Transport minister Phil Twyford (Getty Images)

Another Phil Twyford shambles: Is Auckland light rail Kiwibuild 2.0?

First it was KiwiBuild, now it’s Auckland’s light rail that’s looking increasingly shambolic. Jenée Tibshraeny from Interest asks what’s going on, and how thin is that ice that transport minister Phil Twyford is skating on.

The Opposition’s latest attack phrase aimed at the government is set to be one of its most potent yet.

It’s coined the proposed Auckland light rail project, spearheaded by transport and urban development minister Phil Twyford, “KiwiBuild 2.0” – AKA a failure before lift-off.

Twyford’s blind ambition over the number of KiwiBuild houses he promised to deliver saw him lose his housing portfolio and contributed to Labour dipping in the polls. Now, communications and papers from the former New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) board, leaked to Stuff reporter Thomas Coughlan, paint a picture of a shambolic process underpinning work on the city-to-airport light rail.

What’s more, concern over costs escalating by the day is seeing support for the project by NZ First waver. Raising flags over taxpayers from regional New Zealand funding Auckland infrastructure fits with NZ First MP Shane Jones’ self-styled Champion of the Regions title. Meanwhile being a “moderating force” in government fits the NZ First brand.

This week, the thin ice Twyford was skating on got thinner. New Zealanders will be able to appreciate that solving the country’s housing and transport problems are complex and won’t happen overnight. People voted for change from the previous government, which wasn’t taking enough action.

But over promising and under-delivering on not one, but possibly two, cornerstone policies could be too much to stomach for some come election 2020. So what’s going on?

Arrogance at worst, an unclear process at best

In April 2018 the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and Canadian institutional investors, CDPQ Infra, gave the government an unsolicited proposal detailing how they could deliver and operate light rail in Auckland.

Cabinet asked the NZTA, the entity tasked with leading the city-to-airport light rail project, to consider this proposal as well as other options. This request didn’t bode well with the NZTA. According to Stuff, the interim chair of its board, Nick Rogers, wrote to other board members dismissing the Super Fund’s proposal as “vague” and “little more than an idea set out on six pages of power point presentation”.

Twyford on Tuesday explained the NZTA failed to properly consider the Super Fund’s proposal, so the Ministry of Transport and Treasury have been tasked with considering proposals by both the NZTA and the Super Fund.

Twyford, prime minister Jacinda Ardern and the NZTA’s new chair Brian Roache all came out saying NZTA had “dropped the ball”. Twyford admitted this set the process back by six to eight months, but said there was no cost blowout, because a project hadn’t actually been decided on, let alone properly costed.

(From the archives) Not a great day for Phil Twyford.

Urban development less of a priority  

The government has always acknowledged the Super Fund’s bid looks different to the NZTA’s. But a December 2018 version of the Super Fund’s proposal, obtained by Stuff, depicts the proposal as being more radical and thus more costly than the $6 billion earmarked for the project.

With a tunnel under Queen St, elevated sections over Mt Eden and automatic driverless trains, this version, which has reportedly been updated, looks more like heavy rail. The Super Fund’s proposal is also said to be faster than the NZTA’s with fewer stops. Details around what these proposals actually look like are under wraps for commercial reasons.

Asked whether he wanted to prioritise speed over urban renewal/intensification around train stops, Twyford said, “This has always been a transport project. It’s about delivering the mobility.”

The Ministry of Transport and Treasury are due to report back to the Government in February next year. Construction work is not expected to take place until 2021. “I have confidence in the work NZTA is doing right now,” Twyford said.

National would cull Super Fund option

National Leader Simon Bridges didn’t miss the opportunity on Tuesday to have a go at the government for what looks like a messy process.

“I think it’s going to be KiwiBuild 2.0… It’s a slow-moving economic train wreck,” said Bridges, who’s also a former transport minister. He referenced sources in the transport industry who told him that part of the problem was that Twyford hadn’t been able to make up his mind about what he wanted.

“He’s gone between an urban regeneration project with lots of stops to mass rapid transport,” Bridges said. “I think the NZ Infra proposal is a deeply cynical one… I think what they are effectively trying to do is get around good processes of a competitive tender and a business case that New Zealanders can see and assess for themselves.”

Bridges said that if National got into government at the next election, and a deal hadn’t been decided on, he would take the Super Fund option off the table. He preferred heavy rail to the airport and making way for more buses.

More certainty the key  

While the Opposition can be criticised for barking at everything it sees, its “KiwiBuild 2.0” phrase has some bite.

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Twyford didn’t follow officials’ advice on KiwiBuild. He had the right motives and dreamed big, but didn’t pay attention to detail. We see the same thing with transport – a breakdown of communication between the NZTA and the minister, and a lack of clear, transparent process.

Twyford can’t solve New Zealand’s long-standing housing and transport woes on his own. He needs to empower the experts who report to him, to do their best work. He needs to be mindful of that “c-word”, certainty, hampering business confidence. Without certainty, the top firms aren’t going to bid for government-led projects.

Twyford has been thrust back in the spotlight, along with light rail. He needs to pull it off – if not for Auckland commuters, then for the rest of us who can expect to hear the “KiwiBuild 2.0” term pulled out again… and again… and again…

This piece was first published on Interest.


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