The Government is pressing on with plans for a light rail line from Queen St to Auckland airport. Photo: Supplied.

If at first you don’t succeed, form a working group and try again. Tim Murphy reports on the latest attempt to develop light rail from Auckland city to the airport.

Plans for a multi-billion dollar light rail track from central Auckland to the airport are back – with a working group formed to consult Aucklanders and draw up a business plan by year’s end. 

After an aborted attempt at developing a light rail project last term, diverted by a late bid for a private-public-partnership involving the NZ Super Fund and then stymied by the New Zealand First ‘handbrake’ over Government policies, it is clear this big transport spend will be Government-funded.

Labour is not exhibiting any ‘once bitten, twice shy’ response to that failure, with the latest work sticking to light rail all the way to Māngere. It is not pulling back to be just a city to Mt Roskill line along Dominion Rd. The CC2M (central city to Mangere) corridor is the focus of this new initiative.

It was the second of two big policy initiatives raised again on Wednesday that the Government has put out to working groups, but unlike for public broadcasting, the announcement for light rail did not even name those to be involved.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said the “establishment unit” on light rail would take six months to develop plans for what he called the biggest “city-shaping” project since the 1950s, Auckland Harbour Bridge. Curiously, that would put it bigger than the current City Rail Link work – expected to cost $4.4 billion.

Wood could not name the person who he said would be the unit’s independent chair, signalling a further announcement “in the coming weeks”. But he said the unit, involving Auckland Transport, Waka Kotahi, the Ministry of Transport and Kāinga Ora and reporting to him, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore, started its work Wednesday.

The minister said the unit would “determine the best form for the delivery entity” but then gave it two, publicly-owned and run options – “either City Rail Link Ltd or a new joint venture with Auckland Council”. This was the first time turning the light rail project over to the company undertaking Auckland’s giant rail undergrounding work has been aired officially.

Light rail would run to Auckland Airport under the scheme to be developed by a Government-Auckland Council working group. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff was clear in his response to the announcement that the project was to be “fully funded by central government”, whereas the City Rail Link has been shared and Auckland needed to find an extra $500m in 2019 when costs blew out.

Goff, too, mentioned the light rail line going to “the airport precinct”, words absent from Wood’ release which spoke only of Māngere.

“While the timeframe for the establishment unit is tight, with a business case expected to be developed over six months, we all want to see progress on this important project for Auckland,” the mayor said.

Wood claimed Aucklanders had been shut out of the previous light rail process, although that was run by his predecessor minister Phil Twyford, and in its initial phases at least drew on many years of lobbying and advocacy by public transport and urban development groups who had inspired Labour’s transport policies.

“There’s wide-ranging support for rapid transit but Aucklanders felt shut out of the project. Today, I’m drawing a line under that and involving Aucklanders from the get-go. 

“Light rail is a critical investment to develop a modern, connected mass-transit system in New Zealand’s largest city, supporting jobs, growth and housing.”

Emphasising the route would go through to the airport, Wood said there were economic and climate benefits in getting light rail done.

“Without decisive investment in mass transit, Auckland will choke on its own growth. Light rail will support growth in Māngere, Onehunga and Mt Roskill in particular, connecting these communities and giving people the option to leave the car at home, which will help reduce congestion and emissions.”

Labour’s transport policy also involved developing a light rail route along the Northwestern motorway to growth areas at the top of west Auckland. But that still seems in the future, possibly for a different working group.

Woods said: “The city centre to Māngere line will be a backbone that eventually will link with the North and North-west, forming a rapid transit network that fully integrates with other forms of transport across the city.”

Woods anticipated criticism that once again Labour had moved a task off to a working group. “I know some would have liked me to announce a shovel-ready project today, but I also want to be absolutely certain that the plan we move forward with is the right one.”

Kainga Ora, the former Housing NZ, is developing big housing developments on land at Māngere and Mt Roskill, and the Government says 17 percent of the city’s population growth to 2050 will occur on the CC2M corridor.

The NZ Super Fund, while licking its wounds from the collapse of last year’s proposal, has now signalled its keenness to be involved with its ‘investment approach” in other New Zealand infrastructure projects.

A spokesperson said: “Last year NZ Infra [its light rail venture] put forward a world class, innovative and fully-funded proposal to deliver urban transformation facilitated by light rail from Auckland’s city centre to Māngere and the airport. It included robust cost/benefit analysis and was backed by extensive global experience and expertise in delivering light metro.

“The Ministry of Transport identified it as meeting Government’s objectives for linking employment, education and communities, integrating Auckland’s current and future rapid transit network including extensions to the west and north, improving the environment, enabling quality integrated urban communities and providing a high quality service that would be attractive to users with high levels of patronage.

“While we won’t be involved in delivering this project, NZ Super Fund remains open to exploring options for applying our investment approach to other projects to help New Zealand bridge its infrastructure deficit. We have developed a set of capabilities and relationships that allows us to bring capital, expertise and innovative thinking to a range of projects across transport, housing, energy, water and other opportunities.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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