A visualisation of light rail along the Northwestern motorway (Photo: Supplied)

Cheat sheet: Auckland’s tram project goes off the rails

The troubled Auckland Light Rail project is back in the news again, and not for good reasons. So what does it all mean for transport and traffic congestion in New Zealand’s biggest city?

What’s all this then?

It seemed like such a good plan at the time. Over the course of 10 years between 2018 and 2028, NZTA committed to building two major light rail projects as part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project. One of them would go from the city centre to Māngere, and the other would extend that out to Auckland’s northwest. It was a major promise of the incoming Labour government, and represented the biggest transport project in New Zealand’s history. Auckland’s traffic congestion is already bad by international standards, and the project promised the chance to take a huge number of cars off clogged roads. And now, it’s looking more and more like the wheels are falling off.

What are the problems? 

Huge delays have already been locked in, construction work won’t begin until at least 2021, and the money that had been earmarked towards it is starting to flow elsewhere. NZTA recently announced that a massive pile of funding for the next several years would be reallocated towards other projects, and as it happens, they might not even be the organisation picked to deliver light rail in Auckland.

Who else is in the running?

There’s a rival bid in the works being led by the NZ Super Fund, who are partnering with CDPQ Infra from Canada under the banner of NZ Infra. Reporting from Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan shows there has been plenty of well-justified scepticism about this bid being undercooked and underdeveloped. A decision on who will actually get the contract is still months away, meaning even more precious time will be lost. On the Greater Auckland blog, transport expert Matt Lowrie wrote that “no matter who takes the project forward, we will have lost at least two and a half years in terms of delivery timeframes from what would have been possible if NZTA had simply picked up the design that Auckland Transport had been working on since around 2014/15 and taken it forward.”

If the Super Fund bid wasn’t flash, why give it so much consideration? 

The Super Fund basically exists to pay for the future costs of a universal pension. It started as a large pile of money, which was then used for investments so that it would grow into an absolutely massive pile of money. But under the current timeline for the Super Fund, money won’t be taken out of it for at least another decade, which means that it’s a really politically tempting source of funding for big infrastructure projects – for example, $6 billion worth of light rail. At the time, transport minister Phil Twyford welcomed the unsolicited bid.e

Is this politically damaging?

Hugely. The unsolicited Super Fund bid came in May last year, and at the time work on the light rail project could have started fairly quickly. But the delay has come at a serious cost for the government’s overall plan to sort out Auckland’s transport woes. It is basically the government’s transport equivalent of Kiwibuild for the Auckland housing market – another huge transformational idea overseen by Phil Twyford that hasn’t survived intact from contact with reality.

Light rail was a key plank in Phil Goff’s pitch for the Auckland mayoralty in 2016. It was part of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens, and were anything happening on it, it would have been a centrepiece of the pitch both parties could make to Auckland voters in 2020.

Now they’ll have to explain instead why it hasn’t started, and doesn’t look at all close to starting either. And NZ First’s Shane Jones is speculating on whether a future National-NZ First government would axe it altogether, and National leader Simon Bridges isn’t a fan of it either. Crucially, it becomes a lot easier to throw it all out completely if no physical construction has actually got underway, as a different government would be able to argue that the sunk costs weren’t sufficient to bother going on with it.

So what happens now?

Like a bus in the bad old days of Auckland public transport, commuters will be left to wait and wait for a long time to come.

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