Early works on Auckland’s light rail begin – but is it too late for Labour to ensure delivery post election?

The ground has been broken on Auckland’s light rail project, although there’s still a long way to go before actual tracks are laid down – if ever.

While light rail has become a polarising issue that could well win or lose Labour votes, Transport Minister Michael Wood took the opportunity at the opening of ‘physical’ work to shed some light on the concept, reinforce his commitment to the project, and reveal his spirit animal.

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It’s an ambitious project that has attracted its share of controversy for years.

Shots were fired this week by Labour’s political opponents over what will be a large construction bill at a time parts of the country are just beginning the grueling and expensive road to recovery following Cyclone Gabrielle.

National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown not-so-lightly railed against light rail this week, calling it a “titanic waste of time and money”.

The same day in Parliament Brown asked Wood when early works would begin. 

“Tomorrow,” Wood said.

Early works begin in Sandringham – a 40m borehole dug to retrieve core samples. Photo: Matthew Scott

The two have been trading barbs via press release, with Brown criticising the years it has taken for the project to get off the ground, focusing on the missed promise Labour made of having light rail from the city to Mt Roskill done and dusted by the end of 2021.

That day came and went, but now over a year later Wood is not just denying slowness – he’s saying the project has actually been surprisingly quick.

“Given the size and complexity of the project, to move from making our announcement on the preferred route for light rail at the end of January last year to a position where early works are starting is a significant achievement,” he said. 

These early works began with a massive drill breaking ground in Sandringham’s Gribblehirst Park to dig a 40m borehole. 

Around 30 more will be dug in the next six months to get at core samples that will be analysed to assess the best place for the 24km of light rail Labour hopes to put in place.

The Government’s proposal would see around half that distance go underground.

The core samples will help a detailed business case, to be unveiled late in 2024, and will also take formal public consultation into account.

Although consulting residents along the proposed corridor has yet to begin, and there’s a likelihood of pushback from a mayor who had made his disdain for the project clear, the drills represent Labour’s offical green light for light rail.

What’s the likelihood light rail goes off the rails?

In the event of a Chris Luxon-led National government next year, Brown would likely hold onto his transport position and become the new hand on the controls of the project.

He has said National will scrap light rail plans. If work has already begun, it could be harder for National to summon the political will necessary to force a U-turn.

The question is whether 30 boreholes constitute enough of a start to the project for that to be the case.

Auckland Light Rail Ltd chief executive Tommy Parker said this early work represented “the first pieces of a very complex infrastructure jigsaw”.

Auckland Light Rail Ltd chief executive Tommy Parker said the drilling was “important and exciting progress in the development of New Zealand’s largest transport infrastructure project”. Photo: Matthew Scott

With large swathes of the country still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle, there has been scrutiny from media – and political opponents over the timing of big investments they see as ambitious ‘nice-to-haves’. 

Wood certainly doesn’t see it that way.

“There are some people who have been saying we should slow down on some of these kinds of investments – not only is that the wrong answer, it is more wrong than it has ever been,” he said. “The lessons of the extreme weather over the past few weeks have been that, yes, we need more resilient infrastructure across our country and in our regions to withstand an era of climate change – but we also need to start making the decisive shifts in our cities and in our regions to give people better options.”

With the well-documented relationship between carbon emissions and more extreme weather events, more public transport options could be seen as a direct flood response, and therefore relevant at this point.

But the relevance goes further – just across the street from Gribblehirst Park and a few weeks back, water lapped at people’s doors and overwhelmed stormwater drains.

The proposed corridor between the city and Mt Roskill contains many flood hazard zones. Gribblehirst Park itself was once a swamp, drained and cleared out for farming purposes. That farm was later sub-divided into the inner suburb of Sandringham.

Auckland’s shiniest new toy looks like it’s being built through a neighbourhood that will inevitably see more aquatic days in future.

Wood said underground stations would be well-equipped with drainage and pumps – lessons already being put into play on the City Rail Link.

He wouldn’t offer a percentage chance for the project coming to fruition, but was resolute that he would not give up any time soon.

“I’m utterly determined about this. This is my city. I love it. But we’ve under-invested in a proper, linked-up, rapid transit system for decades and decades,” he said.

“If there’s such a thing as a spirit animal, then mine is a donkey. I just keep going with these things – and I’ll keep going with this one until we get it done.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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