Transport Minister Phil Twyford's defence of his unpopular light rail to the airport plan in the Herald recently was heavy on references to "experts". He will need to do better than this to convince Aucklanders he is right to exclude the electric train option.

In a Herald online poll of 13,300 readers, 82 per cent indicated they would prefer to take a train to the airport, 9 per cent preferred to drive and park while only 6 per cent opted for "light rail" (trams). This should be giving the Government pause.

The proposed 24km tramline to the airport, or to Mangere as it has been rebranded, via Dominion Rd, is estimated to cost $3.7 billion and does not yet have a supporting business case.


While building the tram line will be disruptive, especially to people living or trying to run a business near it, the finished product is likely to come with another set of impacts. This is because Twyford is predicting light rail on Dominion Rd will carry "as many people as a four-lane motorway" but furthermore, he is selling it as catalyst for intensive development in that corridor – "a magnet for investment".

However, his threats to shut down public opposition by overriding the Unitary Plan (and therefore the Resource Management Act) has not gone down well on Dominion Rd or with residents of nearby leafy streets. They are starting to view his scheme as a threat to their heritage neighbourhoods.

Rather like the minister's Kiwibuild homes "not for people on low incomes", his light rail service with only eight stops on Dominion Road instead of the present 20 bus stops, is clearly not designed for the convenience of public transport users, whether they are airport passengers (too slow) or local residents (not enough stops).

The problem is the scheme is trying to deal with two separate public transport problems at the same time, serving Auckland Airport whose throughput is predicted to grow to 40m passenger movements by 2030 and dealing with growing congestion on the isthmus. Whichever way you look at it, it's a suboptimal solution for both.

Given the minister's heavy reliance on "experts" (he referred to them four times) it is only fair to ask who are these experts?

Light rail experts are not to be found where New Zealand transport ministers usually get their technical advice, not in the Ministry of Transport nor the NZ Transport Agency, despite the latter being charged with delivering the project. And as a former director of Auckland Transport, I can attest to the dearth of light rail experts in that organisation which is the source of Twyford's scheme.

In 2016 AT suddenly changed course, rejecting the 2011 "south-western airport multi-modal corridor project" (which had been supported by AT, the Auckland Council, Auckland International Airport Ltd, NZTA and KiwiRail) that recommended a heavy rail link to the airport from Onehunga and Puhinui.

AT is itself heavily reliant on outside consultants, especially Jacobs, whose controversial claims and costings in its 2016 report was the catalyst for the policy change.


The other sources of advice to the minister and his associate minister, Julie-Anne Genter, appear to be employees of the Australian-based consulting firm MR Cagney and the activist bloggers of the advocacy group Greater Auckland (many of whom appear to be the same individuals).

Despite the minister's airy references to "experts" it is the worrying lack of expert contestable advice that is his scheme's greatest weakness.

Time was, transport projects of this cost and scale were the subject of widespread public debate and public input. But in recent years the statutory Regional Land Transport Plan and the Regional Public Transport Management Plan with its public input processes, have been marginalised by the top-down and informal ATAP (Auckland Transport Alignment Process).

ATAP has become the means by which the government-of-the-day imposes on Auckland what it wants. Twyford's tramline to Mangere is the outcome of a "refreshed" ATAP replacing the previous Government's 2016 ATAP.

But he needs to be reminded we live in a democracy. Unless he stops acting as some sort of transport tzar, trying to impose his will on an increasingly sceptical public, the 94 per cent of Aucklanders opposed to his light rail scheme, are likely to stay opposed.

As with the backlash against the regional fuel tax, now halted nationwide by a "captain's call" from the Prime Minister, Twyford's $3.7b light rail scheme is likely to carry political consequences.

• Mike Lee, an Auckland councillor, was chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, 2004-2010, and a director of Auckland Transport, 2010-2016.