Phil Goff has been a strong supporter of light rail since his days as the Labour MP for Mt Roskill, but strangely quiet on the multi-billion dollar project since becoming Auckland Mayor. Bernard Orsman looks at the role the mayor is playing in this mega project.
After two years of little progress on light rail in Auckland, Phil Goff has added his voice to concerns the Government is shutting the public out.
Last December an alliance of business and transport groups vented their frustration in a letter to Transport Minister Phil Twyford, expressing serious concern at the light rail programme.
They were united in the belief that Auckland desperately needs light rail, but worried the Government was messing things up by keeping people in the dark at the risk of turning the once-in-a-generation project into a "political no-go zone".
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The alliance is an odd mix of bedfellows - the Automobile Association, Bike Auckland, Greater Auckland, Generation Zero, Employers and Manufacturers Association and Heart of the City.
It does, however, represent a wide cross section of Auckland life; business, motorists and a younger generation demanding alternative travel solutions to address climate change.
It is important these groups' concerns are addressed, Goff told the Herald.
"Light rail is a transformational project that will significantly enhance our city's transport network and connectivity, support growth, and promote the development of high density housing along its route.
"But, as with any major infrastructure project, its construction will cause disruption. For that reason, public support for and understanding of the project is vital."
This is the first time Goff has publicly come close to criticising the Government's handling of light rail, which National's Transport spokesman Chris Bishop is fond of saying has no route, no costings, no business case - nothing.
Light rail has been a twisty turny story since Jacinda Ardern's first promise on becoming Labour leader just before the 2017 election was to build light rail to the airport as a priority and complete the first leg to Mt Roskill in four years.
The process started when a plan by Auckland Transport to address bus congestion in the central city was handed over the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) to get underway pronto.
Matters got complicated with an unsolicited bid by the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian pension fund partner entering the frame in 2018 to fund, build and run light rail. The goalposts also tilted away from fixing congestion to unlocking urban development.
The Government is expected to decide in March its preferred delivery partner for the city to airport line - NZTA or the Super Fund - with details on the build to follow. Plans for a second line to West Auckland are on ice.
Twyford now says the airport line will probably be another two years in the planning, funding and land acquisition phase, will take several years to build and be "absolutely" ready by 2030. By then, 30 million passengers will be travelling through Auckland Airport.
Goff says his role as mayor is to strongly lobby Government for more transport issues to address congestion and ensure Auckland's views are being heard.
When it comes to light rail, Goff said he regularly talks with the Prime Minister, Twyford, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and officials. An Official Information Act search of written paperwork on Goff's desk on light rail contained nothing of note.
The mayor also discusses light rail with council and Auckland Transport officers, and some councillors. Since becoming mayor in 2016, light rail has not been debated by the governing body or at a major committee. Light rail is, however, part of the Auckland Transport Plan agreed by council and the Government.
Expert staff from council and Auckland Transport staff have been involved in assessing elements of the proposals being put together by NZTA and the Super Fund. Council has also been invited to provide someone on the evaluation panel.
The mayor proactively released a letter he wrote to Twyford on December 9 last year where he called on the Government to make sure whoever delivers light addresses a number of issues, including meaningful engagement with council and the public.
Other key issues for Goff are a quick design and build to prevent worsening congestion, an "affordable solution" and integration with other transport services.
Goff told the Herald he would have liked to have seen light rail progressed more quickly, but appreciated the Government had to be satisfied the multi-billion dollar investment stacks up.
He said he has pushed for, and received an assurance from Twyford, that Aucklanders and stakeholders will be given ample opportunity to input into the project once a preferred delivery partner is confirmed.
In a response to the mayor, Twyford said the design presented by the preferred delivery partner will be the starting point for negotiations.
"The Government is not locked into accepting a particular solution and the preferred delivery partner will engage on these plans with partners, stakeholders, communities and mana whenua, as well as the Government as a project delivery agreement is negotiated," Twyford said.
It is understood it will be up to the delivery partner to engage with Aucklanders and provide details, including what form light rail will take, the route, number and location of stations, cost and financing matters.
The intention is to make this information public before the election on September 19.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said unanswered questions still remain around transparency, the process and the requirements for light rail.
She said for something as massive as light rail, there needs to be a lot more involvement from Auckland to ensure the city's interests will be met.
"There is a big void," she said.