterials such as Dominion Rd and Symonds St" will be significantly over-capacity in the "near future", even with the CRL and bus improvements.

Light rail would be part of the public transport mix, integrated into a network including electric trains and buses. It could carry 12,000 to 18,000 people an hour, compared to the 2,500 to 6,000 on buses.

AT says it is still evaluating costs and funding options, and in the meantime is seeking public input. Which seems eminently sensible, even at the risk of putting the mayor's nose out of joint.

With Mr Brown hanging his legacy - and his re-election hopes - on fast-tracking the central city rail tunnel, he obviously sees light rail as an unneeded distraction. That ignores the fact that the existing 30-year transport grand plan is designed to fail for the majority of commuters forced to travel by car or bus - even if we could afford to build it.

The light rail proposal is the chance to go back to the drawing board. No one's suggesting trams should displace the CRL. They're just a possible missing link in the earlier flawed integrated transport plan.

And while they're fitting trams into the new model would be a good time to shave the unaffordable $12 billion blowout off the overall budget.

The debate on this article is now closed.