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Leaked report suggests government could announce Auckland light rail before the election

Government officials have quietly prepared a plan to fast-track light rail – or a rapid bus service – for Queen Street and Dominion Road to Mt Roskill. Just a few months ago finance minister Steven Joyce dismissed this project as “pork barrel politics”. But it’s stage one of light rail to the airport and it looks like the government will adopt the policy.

[This story has been updated with comment from the office of Simon Bridges, minister of transport.]

Last Sunday the government announced $2.6 billion in extra expenditure on Auckland transport over the next 10 years. It also said the 30-year transport plan for Auckland was being revised, and when the new report was ready further announcements would be made.

The Spinoff has obtained a copy of that new report, which is not due for release until later this month. It’s a 20-page “update” to the Auckland Transport Alignment Project, known as ATAP, an agreement negotiated just last year between the government and the Auckland Council. The updated ATAP reveals:

  • A new rapid transit line up Queen St and out to Mt Roskill is planned for the next 10 years at a cost of $700 million. It will be light rail (trams) or a separated bus route like the Northern Busway, to be decided by business case analysis.
  • Penlink – a highway to provide a new link from the northern motorway to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula – is also planned for the next 10 years at a cost of $240 million. But it won’t be a four- or six-lane road: two lanes are proposed, with the capacity to add more later. And it could be a toll road. The update says: “The project’s business case suggests it is well suited to a toll”.
  • Neither of these projects was mentioned last Sunday, and the report also contains other projects, not mentioned at that time, that are proposed for fast-tracking (see below).
  • With these new projects the funding shortfall for ATAP over the next 10 years will rise from $4 billion to $5.9 billion. This is the net effect of $2.9 billion in extra spending and $1 billion in extra revenue (more passengers using more services).

Melbourne light rail. Not so odd for Auckland, is it?

In parliament yesterday the minister of transport was questioned on the report by Labour’s Phil Twyford. Bridges a little distance between himself and report, stating: “I note that this is a report that has had extensive independent work from Auckland and government officials, without ministers or the mayor and the council involved”.

But this is the report on which Sunday’s new funding announcements were made. It was commissioned by the government and council because they knew the original ATAP was already out of date. The “officials” Bridges referred to came from the Ministry of Transport, Treasury, NZ Transport Agency, State Services Commission, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport. They’re all on board.

The original ATAP report was closely steered by the politicians in Wellington and Auckland and, given the sensitivity of the issues, it does not seem credible to suggest the update was done without the continued close involvement of the politicians. During his questioning of the minister in parliament, Twyford attempted to table the report, but permission was refused.

Report title page – ‘update to reflect faster growth’

Is this light rail to the airport?

The rapid transit proposal is a big surprise. When the Labour Party announced it as policy during the Mt Roskill by-election campaign last November, the then minister for economic development, Steven Joyce, ridiculed the idea. He called it “taking pork barrel politics to a whole new level”.

Joyce added: “Labour are hitting the panic button fairly early on. Promising a $1.4 billion rail link between the electorate and the city looks very desperate.”

Now the combined weight of all the relevant authorities has proposed that very thing.

Light rail on Dominion Rd heading into Mt Roskill. (Image: Auckland Transport)

A light rail or rapid busway service to Mt Roskill is stage one of rapid transit to the airport, which Bridges has repeatedly said is “not necessary” yet. Yesterday in Parliament he said it again, claiming the ATAP update report “says that light rail to the airport is not needed in the first decade”. The first decade is 2016-2026.

But Bridges was wrong about that report. In regard to connecting the city centre with the airport, the ATAP update says this: “A mass transit solution (advanced bus or light rail) costing up to $1.2 billion was … identified by ATAP as being necessary early in the second decade. $500 million was allocated in the first decade to fund route protection and early stages of construction. Faster bus ridership growth on this corridor now indicates completion of this investment should be brought forward by 3-4 years into the first decade.”

Translation: they got it wrong, they need to get onto it pretty damn soon.

Bridges was presumably arguing that technically this is not rail to the airport but rapid transit to Mt Roskill. Perhaps his officials have even told him as much. But it’s the same project. By the time the diggers start in, that will be clear.

Since this story was published, Bridges’ office has responded to our request for comment. A spokesperson has told us: “It is very clear that completion of the mass transit from the city to Mt Roskill could now occur within first decade but not to the airport. The experts’ views are mass transit to the airport is for delivery in the second decade.”

This is also wrong. There is nothing in the report to suggest mass or rapid transit cannot be completed to the airport within 10 years. There is also nothing in the report to reveal what the “experts” think either way on the timing.

What else is in the ATAP update?

The Penlink proposal is a favourite of all local politicians up that way (you can’t get elected to anything without supporting it) but has not previously had priority status in any of the funding plans. That’s changed now. It can be a toll road because there is an existing route that will remain as an alternative. The two-lane route option will be controversial.

The ATAP update also proposes:

  • A faster start on a rapid bus link between the airport and Manukau.
  • More electric trains, costing $260 million, to be ready by the time the City Rail Link opens in 2023/24.
  • Bus shoulder lanes and other motorway developments north of Albany, costing $300 million.
  • New arterial roads around Silverdale West and Warkworth, costing $300 million.
  • All the projects announced by the government on Sunday, including the Mill Road highway from Manukau to Drury, fast-tracking the AMETI rapid transit bus project in the southeast, electrification of the main trunk line as far as Pukekohe and the fast-tracked addition of a third main line from Westfield to Wiri.
  • Reversing the way the new Northwest Busway is built. ATAP originally suggested construction start at Westgate and move towards the city centre. The update says it should start at Pt Chevalier and work its way out to Westgate, because the population is growing faster nearer to town.

Why a new plan so soon?

It took the government and council two years of hard negotiating to agree on the original ATAP and it was completed only in September last year.

That is, a 30-year plan, less than a year old, is already out of date. What happened?

The answer they give that Auckland’s population is growing faster than expected. They now expect the city to gain 503,000 more people in the next 10 years, which is up almost 100,000 from the number expected a year ago. That will mean a total population by 1.9 million by 2026. The update expects that 70% will be within the current urban limits and 30% outside it, which remains in line with Unitary Plan forecasts.

Two things to note about this. One is that the current rate of growth in Auckland has been consistent since 2014. In other words, when ATAP was negotiated, the government did not accept the city was growing as fast as it is. It’s got the message now.

The other is that planning for Auckland needs some better assumptions. The usual approach is to use three levels of prediction: low, middle and high. Funding decisions tend to be made on the low level. You don’t spend more money than you need to, and as a matter of policy the risk of overspending is more important than the risk of not providing enough services.

If you wonder why the supply of services and infrastructure in Auckland has so obviously fallen behind need, those two factors provide a big part of the answer. It’s not just the rail network and the roads, but schools, hospitals, housing stock, social services: and the number of teachers, nurses and doctors, social workers, police officers…

Surely it’s now clear that the risk of not preparing is far worse than the risk of building a railway or a school that might not be filled as quickly as anticipated. In fact, surely it’s now clear that that last statement is oxymoronic: build another railway or school and they will certainly fill up quickly.

How will it all be paid for?

The government has still not announced any mechanisms to cover that funding shortfall, which is now $5.9 billion over the next 10 years. In fact, in the first three years it will rise from $380 million to $1.3 billion.

Transport minister Simon Bridges sidestepped several questions about the funding shortfall in parliament yesterday. He said he thought the challenge could be met by “strong revenue from petrol taxes and the road-user charges, more than we thought and more coming in the forecast. We have got strong Budget growth and we also, of course, will expect to see the council contribute more.”

Transport minister Simon Bridges arrives at Papakura station with prime minister Bill English to announce transport spending, Sunday August 6. (Photo: Duncan Greive.)

This is not the position taken by the government in the original ATAP, where it agreed there was a $4 billion shortfall that would need to be met by new funding mechanisms still to be determined.

The Labour Party has proposed four ways to meet that shortfall. It has reinstated its regional fuel tax policy, which could add about 10 cents a litre to the price of petrol in the Auckland region. Auckland drivers would help pay for Auckland transport infrastructure. Labour has also proposed a targeted rate to capture “value uplift”: if you own land near a railway station, you’ll pay higher rates because you’ll be able to earn more from that land. The party’s third option is infrastructure bonds and the fourth is increased access to the National Land Transport Fund.

Simon Bridges’ current position – that new funding is not required – is consistent with National’s election strategy, which is to assure voters there will be no new taxes.

But the government and council have a project underway called the Auckland Smarter Transport Pricing Project. That’s a fancy term for congestion charging and other mechanisms. The updated ATAP itself refers to this project.

ASTPP is not going to recommend no new taxes. Its very purpose is to identify the best options for doing two things: raising money to pay for transport projects and using pricing as a tool to modify traveller behaviour.

But Bridges’ promise of no new taxes is safe for now. ASTPP will not be submitting its first report until October – after the election on September 23.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz


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