Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones has publicly poured cold water on the proposed light rail project for Auckland. In a speech to an infrastructure conference in Auckland this morning, the minister said cost increases in the City Rail Link "makes me very, very cautious about light rail". He repeated that view in a panel discussion.
Also today, the Government has come under fire from an unprecedented combination of lobby groups for its handling of the light rail project. In a letter to Transport Minister Phil Twyford, the groups accused the Government of not having a transparent process and of undermining public trust in the process before the project is even approved.
Jones later confided to the Herald he was "under strict instruction not to talk about light rail".
Asked if it was party leader Winston Peters or Finance Minister Grant Robertson who gave him that instruction, he said it was Robertson.
Jones said: "I've been told, 'You don't talk for the Government on light rail'."
But although Jones made his doubts clear in the conference, he said the issue "has not been to the NZ First caucus and it will need to before we have a position as a party".
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Jones' remarks point to conflict within the coalition Government over light rail and may shed some light on the concerns raised by the lobby groups in their letter.
Cabinet is due to make a decision on light rail next month. If Jones' view prevails in his caucus, that could mean the project will not survive the Cabinet debate.
Twyford declined to answer questions on Jones' statements.
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The lobby groups' letter, obtained by the Herald, is signed by leading members of the Automobile Association (AA), Employers and Manufacturers Association, Greater Auckland, Generation Zero, Bike Auckland and Heart of the City, which is the central city business association.
The combined approach of these groups is significant because they have almost never spoken with one voice on any transport issue in Auckland. Generation Zero, Greater Auckland and Bike Auckland have been strong lobbyists for rapid transit and cycleways, while the AA and EMA have tended to push more for extra vehicle capacity on the roads.
Their letter expresses concern at "the Government's handling of the Auckland rapid transit programme". Rapid transit is a term that covers both light and heavy commuter rail, and rapid bus services like the Northern Busway.
The groups do not express a view on the merits of light rail. They say their worries about transparency relate to a lack of information on the project, the failure of the Government to allow for informed public debate, the lack of "engagement with stakeholders" and a perception there is not a "level playing field" for making decisions.
The letter follows a meeting the groups held with the minister last Wednesday and another letter they sent to him in mid-December. Many of the same issues were also raised by Auckland mayor Phil Goff, when he wrote to the minister on December 9.
The letter writers say: "The response we have received from you and your officials has done little to assuage our concerns."
They add that "the cumulative effect of this approach has been to alienate your stakeholders (advocacy organisations, industry and officials), and to generate a significant deficit in public trust and confidence before the project has even started".
Twyford has responded to questions about the groups' concerns.
"Cabinet has agreed that light rail is Auckland's rapid transit solution to the crippling congestion Aucklanders face every day," he said.
That appears to be at odds with Jones' scepticism today.
Twyford also said: "Our Government wants to build a modern and sustainable rapid transit system for Auckland, which will be well used and which all Aucklanders will be proud of. Those who will use it should have a say and as soon as Cabinet has made a decision about a delivery partner, we'll be in a position to release much more information including the planned route, design and the type of light rail.
"I have ongoing conversations with Mayor Goff and have reassured him that Auckland Council will have plenty of opportunity to have input and there will be more formal engagement with stakeholders."
Light rail in Auckland was a campaign policy of both Labour and the Green Party in the last election. But it was not NZ First policy and is not in Labour and NZ First's Government coalition agreement.
Currently, the Ministry of Transport (MoT) is evaluating two proposals, one from the NZ Transport Agency and the other from a consortium called NZ Infra, comprising the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian sovereign wealth fund with extensive experience building light rail lines.
Both proposals are understood to involve similar trains, engineering technology, routes and impact on urban streets. The big difference is the NZTA proposal would be funded and owned by the Government, while the NZ Infra project would be built, owned and operated by the consortium.
The MoT will report to Cabinet in March. At that meeting, as Twyford indicated, one of the two bidders should be chosen as the preferred delivery partner.
As Jones indicated today, that might not happen.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave an assurance that a clear plan for light rail would be in place before the election. The question is whether it will be a Government plan, perhaps included in Budget 2020 in May, or whether it will still be no more than party policy for Labour and the Greens.