The light rail link to the airport proposal has all the hallmarks of earlier penny-wise, pound-foolish solutions to Auckland transport's growing pains. Twenty years ago, the new Britomart Transport Centre was forever compromised by cost-cutters who not only scrapped the planned underground bus terminal, but hobbled train capacity, by restricting access to just two tracks.

Back in the 1950s, the same short-sightedness had a six-lane plus footpaths harbour bridge trimmed back to a four-lane vehicular highway. Just 10 years later, four more lanes had to be clipped on at great expense. Half a century later, a pedestrian-cycleway clip-on is still being debated. So it's great that pressure groups like Public Transport Users Association and Transport 2050 have joined to pressure the Government and Auckland Council against playing the cheapskate card again over rail to the airport.

Early in 2015, Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy's surprise announcement that AT was investigating a $1 billion light rail network to replace buses along the main arterial routes in isthmus Auckland sounded like the solution to impending traffic doomsday.


The draft Regional Land Transport Plan 2015-2025 was warning that bus routes along "key arterials such as Dominion Rd and Symonds St" will be significantly over-capacity in the "near future" even with the underground rail link. Adding more buses would only lead to total gridlock. On-road light rail could avoid this by carrying up to 18,000 passengers an hour - three times the capacity of buses.

The first track would be up Queen St and down Dominion Rd, with subsequent tracks along Symonds St, Mt Eden Rd, Manukau Rd and Sandringham Rd, and in the future, possibly to the south and north. As for the airport, he said that could be either light or heavy rail.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Mayoral candidate Phil Goff quickly jumped onto the light rail to the airport bandwagon making it a key platform in his successful 2016 election campaign. Then in 2017, the Labour Party agreed, in its "confidence and supply" deal with the Greens that "work will begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland". All of this eventuated without an independent study comparing the alternatives.

For the local commuter, the biggest drawback will be access. To maintain the fiction of a "rapid" trip to the airport, the number of proposed commuter stops along Dominion Rd will be chopped from the existing 20 bus stops to just eight. This will mean a much longer walk for most local commuters. That's if they are able to squeeze on board when they get to a stop. Auckland airport is currently processing 56,300 passengers a day. Within 10 years, that number will double. If these fliers start piling onto the light rail at either end of the route, local punters along Dominion Rd could struggle to get on board.

Back in June, Transport Minister Phil Twyford seems to have caught on to this and reangled his message. The new tram service was "not primarily about getting people to catch a plane, or for tourists," he now said. "Most people who use that line will use it to get to and from work and education."

For airport passengers, the Government would build, "as a priority" a 6km bus "rapid transit" link from the airport to Puhinui, south of the airport. There, it seems, they could lug their bags off the bus and on to the regular heavy rail service into Auckland. A month later, NZ Transport Agency chief executive Fergus Gammie was singing the same song, relabelling the proposed light rail to the airport as the "CBD to Mangere" project.

Last night START - Straight to Airport Rapid Trains - launched a public campaign to preach the obvious. Instead of cluttering up a future commuter light rail service with 20 million plus air travellers, we should bite the bullet and build a heavy rail spur from the airport feeding into Auckland's commuter rail network at Puhinui - with the later possibility of a service south to Hamilton. The Government has commissioned independent reviews into everything else. It's time for another.