It's done. After all the reports and debates and many millions spent, we have a decision on how, when and where Auckland will get light rail.
For half its length, it will run in the longest tunnel ever built in New Zealand, thus avoiding surface disruption on Queen St and Dominion Rd. Planning work is well underway and the whole thing will, says the Government, be built by the early 2030s.
It will connect the largest business and residential area in the country – the inner city – with the second largest employment area – the airport precinct. It will run past Eden Park and through suburbs that are expected to see 66,000 new homes and 150,000 more people living in them.
That's a quarter of all the growth expected in Auckland over the next 30 years.
In particular, it will provide mass transit to a large part of the city currently "transport deprived". During the public consultation process, the feedback from Māngere and nearby suburbs was "extremely enthusiastic".
Leigh Auton, who chairs the Auckland Light Rail Establishment Unit, talks about the excitement they generated when they presented the project in local markets, on the local Samoan and Tongan radio stations, on the local Filipino TV station, everywhere in the southern suburbs they went.
It's sometimes easy to forget there are hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders whose views don't often show up in the letters pages and on talkback radio. This service, the Government hopes, will be for them.
But its purpose is larger than simply connecting the people along the proposed route. It's part of a larger plan to create a rapid transit network across the city. For that reason, work on a new harbour crossing will be accelerated: within 15 or so years the City Centre to Māngere line (CC2M) will probably run through Takapuna and all the way north to Orewa. And it will link to a northwest line to Kumeu.
So far, so good. Light rail won't "solve" congestion, as mayor Phil Goff has suggested, any more than it will solve climate change or the housing crisis.
But it is integral to the way the city manages all three of those challenges. The more mass transit we have, the easier it will be to move around and to reduce carbon emissions. And light rail means housing density can be developed all along the route, without fear the roads will become gridlocked.
National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown has complained about this. He argues the transport project is really a housing project in disguise, and therefore the housing costs should be built in.
This is peculiar. Planning transport and housing together is a good thing. Utilities, employment, schools, parks and playing fields, shopping and more should, and presumably will, be hooked into the integrated planning approach over time.
Brown also says the priority is the harbour crossing, but as Goff quite rightly says, if the purpose of that is to deliver more cars into the central city, it will be a disaster.
There is a simple lesson we can learn from Auckland's transport experience. Although there's been enormous growth on the Shore in the past 20 years, almost all the extra trips being made into the city are accommodated by mass transit. The number of cars on the bridge has not grown much, but almost 40 per cent of commuters on the bridge catch a bus to work. There's every reason to expect light rail will repeat this experience.
In fact, the Northern Busway will be at capacity in about 10 years. The proposed new light rail line on the Shore will address the growing demand.
Which is not to say all is good about this plan. With an expected cost of nearly $15 billion, it's super-expensive. A word on that, though. Although it's billed as "our most expensive transport project ever", that's because of the misleading way roading projects are funded and built. Motorways are built in small stages, each stage requiring expansion to the next. The spending is rolled out in stages. But rail lines have to be built at once, so their cost is presented as a lump sum.
Still, it is super-expensive. The cheaper option was surface light rail. If that had been chosen, the money could have been spread more widely. In particular, the northwest might have expected something more than it's currently getting.
Transport Minister Michael Wood denies the northwest is being ignored. The new bus lanes on the motorway will be completed by the end of 2023, he says. "And I have instructed officials to accelerate planning for transit to extend to Kumeu." It's not clear what that will mean but we'll find out soon enough.
Surface rail would also have been easier for most people to use, because you just hop on and off. And although construction is disruptive, once it's done it leads to the regeneration of whole streets.
Surface rail on Dominion Rd could have brought an end to the car-choked mess, revitalised the depressed parts of the street – of which there are many – and made the whole route magnificent (see Canvas this weekend).
Now, the risk is that all Dominion Rd's problems will just get worse. The tunnel will probably run under or in the vicinity of Sandringham Rd, which means the retailers of Dominion Rd won't even benefit from the foot traffic to and from the stations.
Wood says they did not choose the tunnelled option lightly. "You can imagine there was quite a debate in Cabinet."
So why did the Government opt for a more expensive option?
For one reason, they can afford it. Infrastructure minister Grant Robertson says Government debt levels are "extremely low" by international standards, and because of that it's hard to justify not spending money to fix some of Auckland's serious problems.
Robertson and Wood both say they were persuaded that the tunnelled option is best for "future proofing". Tunnels mean the trains can go faster, not having to worry about hitting anything or anybody on the road, and there can be more of them. So capacity rises: by 50 per cent, says Wood.
Auton's establishment unit said surface rail would have at least a 50-year life, but the Government rejected that. Wood reckons it would be more like 20 years because, he says, the experience overseas is that transit services like this quickly become much more popular than expected.
But were tunnels chosen for another reason too: because they allow construction disruption to be minimised? Because, for political reasons, no Government is going to subject Queen St to any more disruption than is absolutely necessary? Or Dominion Rd, for that matter?
Wood says that was an issue but "not the main factor" in the decision.
Auton suggests tunnelling under the central city is clearly better, but thinks it could be possible that after the detailed planning they decide the line should surface earlier than Mt Roskill.
But he also points to another disruption issue: there's a big utilities cable running down Sandringham Rd. If they put surface light rail there, they'd have to move the cable, probably to Dominion Rd. That would be enormously disruptive to both streets.
A tunnelled approach means they just bore through, well beneath the cable. Tunnels will cost more but they're probably easier, and therefore could be quicker.
Is it the best option? Actually, that's not the question any more. We desperately need the transit and this is a good option. So for heaven's sake let's get it done.