Simon Wilson: Will the Auckland Light Rail decision be silly or smart?


For the cost of the Government’s proposed light rail from downtown to the airport, they could buy every voter living along the route a Tesla Model 3.

National’s new transport spokesperson, Simeon Brown, made the suggestion in a column in these pages last week.

He may not have been serious. It’s hard to think of a better way to destroy the city than to give every driver a flash new car. Especially if it also means abandoning plans for mass transit.

Most of our transport problems – including clogged roads and the lack of parking space around town and near many people’s homes – would no longer be frustrating. They’d become a nightmare.

Helpfully, Brown’s joke reveals the problem with transport solutions that assume everyone will keep driving all the time: they make most of the problems worse. If he was serious, he’d realise the genius move is to offer everyone who wants one an e-bike.

Brown did have one good point, though. He wanted to know what the hell has happened to the plan for Auckland Light Rail (ALR).

In October last year, Transport Minister Michael Wood said he was taking a recommendation to Cabinet for a line to run from Wynyard Quarter to the airport. It’s called City Centre to Māngere, or CC2M.

The ALR working group Wood set up midyear had given him three options and recommended one of them. Cabinet made its decision in November. We’re still waiting to hear what it was.

It is highly likely the Government has accepted the choice of the working group. This is for light rail that will run in tunnels all the way from Wynyard to Mt Roskill, before surfacing to run alongside state highway 20B to the airport, deviating into Onehunga and Māngere town centres along the way.

The tunnels will be bored, which minimises disruption during construction. After the disastrous “cut and cover” tunnelling of the CRL on lower Albert St, politicians have become allergic to the fuss.

But there will still be street-level disruption with the CC2M, at the site of every station. Because of this, the line will probably run under Sandringham Rd rather than the retail-heavy Dominion Rd.

The other options were for a cheaper surface light rail line, and for a more expensive and faster “light metro” line, with even more undergrounding.

Is this a good plan?

There’s no doubt the route needs mass transit. It joins the two biggest employment centres in the city. Over the next 30 years, another 156,000 people will probably be living along that line: that’s a quarter of all the expected population growth in the city.

There’ll be 97,000 more jobs, 26,000 more kids going to school and 66,000 new homes. It’s like the population of Hamilton will come and live on the CC2M route.

You can see the growth happening now, with massive amounts of residential construction underway in Mt Roskill, Onehunga, Māngere and elsewhere.

And to meet the transport needs we can’t just build more roads. They’d fill up with cars and make everything worse.

But congestion can be managed. Carbon emissions can be reduced, too, and healthy neighbourhoods can grow, where the streets are safer for everyone and the berms are not chock full of parked cars. Yes, it’ll take a while.

The key is fewer vehicle trips. Working from home will help, for some of the people at least some of the time. There’ll be more walking and cycling, for commuters and also, especially, to schools and the local shops.

Also, there’ll be more disincentives to drive, which will probably include congestion charges, fewer car parks and higher parking fees.

This is not a war on cars. It’s about reducing our car dependency, because that dependency is choking the city, in the centre and in the suburbs, and helping to choke the planet.

And we will need near-universal access to mass transit. Light rail is the best option: it’s cheaper than heavy rail to build and run, it has much greater capacity than buses and, unlike buses, it doesn’t clog up the city streets. It offers a 50-year option for progress.

But the heavy rail lines will remain invaluable, especially when the CRL opens, and so will rapid buses. Auckland’s mass transit will always be multi-modal.

Transit also requires good feeder services and it must be affordable. (Should it be free? That’s for a future column.)

It’ll definitely take a while. But the problems are urgent: we’re supposed to reduce the city’s transport emissions by 70 per cent this decade; the Employers and Manufacturers Association believes congestion costs the economy $1.3 billion a year.

So we need to move as fast as we can.

We also need to spread the resources widely. Other parts of the city also have fast-growing demands for transit, including across the harbour, on the North Shore and from Botany to Manukau.

Most of all, the traffic in the northwest is horrendous and growth plans there are the largest in the whole city. Their need is greatest of all.

A fast bus service is being built along state highway 16 now, but it’s a temporary fix for a region that should have light rail. Unfortunately, the Government’s likely preferred option for CC2M will be so expensive, it could delay that by at least a decade.

The estimated cost of tunnelled light rail for CC2M is $10.3 billion in today’s dollars, or $14.6 billion by the time it’s built. Ouch.

The option for surface light rail, on the other hand, is costed at only two-thirds as much: $9 billion, by the time it’s built.

Matt Lowry at Greater Auckland says even that’s too much. At $375 million per kilometre, he says, it’s far more expensive than the NZ$60-150 million norm overseas.

“Even Sydney’s light rail,” he says, “in which costs ballooned due to poor project management, came in at about NZ$290 million per km. Are they planning on using solid gold tracks?”

Lowry says part of the problem is that the surface option includes the purchase of nearly 500 houses so they can widen Dominion Rd.

But widening the road isn’t necessary.

The expected timeframe for tunnelled CC2M is six to eight years for design, consenting and construction, which sounds absurdly optimistic. The CRL is taking that long, and it’s only a third the length of the proposed ALR tunnels.

Another way to put this: Instead of tunnelled light rail, they could build surface light rail to the airport and from the city centre to Kumeu in the northwest. It wouldn’t cost much more and it would take less time.

Only one ALR board member saw it this way. Ngarimu Blair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei preferred the surface option for reasons of cost, safety and accessibility, better carbon reduction (all that concrete in the tunnels) and the “greater social equity” gained by spending the money on more than one project.

He also said that if the project is tunnelled, Dominion Rd would remain “dominated by private vehicles”. That’s an excellent point. Requiring drivers to share the road with trams may persuade many of them it’s easier just to jump on the tram.

We’ve seen this before: senior transport officials in thrall to a gold-plated option, even when the alternatives are cheaper and will enable the benefits to be spread much more widely.

It was the thinking behind that $700 million harbour bridge for cycling. It’s the reason they’re so keen on big new four-lane highways, instead of building lots more median barriers, passing lanes and safer intersections on existing roads.

But Cabinet has decided. The Prime Minister, presumably, wants those tunnels.

Social equity, transport efficiency, climate change? Please tell me they won’t be sacrificed just to keep the retailers of Dominion Rd from complaining about the construction fuss.

Here’s a thought: Why not find better ways to help them through that fuss?

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