Auckland's struggling historic trams at Wynyard Quarter were given a lifeline by councillors today.

Auckland Council's governing body voted to tell its development arm that its preference is to reinstate the original route until the America's Cup in 2021 at a cost of $1.8 million, then review its future.

The tram's operator, Panuku Development Auckland, wants to scrap the service, which was introduced in 2011 and has struggled to attract passengers. Monthly numbers have fallen from a peak 52,653 during the Rugby World Cup to a few hundred recently.

The Panuku board of unelected directors will make the final call, but has no choice but to accept the decision of its political masters.

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Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said his gut feeling was he did not want to destroy the tram before it is given a fair go.

"If we rip it up it is gone forever and we will die wondering," said Goff, who said it could be a magnet for people from all around the world.

The council's position is a victory for Waitemata councillor Mike Lee, who set up and championed the service since his days as chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, and groups which pushed to save the trams.

Puneet Dhall, who has campaigned to keep the trams, told councillors the 1922 heritage trams were popular and loved by thousands of Aucklanders.

An image of how light rail could look like in Wynyard Quarter.
An image of how light rail could look like in Wynyard Quarter.

He said the loop was originally designed for heritage and modern light rail trams, and are critical for connecting Wynyard Quarter to Britomart.

"If you rip it up, that promise evaporates," Dhall said.

Senior management at Panuku, he said, "would have you believe it is useless and an expensive tram on a loop to nowhere".

Dhall believed the service could make a profit of $100,000 a year and $700,000 with HOP card technology and extending the line to Britomart. The figures were based on discussions with tram line operators in Christchurch, Melbourne and Bendigo in Victoria, he said.

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Both Dhall and Jef Grobben, of the Auckland Electric Tramways Trust, are willing to run the trams and tender the service to an experienced operator.

David Rankin, Panuku's chief operating officer, said the board had given serious consideration to the future of the trams. They were introduced to activate Wynyard Quarter, not provide a transport service, he said.

Rankin said the board believed there were only two options for the trams, cease operations or reinstate the full original loop and relocate the tram depot to a new site costing $6.6m.

The board believed the money would be better spent on a new park at the end of Wynyard Quarter or in suburban areas it is looking to develop.

"This came down to a matter of priorities in a restrained resource environment," Rankin said.

Several councillors were concerned that Panuku did not pick up that a development site it sold to the property developer Willis Bond in 2014 clashed with the existing tramline until April this year. This led to the service being suspended.

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has urged Auckland Transport and the Government to build a modern tram line between Wynyard Quarter and Britomart.

"Unlike the longer light rail tram routes currently proposed by the Government, such as Airport to CBD via Mangere, this one could realistically be delivered and ready by the next America's Cup in 2021," said PTUA co-ordinator Jon Reeves.

"The Britomart to Wynyard Quarter route ticks all the boxes for commuters and tourists, and faster construction delivery with some of the tram lines and infrastructure already in place to a growing part of the city centre."