Labour says it couldn’t get agreement from NZ First for light rail this term. Shane Jones says the Greens killed it because they wanted a different form of rail and didn’t like the idea light rail wouldn’t be publicly-owned.

The Government parties may disagree over who actually killed light rail this term, but they also differ on the type of rail system it should be and how it should be funded. 

National Party transport spokesman Chris Bishop said after three years the Government should be able to answer questions on what type of rail system Labour wanted light rail to be, the financing arrangements for it, and its route.

“The whole project’s a complete mess. Seems like the Government is just making it up as it goes along.

“I just think the public deserves to know what they’re signing up for in Auckland. Phil Twyford can’t keep hiding away and hoping for the best. He needs to front up and explain what he’s going to do.”

Light rail for Auckland was a flagship promise of Jacinda Ardern’s Government, but it came to a complete standstill after a competitive bid process between NZ Infra (made up of NZ Super and Canadian pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec) and the New Zealand Transport Agency ended with no one being selected to design, build, own and operate the network.

“The Greens shot that wounded animal before we even got near it.”

NZ Infra was chosen as the Ministry of Transport’s preferred light rail procurer, but Cabinet was unwilling to sign off on the choice.

Infrastructure Minister and NZ First MP Shane Jones said while his party opposed light rail they weren’t the ones responsible for setting the project on its path to ruin through a series of humiliating leaks.

He claimed he never had access to documents which showed a much more expensive privately-owned metro system was being considered instead of the original Auckland Transport idea of a publicly-owned street car-type system (which the Greens preferred). 

“We had this perverse situation. We had bureaucrats with battalions of lawyers managing all these mega-secret negotiations and interactions and then ministers – and I was the associate minister – genuinely not knowing what was going on,” Jones said.

“The quickest way to raise my hackles is to deny me information. So for the geniuses who thought that ‘Well we’ll keep Jones in his nook by limiting the amount of information he’s got’ all you did was close my mind and ensure that our caucus killed the idea.

“But we didn’t need to do that. The Greens shot that wounded animal before we even got near it.”

Asked what Jones meant, by that he said: “Give the Greens credit: they did the leaking and they killed it.”

Julie Anne Genter has labelled Jones’ accusation “absurd”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

He said the whole project would have stood a better chance of being pulled off this term if the twin track process had never started.

“The moment it became an opportunity for foreigners to run a tolling operation from Canada with the Super Fund then I feel that’s what doomed it.

“In the end I didn’t need to holler incessantly about it. The Greens killed it off as well. Which is kind of weird. It was their project.”

The Greens have flatly denied Jones’ claim and both they and Transport Minister Twyford pointed out only NZ First truly opposed light rail. 

Green Party transport spokeswoman Julie Ann Genter said Jones’ accusation was “absurd”.

“We supported Twyford to explore those options. I mean ultimately it’s not our preference after that exploration, but we’ve been very constructive partners with Labour and we have no reason to leak anything.

“That’s not our style and that’s not what we’ve been doing.”

Twyford said only one government party publicly attacked light rail and it wasn’t the Greens.

“All government parties had access to the same documents through the cross party consultation process.”

However, the sort of “tolling operation”-style approach both NZ First and the Greens opposed isn’t being taken off the table for the project by Twyford.

“We’re not pre-determining anything in regards to funding and financing, and we’ll see what advice the Ministry of Transport provides after the election.”

He had no preference on whether the system should or shouldn’t be financed through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement.

Green light rail plans

Twyford has previously said Labour favours a “light metro” system. Different to the original idea for light rail because a metro system is separated from the road and often runs on elevated tracks or underground.

The Greens aren’t in favour of this. Their policy document Auckland’s Transport Future argues a street-car system (trains that run on the same roads traffic runs on) would be quicker and cheaper to build because it wouldn’t require expensive tunnelling or a major investment in stations. 

“In Sydney, the delivery costs for the metro have been between two and three times more expensive than the light rail programme. This is typical of the cost differential between these two options around the world.”

The Greens plan to construct the first stage of Auckland’s light rail network after 2024 with greater bus priority measures in the CBD filling the public transport gap until light rail gets off the ground.

The city-to-Māngere street level light rail line has been costed at $4.5b by the Greens, and the city-to-Westgate portion of it at $3.1b.

Green Party plans for light rail. Photo: Supplied

Labour has so far set aside $1.8b in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project for light rail, but has previously made it clear “innovative ways” would need to be found to fund many things in ATAP through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) and infrastructure bonds.

Genter said the Greens want the project to be financed through Crown borrowing rather than the “public-public” partnership arrangement considered with NZ Infra or a PPP.

“When you have a new kind of structure – a new organisation – owning and operating the asset to get a return over 30 or 50 or 100 years that, to me, poses a much bigger problem because you’re introducing a new player into what should be a publicly-owned public transport network.”

She also opposed trying to recoup the full cost of the project through future fares. A cost which could discourage people from using it. 

“The goal of your public transport network is to get as much ridership as possible.

“If you’re trying to price the thing to make it [the cost] back from fares it will not be as beneficial or successful as it would be otherwise.”

A PPP would theoretically mean a consortium – like NZ Infra – would carry the financial risk until the project was built, but Genter believed it wouldn’t really transfer this risk.

It would simply mean the government paid a premium to private investors for what it could have borrowed more cheaply itself. 

“Supposedly [risk transfer] was what Transmission Gully was doing too, but you’ve seen that in the end it’s impossible to transfer that risk.”

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