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Twyford’s dilemma: housing or a fast trip to the airport?

Recent revelations about a new idea for Auckland light rail have some scratching their heads about why speed is suddenly being prioritised over housing, Dileepa Fonseka explains.

Critics of delays to Auckland’s light rail project say the Government needs to decide whether it wants to sacrifice housing benefits at the altar of speed.

The Ministry of Transport will consider two bids for light rail: one is a publicly funded NZTA bid for light rail from Auckland Airport to the CBD, the second is a competing joint-bid between NZ Super Fund and an infrastructure firm (CDPQ Infra) run by a Canadian pension fund.

But a story published on Stuff revealing details about CDPQ’s proposal – alleged, in its earliest form, to have been a scant six-slide presentation – has been cited as evidence that the Government doesn’t know what it wants light rail to achieve in Auckland.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford believes the CDPQ proposal is “unique and compelling”, while Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie thinks “there’s an element of the monorail meme” to what’s come out about it so far. And Twyford’s opposite number in the house - Chris Bishop - believes changing priorities behind the whole light rail project show Twyford doesn’t really know what he wants out of it.

The saga has delayed light rail in Auckland by six to eight months according to Twyford.

Urban geographer Ben Ross thinks the country needs to ask what the light rail project is meant to achieve and what Auckland city, in particular, needs from it.

Light rail was never touted as the fastest transport option to the airport(FILE PHOTO)
Commuter light rail (like this tram system currently being tested in Sydney) was never touted as the fastest transport option to the airport.  Photo: Lynn Grieveson

CBD to the airport in less than thirty minutes

Twyford said the CDPQ bid promised transport benefits that were hard to ignore: a CBD-to-airport commute that would take less than thirty minutes.

“That kind of speed on a critical part of the rapid transit network would have a major impact on Auckland’s congestion and provide a real alternative to Aucklanders sitting in motorway traffic hour after hour.”

To achieve those benefits CDPQ’s light rail would be automated, separated from traffic, elevated at some points, underground at others, and have fewer stops between the CBD and airport.

All of which wouldn’t do as much encourage the development of housing along its route.

“The two projects are completely different and therefore it’s going to be very difficult for the Government to weigh up exactly which proposal to go with.”

The focus on the speed of the CBD to airport commute was part of something Lowrie terms “airport derangement syndrome”: an obsession with improving the speed of the airport to CBD link at the expense of other pay-offs.

Lowrie said most commuters could relate to the difficulty of the CBD to airport commute and valued making it faster.

But overall the number of CBD-to-airport commuters were relatively small in the scheme of things: 4 per cent of peak morning travellers according to data released as part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project.

Bishop said the fact both bids were in open competition with one another were evidence Twyford didn’t know what he wanted out of the project.

“The two projects are completely different and therefore it’s going to be very difficult for the Government to weigh up exactly which proposal to go with.”


Ross acknowledged the trade-off between housing and transport times was real but had always been known by transport planners.

Auckland Transport originally looked at two rail options: one a faster heavy rail option to the airport, the other a light rail service from the city to Mangere.

The whole purpose of light rail between the city centre and Mangere was always to increase urban intensification along the route and the number of people who would be able to use the service, Ross said.

“City centre to Mangere [light rail] was never designed for speed to the airport…if you wanted speed to the airport that was heavy rail.”

But with a light rail network that was automated, separated, elevated and faster – as in the CDPQ plans - the stations would likely be too far apart to get those housing intensification benefits, Ross said.

“What are they trying to do here? What are their priorities?”

New high and medium density housing along the Western Sydney rail line. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

On Tuesday Twyford batted away questions raised by media around whether the focus of Auckland’s light rail project had changed from housing to speed.

“The opportunity to really supercharge Auckland’s growth and housing development on rapid transit corridors has always been an important part of our thinking,” Twyford said.

“But actually it’s fundamentally a transport project. We have to get Auckland moving.”

Lowrie said he understood it wasn’t just NZ Super’s proposal that would focus on shorter trip times, the NZTA proposal would be changed to accommodate greater speed and faster trip times as well.

That would mean NZTA’s updated light rail proposal might also involve a smaller number of stops and stations than first envisioned in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project document.

Ross said the choice between light rail proposals should largely come down to one question: “Are we trying to achieve speed or are we trying to intensify central Auckland?”

“Once that question has been answered the rest of it should naturally fall into place.”


Late 2014 – Auckland Council told of light rail exploratory work by Auckland Transport.

February 2015 – In a briefing to Auckland Council Auckland Transport reveals there is no solution to city centre road congestion that doesn’t involve light rail. Investigations continue.

June 2016 – Auckland Transport publishes a draft business case evaluating light rail for Auckland.

October 2016 – Auckland Mayor Phil Goff comes to power with an election pledge to deliver light rail

October 2017 – Labour-led coalition comes to power with a promise to fully fund light rail and build it within four years. NZTA later takes over the light rail project from Auckland Transport afterwards.

May 2018 – Cabinet ask NZTA to evaluate an unsolicited proposal from NZ Infra – a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and Canadian pension fund-backed CDPQ.

February 2019 – Twyford says he is forced to insist the CDPQ bid be considered by Treasury and the Ministry of Transport because NZTA “dropped the ball” and didn’t assess the proposal.

February 2020 – Target date for both proposals to be evaluated

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