Simon Wilson: Finally, the light rail breakthrough Auckland needs


Now we’re talking. Literally, if the Minister of Transport, Michael Wood, has his way. Wood wants a six-month period of “open and transparent” debate about light rail in Auckland, after which, he says, the Government will make “firm decisions” and get the thing done.

This is pretty good. Wood likes the phrase “shop front”: a new light rail “establishment unit” will have a place where we can see the ideas and plans they’re looking at. There will be public meetings; the evolving analysis and decision-making will be open to scrutiny.

Splendid if true. One of the core tasks of the new unit will be to create a “social licence” for the whole project. The Government knows it must build widespread public support for this, having spent its first term squandering the social licence for light rail that did exist.

The establishment unit must also produce an “indicative business case” for a proposal. That will include “mode”, for which there are two leading options: streetcars on the road, and a faster “light metro” system.

Light metro would probably run underground through built-up areas. That would make all those artists’ impressions of light rail on Queen St and Dominion Rd redundant.

The business case will also evaluate route options. The first light rail line, running from the city centre to Mangere, could go along, or under, Dominion Rd or Sandringham Rd.

Wood wants it done and dusted by October, for the Government to make a decision before the end of the year. He says that by the time of the next election, in 2023, there should be “a plan in place and some shovels in the ground”.

He behaves like a man who knows it’s important not to overpromise. A lesson learned from his predecessor. But he has made all these commitments, out loud, and we can hold him to them.

He wants the process to be inclusive. That will be a relief to Auckland Council and Auckland Transport, both of which have both been shut out for the past four years, even though in 2015 Auckland Transport produced the first plan for light rail this century.

For those same four years, the public has also had almost no idea what was going on.

“When the project manager is appointed,” Wood says, “I want them to find the best engagement person in New Zealand and set them to work.”

Don’t sneer at that. The purpose will be to open up the process and make sure we can all participate.

I asked Wood yesterday if he could think of another project where the transparency and engagement he wants has happened. “No,” he said. “Projects tend to be engineer-led.”

Why build this line? The Government expects we’ll have 2.4 million people in Auckland by 2050, with 17 per cent of the residential growth and 33 per cent of the employment growth occurring along the route from the city centre to Māngere.

Although airline travellers will be served, commuters and other local users will make up the bulk of the passengers.

Transport along the route will be transformed, with fewer buses and private vehicles, helping to restore a calmer, safer traffic environment in the suburbs and at the same time speeding travel times. Underground light metro would probably reduce the trip to the airport to 30 minutes.

All good stuff, but there’s a far bigger picture. With the line as part of a network, those gains can be applied right across the city.

A second light rail line is proposed from the city centre to Kumeu in the northwest and a third to run across the Waitematā and all the way to Orewa, replacing the Northern Busway when it reaches capacity.

A rapid busway will connect the Shore to the northwest via the Upper Harbour Highway, another will run from New Lynn to Onehunga and a third, now under construction, will connect Ellerslie to Panmure and Botany, and south to Manukau and the airport.

Throw in the existing rail lines, with their capacity doubled and travel times enhanced by the City Rail Link, and Auckland, finally, will get itself a proper rapid transit network. Three separate modes, connected at key points like Aotea, Panmure, Onehunga and Westgate.

This network is, says Wood, “a hundred-year piece of infrastructure” and “the biggest city-shaping piece of infrastructure since the Auckland Harbour Bridge”.

Any buts? Of course. It will probably take six to eight years to build the Māngere line and perhaps two decades for the whole network. Can it be done more quickly? It’s been so delayed and there is so much catching up to do.

But good is better than quick, at least for this. And the new six-month “establishment” process is, in any case, very quick for what it’s intended to do. The time for sneering about the lack of progress is over. At least for now.

The minister still has to prevail over all the officials, politicians and others who have contributed to the dreadfully slow progress so far. They are legion, and everywhere, especially in the Ministry of Transport, the transport agency Waka Kotahi and the cabinet itself.

Wood will stand or fall on this. Although he will also stand or fall on the future of Auckland’s harbour bridge and port, and on his ability to generate a low-emissions transport plan. Much more to come on all three.

Other big issues loom. Who will pay? Wood says this is a “public service investment project”, so it won’t be a public-private partnership. He is, however, keen on exploring the potential of “value capture”: property owners near stations will gain significant new revenue potential and some of that could be levied.

Another issue is the technology. Modern tramcars and speedy light metro aren’t the only options. There are trackless trams, gondolas and even, goodness, overhead monorails. Just because of the Simpsons doesn’t make them silly.

Should the system be “interoperable”, where rail gauges, platform heights, carriages, voltage supply and other issues are standardised across the whole network? In other words, should we merge those three modes into one?

Engineers, inventors, corporates, boffins: overseas and locally, there are lots of people with lots of new ideas about mass transit and some of them – it should not be a surprise – are good. Will the officials and politicians involved in this process have the skills, the time and the desire to sort them out?

Most of all, though, there’s the process. Wood’s promise that it will be “open and transparent” holds the potential for something remarkably – is it still okay to use this word? – transformative.

This is a complex, expensive and controversial issue, freighted with challenges to homeowners and road users. If the next six months can truly make the consultation, public meetings, free release of information and quality of debate good enough, who knows what we might be able to do?

And how easy will it then be to ask: what other big issues can we apply this process to? The port and the bridge, of course. The whole big topic of climate change? Why not?

A social licence for transformational and expensive change: has Michael Wood found a way to achieve that?

Now we’re talking. We have six busy months to discover where that takes us.

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