MP Shane Jones says he will not overrule "the KiwiRail experts" who have thrown cold water on the proposal to restore the train line between Gisborne and Wairoa.
But the project still has the backing of Gisborne District Council and local rail advocates.
"As a council, we believe that the Gisborne to Wairoa link will contribute to a more resilient transport network for our region," Mayor Rehette Stoltz said.
KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller told The Gisborne Herald last week he was yet to be convinced there was sufficient freight to justify the cost of restoring the mothballed track.
Gisborne's council identified the line's refurbishment as a candidate for funding under the government's scheme to support shovel-ready infrastructure projects in the wake of Covid-19.
Up to $23.3 million was needed to get trains running once again between Gisborne and Wairoa, the council said, citing figures identified in a $600,000 feasibility study published late last year.
The study by Berl economists was commissioned by Tairawhiti Rail Ltd and Trust Tairawhiti, and financed by the Provincial Growth Fund.
As Associate Tranport Minister, Jones said Miller was "an absolutely knowledgeable and reliable leader in the railway sphere".
"I fully respect the energy of the agitators, but there is only so much putea (money) to go around, and I'm just not in a position to overrule the expert opinion of KiwiRail," said Jones, who is also Minister for Regional Economic Development.
Gisborne Rail Action Group chairperson Gillian Ward said the project could still get the green light.
She believed the final decision would rest with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, the MP responsible for state-owned enterprises including KiwiRail.
"He seems to be the main driver for moving this forward," said Ward, a founding member of the lobby group established in 2010.
Further research since the Berl study was released had shown that Peters could have confidence in setting aside $36m to restore the line, she said.
Miller said KiwiRail believed the work could cost up to five times the $23.3m pointed to by Gisborne District Council.
Ward said she did not understand where KiwiRail's estimate had come from and could only surmise that it included further track improvements.
The Gisborne line was closed due to storm damage in 2012, just months after being upgraded so it could be used by container trains.
The track between Wairoa and Napier was also closed but reopened last June.
"Our region would do tremendously well with a rail connection again," Ward said.
The issue was that KiwiRail, as a state-owned enterprise, was tasked with being a commercial entity, and the line might not initially be a moneymaker.
But the Berl study had identified the many benefits rail would bring, such as streamlined exporting for local food producers via Napier Port and a reduction in fossil fuel pollution, Ward said.
Trust Tairawhiti chief executive Gavin Murphy was also keen to see local businesses benefit from the rail freight option.
Without it, companies in the district had to pay a premium to transport their goods, Murphy told RNZ.
"Some of our businesses, like wood processing, end up paying $300 to $600 more per truckload to get their product into markets, compared with other regions," he said.
"From our perspective, funding a range of transport options would give the region competitiveness, cost-effectiveness and resilience."
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the Newspaper Publishers' Association and NZ on Air.