Light rail - ideology over practicality?
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the consulting firm MRCagney was behind the latest recommendation for LRT to the airport. That recommendation was from work undertaken by Jacobs Arup and MRCagney had no role in it. MR Cagney previously worked on a CBD-Mt Roskill light rail project and since the Jacobs and Arup report has provided some background information to the NZ Transport Agency-led team now looking at light rail to the airport. Newsroom apologises to MRCagney for the error.
There's unease in Auckland over plans for light rail from the city to the airport - with one advocacy group saying the move is driven by political ideology, not international best practice.
NZ Transport 2050 is questioning the latest report that backs light rail running up Dominion Rd, after previous reports in 2008 and 2011 (by Beca and GHD respectively) that dismiss it in favour of heavy trains fed from existing lines. The report and LRT recommendation was prepared by consultants Jacobs and Arup JV.
Earlier work on light rail along Dominion Rd, but not extending to the airport, was undertaken by consulting firm M R Cagney, which has as its principal economist Peter Nunns, who is the partner of Greens Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter.
The Green Party's coalition agreement with Labour states that "work will begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland".
Auckland Transport ruled out heavy rail in 2016, the NZ Transport Agency and former National Government identified light rail as an option to the airport in 2017 and both the Greens and the Labour Party backed light rail before the last general election, thus its inclusion in the coalition agreement.
NZ Transport 2050's Paul Miller asks why light rail was specifically stated as the answer to the airport link problem before feasibility studies were completed, and questions if the agreement means the Government is now on a track it can't jump off. He also questions the political influence involved, suggesting the debate has been hijacked by people only interested in their own vision.
The Transport Agency, which has taken over the lead for the project, is currently in the throes of delivering a business case for light rail which it was hoping would be delivered this year, but that's now looking unlikely. There is still a lot of work and consultation to be done, and light rail is not a completely done deal. But Miller is becoming increasingly concerned that Transport Minister Phil Twyford is in thrall to another public transport lobby group, Greater Auckland, whose policies and people line up with new developments. Greater Auckland members Luke Christensen and Nicolas Reid are also transport planners at M R Cagney.
National calls Minister Phil Twyford's "fixation" on light rail - even before a business plan has been drawn up - "bewildering". “In reality, this decision was made during the Labour-Greens Coalition negotiations, in the absence of any real data," says transport spokesman Paul Goldsmith.
Miller says we need to put the brakes on the project now, because the due diligence is not being done properly.
Sydney's light rail debacle has parallels with Auckland's. It was a pet project of a new federal government; infrastructure experts warned against it saying it would be a disaster; it now faces massive cost blow-outs and the company building it is on the verge of going broke. Many businesses along the route, which has carved up inner city roads for years, have gone bust and government compensation has been paid out to more than 50 others.
Phil Twyford in writing for the Herald called light rail a "game changer". He said it is not just about connecting the airport to the CBD. It is about building a network across the city that can carry as many people as a motorway, while taking up far less land and using electricity, not fossil fuels.
"Many New Zealanders have travelled and seen what good transport looks like," says Miller "... we're not stupid. This plan will provide no reason for people to get out of their cars."
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