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Government green-lights Auckland light rail

Cabinet has agreed to launch a procurement process to build two light rail lines from Auckland's CBD to the airport and from the CBD to Northwest Auckland alongside the motorway.

The New Zealand Superannuation Fund has made an unsolicited bid with a consortium to build, own and run the light rail lines, Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced this morning. Both said they were open to the proposal, which would be treated the same as others in the procurement process.

“The Government is committed to progressing light rail to transform Auckland. It will be a magnet for private investment in urban renewal and will be able to carry 11,000 commuters per hour - the equivalent of four lanes of motorway,” Twyford said in a statement.

The New Zealand Transport Agency would run the process to explore a range of possible procurement, financing and project delivery options.

"The procurement process covers both the city to Mangere and the city to North West lines. The recently-announced 10-year transport plan for Auckland earmarked $1.8 billion in seed funding with the option of securing private investment in the network," Twyford said.

Controversial plan

The light rail option to the airport has faced criticism, with some calling for money to be spent on improving busways or investing in improved heavy rail. 

Light rail is like a tramway, but runs on its own dedicated right-of-way. This means it’s not affected by traffic speeds.

A 2011 multi-agency study recommended investment in a heavy rail loop, including a new 10 kilometre stretch from Onehunga to the airport. The study said then that would be the "most economically efficient” solution.

This was championed by Auckland Councillor Mike Lee - himself a former director of Auckland Transport - in the New Zealand Herald last month. 

But other reports have recommended the light-rail option, arguing it would open up more of the city.

A report from 2016 was in favour of light rail. It concluded light rail to be the better option ahead of two heavy rail options: heavy rail direct to the airport, and a ‘hybrid’ option which would upgrade the connection between the city to Onehunga with a connecting bus service to the airport. 

The report concluded that light rail provided the most benefit, adding five stations at “major employment nodes” compared with two stations at one employment node for heavy rail and five for the hybrid option.

Both light rail and full heavy rail are faster than the current bus time; the hybrid option was estimated to be five minutes slower, taking transfer time into account.

Good for Mangere too

Light rail was also considered the best option for improving connectivity in Mangere. 

Light rail fared slightly worse when considering ‘constructibility’. The report found it would require three years of “tracks, power, major bridge construction” as well as “large off-line sections”.

Full heavy rail would require three years of significant works, including tunnelling in a “difficult environment”, while the hybrid option was the most straightforward, taking just two years to build “straightforward” infrastructure. 

The construction cost of the plans varied widely. Light rail and hybrid model were the cheapest, costing $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion respectively, although this is probably at the low end of the spectrum. The cost for heavy rail was estimated to be $3.1 billion. Light rail was estimated to have the highest maintenance costs.

The current light rail option promises two-carriage vehicles carrying up to 420 people. This compares favourably to the compared to 180 double decker bus passengers carried by a comparable two buses. Trams will arrive every 5-10 minutes. 

The trams will also have ‘signal priority’ allowing them to pass through traffic more quickly, although this will presumably cause significant traffic disruption. 

A representative for NZTA said that detailed costs and the level of disruption and construction times will be laid out in a Detailed Business Case which will be released when funding and priorities have been confirmed.

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