Both proposals for light rail have been put to rest in a stunning about-face by the Government, Dileepa Fonseka reports

The Auckland Light Rail dream appears to be no more, with both NZTA and NZ Super proposals taken off the table. 

Confirming the end of the rival infrastructure bids on Wednesday, Transport Minister Phil Twyford said the Government parties within the coalition hadn’t been able to agree on which proposal they wanted. 

Twyford thanked NZ Infra and the NZTA for their pitches, adding: “Either would have created hundreds of jobs and resulted in an Auckland metro that offered Aucklanders a 30 minute trip from the CBD to the airport.”

The Ministry of Transport would undertake further work on the project before the general election, he said. Several sources have told Newsroom this effectively took light rail “back to square one”. 

NZTA took over the light rail project from Auckland Transport in 2017, but this was interrupted by an unsolicited bid from a consortium (NZ Infra) of NZ Super and Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) Infra, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Canadian pension fund. 

CDPQ Infra managing director Jean-Marc Arbaud said they had gathered the best light rail experts in the world for their proposal. 

“Our proposal was fully funded, deliverable and offered clear value for taxpayers. We diligently followed every step of the rules and process designed by the Ministry of Transport,” Arbaud said.

“It is disappointing that the process has been cancelled but we respect the decision of the New Zealand Government.”

NZ Super Fund chief executive Matt Whineray acknowledged this was the end of the line for their light rail bid, but said the fund would look for opportunities to invest in other infrastructure projects. 

 “We entered into this process knowing the outcome was not certain. As Aucklanders, we are very proud of the innovative and high quality proposal we produced with the expert support of our partner CDPQ Infra,” Whineray said.

National Party leader Todd Muller said the Government’s announcement meant light rail had effectively “gone backwards” since Labour had come to power.

“After years of work and millions of dollars spent on consultants, lawyers and policy advice, the Government has got absolutely nowhere.”

Transport spokesman Chris Bishop said his party would deliver a “rapid transit system that Auckland needs” if it were elected. 

In the past, National said it wanted a business case process to decide between light rail, bus rapid transit, or other rapid transit options for Auckland.

So far, the party hasn’t made its preferred mode of rapid transit clear under its new leadership.

Twin tracks both derailed

NZ Infra wanted to build a mostly-underground metro rail system for Auckland funded through a public-private type partnership, but this was very different to the type of light rail system Auckland Transport had been working on.

That led to a “twin-track” process administered by the Ministry of Transport, which again hit a roadblock this year due to vehement opposition from New Zealand First. 

Light rail was part of the coalition agreement between the Greens and Labour, but not between New Zealand First and Labour.

New Zealand First opposed the NZ Super proposal for two reasons. The party favoured heavy rail over light rail, but also opposed an investment model that would have seen money for the project being paid out to foreign investors. 

Green Party transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter welcomed the cancellation of the entire process to date. 

“With the twin track process over, detailed planning work on light rail can continue and key design and financing decisions can be taken quickly after the election.”

From ‘shovel-ready’ to ‘square one’

The Government had indicated it would make a decision on Auckland Light Rail this year. 

The move to pause earlier light rail work in favour of going ahead with this process has been heavily criticised. 

Auckland Transport’s original proposal for light rail was reported to have been “shovel ready”, but it was also a very different street-car-style system to the one proposed by NZ Super CDPQ. 

Twyford said NZ Infra’s case was “unique and compelling”, but critics including Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie criticised the huge cost of the scheme both in terms of time and the PPP arrangements themselves.

On Wednesday morning, Lowrie told Newsroom he understood NZTA had changed Auckland Transport’s original proposal for light rail to one more in line with CDPQ’s proposal: a fully grade-separated light metro system solely focused on a fast trip to the airport.

“It’s disappointing that it’s come to this but is good as both options were massively overscaled and unaffordable.

“They were a significant departure from the sensible ‘shovel-ready’ proposal Auckland Transport had developed over a number of years and which the NZTA had started tendering for before being derailed by the Superfund and their Canadian partners.”

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