Auckland's light rail, coming sooner than you might think, will have elevated sections of track, driverless trains, speed and frequency. Tickets won't cost what some people fear. Queen St won't be dug up and nor will Dominion Rd. And it won't start at Britomart, either.
I'm guessing, I confess it now, but on the basis of some reliable information. I think they're very good guesses.
Two outfits are due now to submit their proposals to the Ministry of Transport. The NZ Super Fund (NZSF), one of the two, hasn't said what its bid will entail. But we know where to find the clues.
NZSF has formed a consortium with the Canadian company CDPQ Infra, a wholly owned subsidiary of the giant Canadian fund manager Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ). This consortium is called NZ Infra.
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CDPQ Infra has a track record (sorry for the pun) with light rail. Is it reasonable to assume its Canadian projects are similar to what's proposed for Auckland? I asked the NZ Super Fund.
Catherine Etheredge, head of communications, wouldn't exactly say. "The key members of the CDPQ Infra team have worked on 12 light rail projects globally," she told me, "including the Canada Line in Vancouver, which is a similar project to Auckland. CDPQ Infra is currently developing the Réseau express métropolitain (REM), a new 67km light rail line in Montreal. In developing our proposal we are obviously drawing heavily on this experience."
Okay. The Canada Line in Vancouver, also called SkyTrain, and the REM line in Montreal both involve big sections of elevated track, as well as tunnels and ground-level track. It seems we're due for the same.
That's great news. A rapid transit network is the key to managing congestion on our roads and to creating a more compact city, with large-scale housing projects that aren't dependent on cars. In realising both those things, it's also the key to a meaningful urban response to climate change.
Despite residual sneers about "trams to the airport", a cost-efficient rapid transit system for the city is the most important project on the Auckland must-do list.
But if it has to involve digging up Queen St and Dominion Rd, it's not going to happen. A Government or a council that tried it would meet so much opposition, it would bury them. The civic cost is just too high.
How do you address that? With a better service in a better place.
The existing concept – the old idea – is for a line to run up Queen St, down Dominion Rd and out to the airport. A second route was also proposed, heading west along Great North Rd or beside the northwest motorway, crossing the causeway and continuing to Kumeu. That route is on hold right now, although it hasn't been forgotten.
Queen St is in the current "refresh" of the council's City Centre Masterplan. But it's not good. After all the construction disruption, we'd have a service that hogs a very busy pedestrianised roadway, going slow and precluding, among other things, dedicated lanes for scooters and bicycles.
And as Queen St gets steeper towards K Rd, the masterplan shows a deep concrete trench: the lines would pass under K Rd itself. Aesthetically, there goes that particular neighbourhood.
Luckily, the Government is in charge of light rail and the council's masterplan isn't a useful guide to what might really happen.
The lead agency for planning light rail in Auckland is the Ministry of Transport (MoT). Alongside NZ Infra, its other preferred bidder is NZ Transport Agency.
It's likely the NZTA plan will be the best-possible version of the old idea, financed by Government in the usual way. The NZ Infra deal, on the other hand, will be like the Canadian projects, and not just on account of the elevated line. The consortium wants to finance, build, own and manage the service.
NZF and CDPQ are in it to make money, which is good: they know the only way to do that is to offer a service people want to use.
What route will NZ Infra propose? Etheredge wouldn't say. Instead, she said this:
"We're focused on delivering a high-quality light rail solution, are aware of the sensitivities and constraints in terms of what is realistically achievable along the entire route and are looking at options that will minimise disruption to the greatest extent possible … We're acutely aware that a realistic solution will need to reflect community expectation and imperatives and have the ability to take Aucklanders with it."
Aka, don't enrage shopkeepers, shoppers, residents and everyone else to the point of despair.
She also said: "The Government has identified the airport route as its initial priority and that is the focus of the current process. We are still interested in progressing [an] extension to the North West and potentially to the North and our proposal will be futureproofed to enable both these options in the future."
And this: "It's important to note that the [original] information [on our bid] is outdated and that we have substantially progressed our plans."
Decoded? The terminal will be in the Wynyard Quarter, with its fast-growing number of commercial and residential enterprises, and futureproofed through its easy ability to extend over the bridge or under the harbour and unlock the potential of light rail in the north.
From Wynyard, you wouldn't need to follow the north-south route of the CRL: why not run the line east-west across the Queen St valley, perhaps on Wellesley St, and up to Symonds St and the universities? That route would intersect with Aotea Station on the CRL, making it by far the biggest rail station in the city.
Imagine it: an elevated line, snaking across the city and perhaps remaining elevated, above Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd, as it heads out to Mt Roskill.
There's more to learn from those Canadian lines. REM carriages are driverless and the operating speed of SkyTrain and REM is around 80km/h. This new service will need complete "grade separation" from other road users. It's really not going to toddle up Queen St and down Dominion Rd.
"Our initial proposal," said Etheredge, "was based on an approximate 30-minute travel time to the airport and this continues to drive our thinking. Reliable, fast, frequent and safe travel are key drivers of a great customer experience."
To be popular is essential. "We have been clear that the project also has to work from a commercial and investment perspective. The only way to achieve this is to maximise ridership and that has been our focus. Similarly, if the level of subsidy or fares required are too high for either customers or the Government the investment case would not stack up."
Etheredge also said: "As long-term investors intent on owning and operating the project in perpetuity, we have the ability to invest capital up front and defray the costs over time. Returns earned by NZ Super Fund will benefit taxpayers."
If NZ Infra gets the job, the Government won't be paying for it. But, through the Super Fund, the public will still have a principal ownership stake. If, instead, NZTA gets the nod, it'll need something a lot better than all this.
A decision is expected early next year, with work to start straight away.