Auckland’s contentious plans for light rail hit another bump in the road this week with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins signalling that part of the Government “cutting its cloth to suit the times we are in” will be staging the rollout of the project.

This may have raised some eyebrows.

Surely the project was already going to be completed in stages? Big infrastructure doesn’t leap into existence fully-formed, and with the glacial timespans of projects like this, it would make sense to put completed parts of the network into use while construction continues elsewhere.

Labour’s light rail at the end of the tunnel
* Maximising the benefits of Auckland’s light rail

Auckland Light Rail Limited CEO Tommy Parker appeared before the transport and infrastructure committee of Auckland Council on Thursday to provide an update.

“We’ve always been looking at staging options, and we still are – and as we’ve refined the design we’re seeing how we can deliver this,” he said. “It’s very rare for a project of this size to be delivered in one go.”

Exactly what those stages look like is expected to be revealed somewhere towards the middle of this year.

But for now it does beg the question what exactly the Prime Minister meant when he emphasised the staged rollout of light rail during an announcement that otherwise listed soon-to-be axed policies.

Transport Minister Michael Wood and Auckland Light Rail Limited CEO Tommy Parker at the site of the first shovels in the ground for Auckland’s light rail project. Photo: Matthew Scott

It doesn’t bode well for Aucklanders hoping to use the system any time in the next decade – especially as Transport Minister Michael Wood compared it to the protracted construction of the Waikato Expressway.

“[The Waikato Expressway] was a huge project over about 20 years, but it was done in different stages to make it more manageable in terms of how you deliver and how you pay for it.”

These “manageable chunks” will allow light rail to link up with busways and the City Rail Link as they appear.

But while Wood seemed to be managing expectations of the project’s timeline, just a few weeks earlier he painted quite a different picture as the first shovels hit the ground.

Standing by a huge drill in Gribblehirst Park in Sandringham, Wood told reporters that extreme weather events had shown decision-makers that it was time to make speedy decisions on infrastructure that will lower carbon emissions and improve life in the city.

“There’s been some people saying in recent times that we should slow down on these kinds of investments – not only is that the wrong answer, it is more wrong than it has ever been,” he said.

“So make no mistake: this is a project which is on time and is moving forward at pace to deliver good outcomes for our city.”

Wood front-loaded his comments with assurances that central government backed light rail, promising it was a fait accompli.

“We cannot continue to kick the can down the road,” he said. “We’re not going to go backwards.”

It’s hard to match the strength of those promises with these hints of further delays – especially in a week where Auckland’s City Rail Link confirmed its own expected hold-ups.

Wood did follow up with comments that softened expectations.

“Any large project like this, it plays out over a long period of time. And so the ability to phase our spending is important … we are seriously looking at how we can stage this project as well,” he said.

“The problem in Auckland and New Zealand for too many years is that we’ve just done the thing for today and we’ve forgotten about making the investment for the next 20, 30, 40 years. Our Government is not going to do that.”

But how many stages? When can Aucklanders actually expect to use this system that will potentially take 15,000 cars off the road every hour?

Tommy Parker told Auckland councillor Maurice Williamson more details would be available on that in the middle of this year.

“In the indicative business case, we assumed that the whole thing would be built in one go within a timeframe of six to eight years,” he said. “What we’re saying now is by building it down into stages, it is possible to improve on that.”

He said staging could both manage the cost and bring benefits earlier.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown wanted to know whether there would be any big surprises waiting down the road when it came to costing the project.

“These big infrastructure projects, they’re big costs and they’re big risks and we have to work very hard to understand those risks,” Parker said. “We’re trying to be as transparent as we possibly can.”

National Party transport spokesperson Simeon Brown said the doubling down on this staging idea was Hipkins’ Government trying to “spin their way through their failures”.

“I think they’re going through the slow process of killing it – but they just need to get on and kill it,” he said. “If they don’t, National will.”

Brown said the money would be better spent on making sure the City Rail Link works well and looking at transport projects that have been successful in the past for inspiration, such as the roundly applauded Northern Busway.

“We need to look at where else we could roll out busways to help make sure we have alternatives for people to help bust congestion in the city,” he said. 

“The reality is Auckland light rail is a project that doesn’t stack up. They’ve spent six years trying to talk about it. They’ve failed to get a business case actually across the line. But there are so many other projects that could be funded and could be under construction if they actually focused it in the right place.”

A depiction of light rail and its dedicated stations as they may be. Photo: Auckland Light Rail Ltd

A distaste for this light rail project is shared pretty equally among the more fiscally conservative-minded.

ACT Party’s Simon Court said projects like Auckland Light Rail and Let’s Get Wellington Moving “don’t make sense even at their budgeted costs” and lacked faith in Wood to get them over the line without cost blowouts.

“They should be put on hold until the minister can assure the public they’re not going to spiral wildly out of control,” he said.

“Cancelling light rail would provide the money to pay for the CRL blowout as well.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union campaigns manager Callum Purves said if Hipkins was serious about bread and butter issues, he would scrap light rail.

This week’s second ‘policy bonfire’ has seen the plug pulled on a wealth of Labour’s favoured projects, so it is notable that despite the elongated gestation period light rail can expect, Cabinet is still behind it.

Hipkins said Cabinet was “absolutely agreed” on the need for travel options that create less congestion in New Zealand’s biggest city.

Public transport advocate and Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie said he believed the Government was still behind light rail, but the big unknown was when it would be up and running.

“That’s probably the biggest concern – the when,” he said. “The suggestion is it’s going to take a lot longer to deliver and it could take decades before we see any real benefits which is a real shame.”

Lowrie said this Government may have bitten off more than it could chew with plans for underground rail.

“If they had stuck with the original plan they had in 2018 and not been distracted by these tunnels and visions of something bigger, it would have been running by now.”

He said it was a case of perfect being the enemy of good, with an ambitious and expensive take on the project taking precedence over a more realistic option – and adding a long lead time to any finish date.

“The reality is it was always going to be staged in some form – that’s the best way of delivering any big transport project rather than delivering it all at once,” he said. 

He said a surface level route down Dominion Road would be a good first stage, as it could be augmented with underground alternatives in future years if necessary.

“Ultimately two good routes are better than one great route,” he said. “We could build another line somewhere else in the future. That’s effectively what we are seeing with other projects with the rail network and northern busway. We’re progressively doing these things. It doesn’t mean the things we did in the past were bad or a waste of money – they are a step towards the ultimate goal.”

He said this kind of staged approach meant you could go along until you had a good result, rather than trying to do everything upfront and risking the entire project falling over.

However, staging means different parts of the city will be differently provided for in coming years. The proposed route at present runs from the city down to Onehunga via Kingsland and Mt Roskill, before crossing the Manukau Harbour into Māngere and then linking to the airport.

If the Kingsland section – linked into the City Rail Link – is up and running first, that will prove to be the prolonging of deep transport availability divides between South Auckland and central parts of the city.

But Lowrie said it all ultimately rested on how long light rail would take to work through its stages.

“What’s the time frame we are talking about. Are we talking about five to 10 years or 20-30 years? That’s the big unknown.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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