new auckland

Council nerves over light rail information void

Auckland Council has asked the Transport Minister to feed it more information about the city centre to Māngere light rail project, complaining it’s being kept in the dark over a project that will have a massive effect on those along its route.

Light rail is currently being assessed for a business case by NZTA, which is in charge of the project. But it appears that not only is the public being starved of information on any progress – so are the agency’s partners.

The council’s planning committee chair Chris Darby has written to Phil Twyford telling him that council staff have been limited in the information they could provide to councillors because of the absence of any business case. It was originally due towards the end of last year – it has now been moved to early this year, but no firm date is in place. Once it has been drawn up it will need to be approved by the NZTA board, and potentially Cabinet.

Darby has asked for regular updates during the project development, either through reports, workshops or memos.

The council also fears that NZTA’s recent woes may distract from the job. Darby told Newsroom he understands those sorts of problems can have an effect on an organisation and the council is asking questions and watching the situation. Council CEO Stephen Town is in close contact with NZTA chair Michael Stiassny over the issue.  

Darby has some sympathy with NZTA over the timeline. “It takes a while for an organisation to gear up to respond to political direction from the government,” he says. As well, the council appreciates that it is hard enough in Auckland at the moment to source basic construction resources let alone those needed for a $1.8 billion rail project. But he says they need to get some traction on the project in the form of political visibility – which will then lead to public visibility.

He understands the business plan for light rail is well in hand, and believes now that former UK-based London Transport expert Carl Devlin has been appointed to head the project, progress is likely to speed up.

As well as the link to Māngere through Dominion Road and Mt Roskill, councillors from the Auckland's west are asking questions about when they will get their improved commuter routes – and Darby points out there’s early consultation to start on mass transit options on the North Shore, with the northern busway expected to reach capacity in the 2030s. “We have to look at how these projects all mesh.”

Darby has pointed out that through planning on ATAP (The Auckland Transport Alignment Project) the crown and council worked well in partnership. In the 2018 ATAP refresh, the light rail route was identified for completion within the first decade and the crown has made provision for $1.8 million of seed funding.

Darby says he was extremely impressed with the Minister during the ATAP process. “There’s no shortage of willingness on his part,” says Darby. Twyford has agreed to meet councillors next month in what’s expected to be a “free and frank” discussion, on light rail and “other matters.” Darby says Twyford has made himself extremely accessible over the last year, and “his style of actively participating and engaging with council officials, rather than the usual political talking heads approach, is refreshing”.

However he says while a handful of councillors have been in related meetings with NZTA, “the difficulty is there’s been nothing of substance to bring other councillors in on.”

Hence the letter to the Minister.

“Auckland Council elected members expect to have early and meaningful engagement with relevant ministers on the [project], given the impact and disruption it will have on Auckland and its communities,” Darby wrote.

“The project is not just about transport outcomes – it has significant implications for land use and communities and will fundamentally change the nature of the areas along the route.

“Due to the transformative nature of the project, it is vital that ministers and elected members from Auckland Council have meaningful and regular engagement, as it is local communities that will be directly affected, both positively and negatively.”

The Auckland Council was in charge of the light rail project until May last year when Twyford handed responsibility to NZTA. The government has deemed it a nationally significant project which will unlock growth. Housing New Zealand has large scale re-development plans along the proposed route. The move to shift responsibility also got around Auckland Council’s debt constraints.

The council still has a big role to play however, in particular with keeping the public informed as to what’s happening. It is also involved heavily in planning, funding and delivering and ultimately operating light rail.  Even though the government has now effectively shouldered much of the risk, it will need massive contributions from ratepayers when it comes to planning changes along the route, including consent processes, detailed design of streetscapes, and land acquisition processes.

The planning however, including how the route will be integrated with other big transport plans, can’t start until the business case is presented. The case will indicate a preferred route including the location of stops, analyse the cost benefits, and sketch a preliminary implementation programme.

It is also the council’s job to get residents on board with it – and as there are about 57,000 homes and 170,000 residents living within a kilometre of the route, as well as another 175,000 homes on the drawing board, it would like to start on that task as soon as possible.

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