Week in Review

No ‘specific solution’ for light rail

Light rail along Auckland's Dominion Rd is further behind than many might have thought, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Bids currently being considered for Auckland’s light rail project aren’t for a “specific solution” the Ministry of Transport’s CEO has said.

The CDPQ/NZ Infra consortium and NZTA submitted their competing bids for Auckland Light Rail last week but Ministry of Transport CEO Peter Mersi told a Transport and Infrastructure select committee on Thursday that the bids weren’t about routes or modes but the way the project would be administered.

“At this stage this process is about deciding who the preferred delivery partner will be not the specific solution.”

The revelation has taken commentators who have been watching the light rail saga by surprise. Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie said it was a “bizarre process”, urban geographer Ben Ross said “it seems the project is going in reverse”, while National Party Transport spokesman Chris Bishop said it was an indication that “we’re well away from actually building anything”. 

Phil Twyford says route and design work will follow the selection of a partner for light rail. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Minister of Transport Phil Twyford told Newsroom afterwards that he hoped a decision between NZ Infra and the NZTA would be made early next year with design work and a partnership agreement to proceed after that.

“The twin track process that the Ministry of Transport are currently leading...is looking at the delivery model and who the Government will choose to partner with.”

The “novel approach” NZ Infra originally presented was a business model that would have seen the consortium design, build, own, and operate the network in perpetuity, Twyford said.

“Cabinet took the view that was sufficiently novel and interesting that it needed serious consideration.”

Twyford said NZTA had also now presented alternative delivery models in their bid that he thought could include Crown borrowing, “design and build”, or a Public-Private Partnership.  

“Once the Crown has selected its desired partner and settled on the delivery model there’ll be more work done on the route and the design.”

Shovel ready to not shovel ready

Lowrie said the project had gone from “shovel-ready” - when Auckland Transport handed over the project to NZTA - to not shovel-ready.

“Yes there was some consenting that needed to happen and other things and probably some detailed design work.”

“But the majority of that work had already been done by Auckland Transport and when NZTA picked it up they were continuing with that up until the CDPQ bid came in and changed the entire picture.”

Chris Bishop says 'we're far from actually building anything' on Auckland's light rail network. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Ross said overseas mass transit projects typically involved a local authority deciding they needed public transport for a particular route then putting the design, build and operation of it out to tender.

“But they’ve done it in reverse which is a bit odd.”

Mersi said the competing proposals between CDPQ and NZTA would now be evaluated by different specialised committees.

“The next step will be to establish what that partnership will look like.”

NZ Infra bid for Transport Agency role

Mersi said the arrival of the unsolicited joint bid between CDPQ and NZ Super - reported by Stuff as eventually having triggered a reset of Auckland light rail - wasn’t a different approach to light rail but a proposal by the consortium to deliver it differently.

The NZ Infra proposal had proposed a “different type of engagement with the Crown” that would see it “take on the role of what would be the Transport Agency”. 

“This process is not about us going ‘snap’ on the proposal, it’s about us saying yes we want to partner with you and that partnership involves how will we work together.”

“That includes, for example, proposals around engaging with local councils, iwi, etc.”

Phil Twyford doesn't want to risk the Sydney light rail debacle happening in Auckland. Photo: Philippa Wood

Avoiding Sydney

Twyford didn’t want to put a timeline on when the public could expect to see light rail designs.

“We want to take the time to get it right, one of the reasons the Sydney light rail project experienced so many problems was that they rushed the process and they regretted it afterwards.”

But Lowrie said Sydney’s situation was caused by the State Government not disclosing enough information about a route design they had selected. 

Costs that would be needed to move pipes and other services out of the way meant the project was impossible to deliver at the cost tendered for and the New South Wales government was taken to court by the contractor involved.

Lowrie said that was more likely in a situation where the specifics of the contract weren’t set down in stone.

“You don’t go to Fletcher’s and say ‘we want you to build us a road’ and Fletcher’s go ‘okay where you do want us to build it?’ and [then] go ‘I don’t know we’ll work that out later’.”

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