Who's to blame for Auckland's light rail?

A blame guide for the Auckland light rail cluster-shemozzle uber-bungle

Struggling to find the correct apportionment of blame for the failure of light rail in Auckland? Hayden Donnell is here to help.

Aucklanders’ hopes for a functional transport network took another hit last week, with the announcement that light rail will not be approved before the election. Many people have lashed out in the aftermath, laying the blame at the feet of Phil Twyford, Winston Peters, the Labour government, or the economy.

With respect, that’s not how blame should work. Blame is like a trifle or souffle; a whole made up of many distinct and complex ingredients. When it comes to the failure of a huge project like light rail, you must ration your blame judiciously, pouring it out in precise portions so that the right people receive their fair share of the poisonous resentment bubbling inside you. 

This is an attempt to help you navigate that process. Here’s who to blame, and in what amount, for Auckland’s light rail mess*.

PHIL TWYFORD ASSESSES THE LIGHT RAIL PROPOSAL FROM NZ INFRA

Phil Twyford – 40%

You can almost pinpoint the exact moment everything started going wrong for light rail in Auckland. It was April, 2018, and Waka Kotahi NZTA had begun a procurement process for its proposal for a street-level light rail line from the city centre to the airport. There was $1.8 billion allocated for the project in the government’s policy statement on transport, which had been – and this is important – signed off by NZ First. 

Then the NZ Super Fund and the Canadian pension fund CDPQ burst in with what must have been six incredibly powerful Powerpoint slides. They outlined an alternative, grandiose vision for twin-track light rail in Auckland. Waka Kotahi initially rejected the unsolicited bid as unfeasible. It got to the government anyway. 

Transport minister Phil Twyford should have tried to push the idea originally contained in those slides from his mind. If he’d just proceeded with the original light rail plan, the project would be underway by now, and he would’ve been known as the minister for fewer embarrassing failures. Instead he appears to have been seduced by the promise of that Powerpoint. He wanted the treasure it contained: a grade-separated, state-of-the-art light rail system paid in part by Canadian investors.

The problem was that investigating the plan would inevitably cause a lengthy delay, even if it progressed without a hitch. NZ Infra’s bid was also enormously expensive, and arguably wouldn’t serve the communities along the route as well as the original street-level design. Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie wrote that it would fail a “sanity check”. The proposal was so unpopular with the public transport-loving ultra-urbanists who frequent Greater Auckland’s comment section that they actually breathed a collective sigh of relief when the final nail was hammered into its coffin.

Perhaps most importantly, it hadn’t been signed off by NZ First. According to Stuff’s political journalist Thomas Coughlan, Twyford likely overestimated his ability to bargain with his coalition partner. This raises the question: has Twyford met Winston Peters? Has he spoken to Shane Jones? His decision to change the original light rail plan gave NZ First a chance to justify doing what it loves to do more than anything else in the world: opposing something in the leadup to an election. It grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

NZ First – 25%

When I was 12, Rangitoto College principal Allan Peachey told my class the story of the scorpion and the frog. It begins with the scorpion asking the frog for help crossing a river. The frog hesitates, but agrees after the scorpion promises not to sting him. When they get across the scorpion stings the frog anyway. “What did you expect, I am a scorpion,” the scorpion says.

Peachey was warning us of the perils of consuming marijuana, but he may as well have been talking about working with Winston Peters. NZ First has made an art of saying no to things over the last three years. They’ve scuppered everything from cameras on fishing boats to a capital gains tax.

The tactic is in heavy rotation as the election approaches, as the party seeks to differentiate itself from its coalition partners, both of which have shown a disturbing propensity to attempt to achieve things. The light rail proposal was the third policy NZ First had torpedoed in three days. Those efforts have paid off with a 2% result in the latest Colmar Brunton poll. If the party keeps this up, it may make it all the way to 0.5% by the time election day rolls around. With results like those, why would Peters & Co look to change tack?

Twyford should’ve factored in his coalition partner’s well-established dedication to opposition before deciding to spend 18 months investigating NZ Infra’s bid. NZ First wasn’t light rail’s biggest fan even back in 2018, but wouldn’t have been able to stop it in its shovel-ready state. The change in proposal gave it an opportunity to say no, and the looming election gave it an incentive.

WINSTON PETERS RESPONDS TO PROPOSALS FOR A LIGHT RAIL LINE IN AUCKLAND

If Twyford had circled the year of the election on his calendar and bargained on NZ First’s intransigence back in 2018, we could’ve avoided years in wasted time, and millions of dollars in cost overruns. NZ First appears to have dealt the final blow to these proposals for light rail in Auckland, and it deserves a decent share of the blame. But what did Twyford expect? It is a scorpion. 

Other government decisions – 25%

Back before the Labour government was elected, light rail was being handled by Auckland Transport. That agency has its flaws. Its bus network is beset by delays and cancellations, its transport app is designed by a mischievous goblin, and it seems to have been cursed by a witch to die if it ever delivers a separated cycleway. But it at least has experience delivering major urban public transit projects, including the City Rail Link. 

When the government agreed to pay for light rail soon after taking office, it took the project off Auckland Transport and gave it to Waka Kotahi NZTA. As Stuff’s Todd Niall noted last year, that agency doesn’t have experience with urban public transit projects as big as light rail. 

That wasn’t the last of the weird decisions. When the NZ Infra bid came through, Twyford decided to employ a strange “twin track” procurement process pitting Waka Kotahi NZTA and NZ Infra against each other. The agencies were tasked with creating a design which would satisfy the Ministry of Transport, which had previously not run procurement for items much bigger than office stationery supplies.

At the close of his column, Niall wonders what would have happened had light rail just been left to AT. “Would work be underway now, would the cost not be continuing to escalate as the years tick by, would the environmental benefits from replacing the convoy of diesel buses on Dominion Road not flow earlier?” he asks. 

NZ Infra – 5%

NZ Infra’s bid could’ve just wound up when it was rejected by Waka Kotahi NZTA. Instead it appears to have appealed for political support, taking its proposal to Phil Twyford’s office. 

In many ways, you can’t blame the agency for trying to get a second chance. However members of Waka Kotahi’s board at the time were reportedly unhappy with that political power play, seeing it as out-of-step with how procurement is usually practiced in New Zealand. 

There’s also the issue of the agency’s six Powerpoint slides. Though Powerpoint is always a fearsome and horrible tool, NZ Infra appears to have imbued its six slides with some form of black magic. As a result, they have changed the course of New Zealand transport history. Twyford appears to still be under their power, signalling that he still wants a grade-separated “light metro” system if Labour is elected to another term. He should instead try to do something sensible and go back to the original 2018 plan for street-level light rail. The Spinoff does not condone meddling in the occult, including demons, spirits and such things.

Heavy rail campaigners – 1%

Light rail was the subject of a loud, insistent opposition campaign. The Public Transport Users Association repeatedly made the case that heavy rail would be faster at getting to the airport, and cheaper to build.

That focus on the airport really missed the point of light rail: this wasn’t just about shuttling people to and from planes as fast as possible – it was about creating a new public transport line through some of Auckland’s fastest growing suburbs. 

The PTUA had a right to make their case. It just wouldn’t have been so effective if it wasn’t for…

Government comms – 4%

The government could’ve been just as loud as the PTUA. It could’ve made the case that light rail would prevent gridlock in Auckland’s bus network; that it would serve not just the airport, but communities like Mt Roskill and Māngere. Instead it was mostly silent. 

That allowed misinformation to fester, and opposition to grow. It was that opposition that NZ First was likely trying to harness when it made its decision last week to guillotine light rail, at least until after the election. As we’ve said for the last 12 years, maybe the next term will be better for public transport.

* These rulings are entirely scientific, and any problems with them should be taken up with empiricism itself.



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