13 Jun 2020

Auckland light rail project off the rails

12:53 pm on 13 June 2020

The Auckland light rail project looks dead in the water for now, with Labour's coalition partner New Zealand First refusing to sign it off before the election.

An artists' visualisation for Auckland Transport of light rail in Mt Roskill.

An artist's visualisation for Auckland Transport of light rail in Mt Roskill. Photo: Supplied / Auckland Transport

The promise to build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport within a decade was made by Jacinda Ardern in her first policy announcement and campaign rally as Labour leader ahead of the 2017 general election.

The government's official position is that negotiations are ongoing, but RNZ understands NZ First has told Transport Minister Phil Twyford it would not back a proposal for light rail from the city to the airport.

Twyford last week confirmed his office had received an email on behalf of NZ First leader Winston Peters regarding light rail on 29 February, but said it was not in the public interest to reveal its contents.

RNZ has been told the email made clear NZ First's objections to the project, namely its cost and scale, as well as the potential involvement of the CDPQ.

National MP Chris Bishop told RNZ Twyford must front up and release the email.

"This is a flagship Labour Party promise. It was the first thing that Jacinda Ardern said as Labour Party leader all the way back in October 2017 and they said it would be built to Mount Roskill by 2021," Bishop said.

"But here we are in June 2020, we've got no plan, no costings, no consents, not even any idea of the route, no idea who will build it, no delivery partner and simply nothing to show for three years of work."

An agreement for "work to begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland" this term was part of Labour's supply and confidence deal with the Greens.

Twyford last year conceded there would be no "spades in the ground in 2020", but said he remained confident the "multi-billion-dollar project... to transform Auckland" would get off the ground.

There are two proposals for consideration: One from the New Zealand Transport Agency and the other from NZ Infra - a joint venture by the NZ Super Fund and CDPQ.

In late May, Twyford told reporters a proposal would go before ministers "soon" following "extensive and ongoing conversations" with NZ First.

That same day, Peters told reporters light rail was "not an issue" as it was "not going to happen in the immediate term".

"Costs have blown out massively. We've always been for heavy rail around this country... and light rail has been suspended," Peters told reporters.

"I've made my views very clear, a long way back."

Twyford last week told Parliament it was his intention to take a proposal to Cabinet by 19 June, the date at which the government shifts into pre-election mode.

Both Peters and Twyford refused to comment to RNZ except to say the Cabinet process was underway.

Green Party transport spokesperson and associate minister for transport, Julie Anne Genter, also declined an interview.

Genter told Stuff last week the Green Party would campaign on light rail if the coalition government was unable to get it across the line.

She said the party wanted "better public transport and rapid transit for Auckland", and that specifically included light rail.

'Light rail is essential' - Phil Goff

Mayor Phil Goff said Auckland was experiencing its worst drought on record.

Phil Goff. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said he was disappointed that plans for light rail in the city were unlikely to get the go-ahead before the election.

He told Morning Report studies undertaken by Auckland Transport and NZ Transport Agency had concluded: "light rail is essential to deal with the situation where we've got housing intensification particularly in areas like Mt Roskill and Māngere".

He said it was a solution to the city's "appalling congestion".

He predicted bus congestion to get worse in two to three years and said the population of Auckland was expected to go up to two million within a decade.

"We do need to have decent public transit systems. Light rail has shown to be the best way to move people efficiently and comfortably around this part of the city."

Goff said he was hopeful this was not the end of light rail from Auckland city to the airport.

He said he was willing to wait until after the election for progress on the project.

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