Light Rail is coming to your suburb.
That’s the Auckland Light Rail project’s promise to visitors to its website, with the names of neighbourhoods along the proposed 24km route flashing on the screen one after another.
But while the company helming the project is treating its eventual completion as an all-but-foregone conclusion, that promise could fail if National leads the government after this year’s election.
National Party transport spokesman Simeon Brown wants to see the project derailed.
Speaking on transport issues to a few dozen potential National voters at Northcote College on Tuesday night, Brown said the long-awaited rail line was “emblematic of a Government that doesn’t know how to deliver major transport projects”.
“We don’t support the project, we think it’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s $30 billion if you built the thing. $30 billion. There are a huge number of projects – public transport and roading projects – that you could be doing in Auckland or around the country to deliver a far better infrastructure system for New Zealand than spending $30 billion on one particular route in our city.”
That’s a figure on the upper end of the Treasury’s estimate.
Brown said he would kill the project, which he believes has had effectively no progress.
But while no tracks have been laid and the exact route is still up in the air, project deliverer Auckland Light Rail Limited has done significant legwork to the tune of $100m.
The company is responsible for taking the project through the detailed planning phase and developing a business case, after which the government can make a final investment decision.
It’s a project with many moving parts – Minister of Finance Grant Robertson and Minister of Housing Megan Woods just last month sent an email to Kāinga Ora directing the public housing agency to investigate development options along the light rail corridor.
The move raised the ire of Auckland councillors, who felt blindsided and betrayed having been left out of the decision.
It does show the Government has more than just transport in mind. But whether or not the project can revitalise large swathes of the isthmus will depend on it getting finished.
Brown said he’d been expecting completion since the originally-announced 2021 date.
“They said it would be completed by 2021 and every time I go down Dominion Road, I still can’t find it,” he said. “So if anyone in the room has been on Auckland Light Rail – please let me know, how do I get on it?”
Brown’s plan to pull the brakes on light rail if he finds himself in the driver’s seat is in stark contrast to the language Auckland Light Rail Limited (ALR) is using about the project’s momentum.
Just last month ALR said work was “shifting up a gear as the clock counts down for significant project milestones that will shape Auckland and benefit wider New Zealand”. These milestones are the expected confirmation of route and station locations and notices of requirement being lodged with council to protect land along potential routes.
In late June, the organisation reported “rapid progress” towards advancing the project following the closure of a public consultation period in which 70 percent of people responded in favour.
ALR chief executive Tommy Parker said this provided a “much clearer picture of what is important to the community above ground, and the information from our test bores below ground mark two significant steps towards our mid-year goal – confirmation of ALR’s route and station locations and getting our consenting process underway.”
More than half of the 1500 responses were either from Onehunga residents or concerned rail options for Onehunga.
It stands to reason that Brown’s audience in Northcote may hold a very different view on the project – they live a harbour away from the suburbs that look to benefit.
In the Northcote College school hall, the small crowd was supportive of Brown’s promises to turn his back on light rail.
It’s a community long-divided by the pros and cons of blue sky transport options, with talk of second harbour crossings and intensification affecting traffic all high on the priority list for those who showed up to see Brown.
Dan Bidois, National’s candidate for the Northcote electorate, said the biggest issues among the 8000 households he’d recently door-knocked in the area were crime and cost of living – but before the pandemic, transport always topped the agenda.
The first stop north over the bridge, Northcote has long had privileged access to the city – but only by bus or car. Locals now worry that increased use of local roads is making getting around harder than ever.
One mother said her son had to catch the bus from his North Shore home into the city centre and back in order to get to Northcote College before the early morning bell rings. Delays on Glenfield Road had apparently made this roundabout odyssey the most surefire way for him to avoid being late.
It’s the kind of story that galvanises voters in suburbs like Northcote to support whichever politician can promise a change to the status quo.
National’s transport plan is expected to land in the next few weeks, and Brown promised he amassed North Shore residents they would like it.
The biggest priorities would be cutting travel time and improving productivity, both of which could be done through roading improvements and public transport, he said.
University of Auckland’s infrastructure and transport specialist Dr Timothy Welch said those goals don’t necessarily bode well for cutting emissions or improving people’s lives.
“Those are very engineering-based goals, talking about KPIs and throughput,” he said. “It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with people. The fact is, the more cars we put one the road, the worse the roads will be and the worse the climate problem will be.”
Welch said while there seemed to be political momentum behind the light rail project, logistically it would be possible to cancel it.
“It is hard to read those tea leaves, but I imagine the project could be in danger,” he said.
If the project had stuck with the cheaper option of surface level railways it could have been completed much more quickly and efficiently, he said, allowing for it to potentially be built as a network rather than a single line.
Fears of losing parking spaces and affecting current roadways drove plans underground. It’s a move that eventually increased both costs and timelines, and that may have soured many an Aucklander to the project in general.
Detailed planning and consenting is the next step. This will include refining route and costs and finalising funding and delivery. It’s expected to take around two to three years, followed by six to eight years worth of construction.
By the time light rail is or isn’t running between the city centre and the airport, there will have been multiple governments in charge.
Brown said the three-year cycle was one of the biggest challenges for solving New Zealand’s transport woes.
“Infrastructure is intergovernmental, it takes time,” he said. “But the problem is when this Government came into office, they cancelled the entire pipeline of transport projects that we left behind. We had the roads of national significance programme going up and down this country, and they cancelled every single major transport project that they could.”
He said greater powers to expedite consents given to the Minister of Infrastructure could help curb the issue.
However, while Brown had his qualms with the nascent Labour government jamming National’s infrastructure pipeline, it could be said that his plans are markedly similar.
Just as Jacinda Ardern’s government took the focus off the big roading projects that were the bread and butter of the previous National government, Brown seems ready to undo the work already done on getting light rail infrastructure into Auckland.
The exact detail of Auckland’s transport future in the event of a National-led government will be clear when the party’s transport policy is revealed in the coming weeks.