A third-time-lucky proposal for a multi-billion dollar light rail project across the Auckland isthmus reaches decision-point in December after a strong endorsement from experts

Aucklanders will know by Christmas if the Government has the political cojones and a spare $14.6 billion in public monies to green light the long-promised city-to-Mangere and airport light rail project.

An expert group has given ministers three options: a traditional ‘Melbourne-style’ light rail system above the ground via Dominion Rd, another ‘London-style light-Metro underground’ involving extensive tunnelling, and the favoured option, a $14.6 billion hybrid of under and over-ground.

That option would avoid years of road closures and disruption along the Dominion Rd overground route.

If built, the plan would be for services to run every five minutes on the route, cutting around half an hour off the current hour-long travelling time along the full 24km from the airport precinct to downtown.

Cabinet has agreed to give a yes-no answer to the overall project, which has twice been derailed in recent years, and approval for the mode, route and the structure of how it will be financed and built, by year’s end. 

The expert group has signalled that taxpayers, through the Crown, rather than ratepayers of Auckland, would need to stump up most of the project’s cost. “A large Crown contribution is likely to be required, given the project’s size and scale, and the affordability constraints for ratepayers and Auckland Council,” its report to the Government says.

If the Cabinet decides to proceed, detailed design and planning would then take two to three years and construction another six to eight, taking any completion date to around 2031 or beyond.

The $14.6b ‘tunnelled light rail’ option would be underground out of the city from Wynyard Quarter through to Mt Roskill, then overland to Onehunga, Mangere and to the Auckland airport. The other two options were costed by the expert group at $9b for the overground Dominion Rd light rail and $16.3b for a full ‘light metro’ route beneath the Sandringham Rd area.

Underground light rail beneath Sandringham Rd. Image: Supplied

The number of stations, and their location, had not been determined, but would be around 17-18 for the recommended option and up to 22 for the overground light rail. 

Transport Minister Michael Wood said the expert group found all three options would be viable and would meet the transport, urban development, housing and climate goals of the Government and the Auckland Council. They would cater for population growth expected to take the city to 2.4 million by 2050 and requiring 320,000 additional homes.

The group estimated up to 66,000 homes could be built in areas along the light rail route.

Auckland’s current biggest infrastructure project, the City Rail Link taking heavy rail trains underground 3.4 km from the Britomart station up town to Mt Eden, is expected to be completed in 2024. It is being built by a joint Crown-Auckland Council-owned venture, with the parties splitting the $4.4 billion cost.

Politically, the light rail project would begin to realise a Labour Party campaign promise in 2017 when it came to power, a promise derailed by dysfunction between central and local government agencies and a late public private partnership proposal which was stopped by Labour’s coalition partner NZ First.

The Government wants this project to be a city building initiative, driving housing and urban developments along the route and cutting congestion, not just viewed as a train service to the airport as portrayed by its political opponents.

The experts group estimates there could be $2-3 billion raised from ‘value uplift’ along the route, where major developments that would benefit from the light rail system would pay for the privilege. That could offset some of the cost of the light rail facility.

Weighing up the three options

But the Government faces other major calls on its infrastructure spending, including a possible second Waitematā Harbour crossing which could also link to this light rail network, and its existing commitments, with Auckland Council, of $31.4 billion for transport over the next decade. That total includes $7 billion for rapid transit.

Wood announced the light rail group’s short list and recommendation on Friday morning. It is understood the Cabinet could yet opt for any of the three finalist options. 

But he was talking up the benefits. “The business case draws a clear conclusion that Auckland light rail is a necessary investment to lessen congestion and further future proof our biggest city. It is a critical piece of infrastructure to support more housing, to give people real transport choices, and to build a linked up transport network for Auckland.

“It will provide the base and first stage of the additional Waitematā Harbour crossing and a line out to the North-West, beginning a city-wide transport network, so it’s important that we make the best decision for the long term.”

Burned by central city backlash at the cost of disruption to businesses during construction of the City Rail Link tunnel up Albert St, it is likely the Cabinet will signal plans for financial support right from the start of any light rail project.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said the rapid transit corridor would enable the housing and job growth the city needs for the future. “This area will cater for an additional 66,000 homes housing nearly a quarter of Auckland’s population growth over the next 30 years. It already provides a quarter of Auckland’s jobs, connecting the two biggest employment hubs in the city.

“The rapid transit connection is vital to enable this growth and address problems of congestion and carbon emissions. It is as much an urban development project as a critical transport connection.”

The expert group, the Auckland Light Rail Establishment Unit led by former Manukau City Council chief executive Leigh Auton, was tasked by Wood to consult widely over the past few months to avoid the fragmentation and competing agendas of the two past proposals, engage deeply with mana whenua and seek input from local communities and businesses.

Its report says the two tunnelled options would deliver higher levels of patronage, a plus in the city’s drive for public transport and carbon neutrality, but the scale of construction in concrete, steel and undergrounding parts of the route would mean the levels of embedded carbon were higher than for the overground light rail.  That light rail version would reach carbon neutrality in about 25 years, about a decade before the tunnelled light rail option.

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

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