COMMENT:

Why even the fuss? A railway line from Puhinui to the airport, as proposed by two public transport advocacy groups, is a very good idea. But that doesn't mean it should be built. At least not yet.

Because it's not the only good idea. The city also needs to run rail to the North Shore. And to build a rapid transit service to Botany and many other parts of the city, in addition to the two new tramlines that will run from the city centre to Mangere and to Kumeu. And build new bus terminal facilities near Britomart. Not to mention there's the City Rail Link, already well underway and due to open in 2024.

All good and all needed. If we'd committed to well-integrated housing and public transport planning over the last half century, we'd have most of them already. But we didn't. It was easier, and cheaper for developers, to let the city sprawl. Everyone drove a car and we didn't even try to make public transport keep up.

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With that neglect we broke the city.

How we fix it shouldn't even be controversial. Cities all over Europe, North America and Asia, many of them smaller than Auckland, take for granted their networks of electric rail lines, modern trams, buses and bikeways, and they are all the more functional for doing so.

Now we have choices to make, about how much to spend on transport and what to prioritise. Already, the Government and the Auckland Council have announced a $28 billion programme over 10 years, with billions more allocated to the City Rail Link.

So, can $1.5 billion for a new six-kilometre rail spur from Puhinui to the airport be fitted in? One of the principal arguments for the spur, although not one that seems to appeal to the Puhinui lobby, is its commuter potential.

Puhinui has the rare distinction of being on both the eastern and southern lines. If some of the trains on those lines turned off at Puhinui and ran past the warehouses and factories near the airport, thousands more Auckland commuters would be connected directly by rail to their places of work. Mangere is the city's second biggest employment area after the central city.

The Puhinui advocates have preferred to stress that their proposal offers the quickest route from downtown to the airport and would also be good for freight haulage. Both those points have merit.

But the advocates also say we should build the spur instead of running trams from the inner city through Mt Roskill to Mangere. That does seem to miss the point about trams.

Forget for the moment the air travellers. Think instead of modern transit vehicles, each with a capacity 10 times greater than a bus. Running down the middle of the road every five minutes in both directions. Going slow in the inner city and on Dominion Rd but fast once they get to the motorway at Onehunga.

They'll go all the way to the airport so, yes, they will offer an airport transport option. But that's the least of their roles.

They will provide everyone living on their route with a frequent and reliable commuter transport service, which will take both buses and private vehicles off the roads, easing the mounting traffic crisis on Dominion Rd. Other benefits: fewer cars means less air pollution at ground level and fewer greenhouse gases; fewer cars means safer streets.

Those trams will replace many of the buses that currently choke up Symonds St, Britomart and Victoria St East, thus freeing up capacity to allow more buses into the CBD from elsewhere in the city.

This is one of the most-overlooked benefits of the new tram lines: they will help build public transport capacity not just along their own routes, but everywhere it's most needed.

I'm not trying to say the Government or Auckland Transport or the council are getting all this right. I'm fearful the new services won't be frequent enough, especially in the evenings and on weekends. I despair at the lack of commitment to lower fares. I think it's reprehensible how little has been done to help businesses affected by transport project construction.

Also, transport authorities undervalue good aesthetics and good marketing. And I don't think the planning is going half fast enough.

So I can't say, yet, that they are doing what they should be doing. It's too early to know.

But the planning itself, that's good. For the first time in living memory, our public transport has a proper plan. Ironically, it's being driven largely out of Wellington, not Auckland.

There are things in it we've hardly seen before. Public transport is now integrated with planning for housing and other infrastructure, so no more is it assumed that all you need in a new subdivision is a road to drive on.

Related to that, it's holistic: social and environmental goals are weighed alongside economic ones. Auckland is not building just new houses or railway lines or sewage capacity. We're building communities.

Mt Roskill is a very good example. It'll have close to 10,000 new homes soon, complete with shops, social and recreational services, and the tramline will help bring it all alive.

A third new element is efficiency. The Government will set up an Urban Development Authority to coordinate and speed up planning and consenting, because the council has shown it can't achieve these things on its own. It's a pity, but the authority is desperately needed.

Perhaps most radical of all, the plan focuses on predictive planning. For decades Auckland waited for the crisis and then tried to patch things up. We built for existing demand not future needs. We assumed behaviour doesn't change.

No longer. Future capacity planning is evident now in everything from new cycle lanes to an extra rail line to shift freight.

The contest for funding isn't between the Puhinui rail spur and the Mt Roskill trams. They're in different parts of the city and serve different communities. The only thing they have in common is that they would both terminate at the airport.

The Puhinui spur should be weighed against the other options for the south and east: rapid bus, as the Government wants, or trams, or a combination of both? That's a big question and it's received little attention.

The trams, meanwhile, have had to make their case to the satisfaction of two governments (albeit National in a slower timeframe) and all the relevant transport agencies. The results have been public and contested, and there is more to come. It's nonsense to say no one's done any analysis.

Here's my prediction for the trams: they'll be reviled during construction and then will quickly become one of the busiest and best-loved features of Auckland. Every part of the city will want them.