If study finds figures stack up, light rail could be a welcome addition to Auckland’s transport armoury

Auckland's traffic congestion problem, unlike the traffic, doesn't stand still. When one congestion problem is addressed, another emerges. When one solution is found, usually at considerable public investment, another costly improvement is necessary soon after.

A growing population, more cars on the road and tight public finances mean it never seems possible to catch up with the peak morning, afternoon and weekend crushes.

Auckland Transport, the body charged with moving Aucklanders, cannot simply give up in the face of the slow commute. It has increased bus lanes and multi-person car lanes, upgraded cycle lanes, improved the bus network and services and is betting big on the City Rail Link (CRL) underground train route to transform public transport into and around the central city.

Now it has resurrected the possibility of light rail or high-speed trams on several big routes across the isthmus. Complete with pictures of smart-looking, modern Italian trams, the agency has begun investigating replacing buses on roads such as Queen St, Symonds St and Dominion Rd. It believes its previous solutions, in bus lanes and infrastructure improvements such as the Connector, which was designed to whisk bus passengers out of the city and across Grafton Gully to the south and east, need more help.

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If Aucklanders look at the new study with scepticism, it would be understandable. Any system of tram lines along city roads would be a substantial investment and a major public works project. Innovations of this scale have been discussed, shelved or discarded over generations. The electrification of Auckland's rail lines and introduction of a new train fleet seems to have been creeping into action for longer than the Super City has been discussed. Even now, some old diesel trains are chugging away while Auckland waits.

The CRL, from Britomart up to Mt Eden, is still in doubt. If financing is eventually agreed, the tunnels will not be completed for an age.

Overlaying existing plans with another project, with not only extra cost but disruption to traffic and communities during construction, might seem all too much to contemplate for a city grinding into a new year.

Yet transport officials need to keep looking for answers. Overseas cities are lining up to improve their public transport with new light rail or trams which function without overhead lines or high voltage ground rails. As the technology improves it would be remiss of Auckland planners not to challenge their own past thinking on buses. Figures supplied by AT show designated tram lanes could carry 18,000 people an hour on the six main roads identified, compared with 6,000 on buses; if the tram lanes are on shared road space the total passenger number reduces but it is still far higher than buses on comparable lanes.

The agency has anticipated pushback on funding for tram rails and carriages with so much already on Auckland's infrastructure agenda. Its chairman, Dr Lester Levy, talks of a "novel form of financing" involving private investment.

If the study finds trams are compatible with cars on these big city roads, and will carry more people more quickly in a zone which will be untouched by the CRL's benefits, then the Auckland Council, Government and ratepayers must seriously consider them.

They are not the only solution to city congestion but they could well be one of the many Auckland needs to keep things moving.