17 Oct 2023

Auckland's light rail on chopping block under National Govt

From Checkpoint, 6:06 pm on 17 October 2023

Auckland Light Rail is one of many Labour Party projects on the chopping block due to the upcoming change in government.

National has promised to scrap former prime minister Jacinda Ardern's plans for the city-to-airport link within its first 100 days in office.

An Auckland transport commentator said that may spell the end of any light rail developments for many parliamentary terms to come.

The Auckland Light Rail [ALR] website suggested a project progressing full steam ahead, with headlines in their news section like, "Rain cannot dampen Auckland Light Rail's 'phenomenal' pace" and "Auckland Light Rail shifts up a gear".

The reality was that not a single spade had been lifted outside of preliminary assessments.

Six years on from Jacinda Ardern's 2017 election promise, people living near the proposed tramlines were still unclear what the plan was.

An Onehunga resident of 55 years said too much effort had already been spent on the project.

"It's been too long before it even bloody started, and I can't see any need for it really," he said.

At least $66 million had already been spent on consultants and contractors, Labour's Minister for Transport David Parker confirmed in response to oral questions by National transport spokesperson Simeon Brown in August.

Onehunga Mall in Auckland.

Onehunga Mall in Auckland. Photo: Tom Taylor / RNZ

Treasury estimates put the final budget at between $7.3 billion and $29.2bn.

However, former transport minister Michael Wood said in February that he doubted the project would reach the upper limit and should be about $14b.

The ALR website showed proposed light rail stations at Wynyard Quarter, universities, Dominion Junction, Kingsland, Wesley, Māngere, and at the airport.

There could be two extra stations between Kingsland and Wesley, two between Wesley and Onehunga, and two between Onehunga and Māngere.

But it remained unclear whether the trams would travel along Sandringham Road or Dominion Road, and how much would be tunnelled or on the surface.

Dominion Road, a potential route for light rail.

Dominion Road, a potential route for light rail. Photo: Tom Taylor / RNZ

"The routes and stations are yet to be confirmed," an ALR spokesperson told Checkpoint on Tuesday.

Most of the businesses Checkpoint visited along the potential routes had not even heard of the project.

Chairperson of the Sandringham Business Association Jithin Chittibomma said community consultation had left more questions than answers.

"When you're spending that kind of taxpayers' money, you've got to be very efficient - there's no two ways about it," he said.

"This whole project was very inefficient. They just wanted to get it through because it's one of their political promises, and there was a lot of rush, rush, rush, but not enough substance."

Chittibomma said there was never any clarity on how businesses would be supported through the disruption. He pointed to the Albert Street businesses that had been struggling for years during construction around the City Rail Link.

Sandringham Business Association chairperson Jithin Chittibomma

Sandringham Business Association chairperson Jithin Chittibomma Photo: RNZ / Matthew Theunissen

Chittibomma said for businesses to benefit in the long-term, there would need to be a big boost in housing, which would bring its own set of challenges.

"It's going to be more infrastructure in a very small footprint, and how is that going to help businesses?

"It would take another 50 years for the vision to come through, which is you need to have high-rise buildings and so forth.

"And then Sandringham and Dominion Road, they have heritage buildings that are listed, and we don't want to be breaking down that old architecture - we would like to preserve it as much as we possibly can."

'Little support for the current proposal'

Greater Auckland blog editor Matt Lowrie said the plan for light rail had changed so much it was hard for people to get behind it.

"There's very little support for the current proposal in the community, particularly when you consider the cost of it, and it's not surprising that National would cancel that," he said.

"One of the arguments that the people behind light rail use for why they need to have a tunnel was that they need all this extra capacity for the future.

"What they never considered is for that same price we could build three lines in Auckland, and we would have three times the benefit - or even more so - because we've got an actual network we're building, we've got more capacity overall, and we've got more people covered because it's covering a wider area."

Despite his concerns with the current project, Lowrie said he would like to see light rail go ahead in some form. But given its management under Labour, he said it was unlikely to be something any government promised in the near future.

"The concern I have is that because that project has been managed so poorly, it destroys the idea of anyone proposing light rail for a long time, when it is one of the solutions that we need."

Auckland Light Rail chief executive Tommy Parker said the project team was continuing conversations with stakeholders and elected officials across the political spectrum.

He said they were ready to brief the incoming transport minister when required.