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Light rail for Auckland and Wellington is a contentious issue this election.
Light rail for Auckland and Wellington is a contentious issue this election.

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 26, 2021

Auckland light rail will be far from cheap, but the cost of inaction will be higher

Light rail for Auckland and Wellington is a contentious issue this election.
Light rail for Auckland and Wellington is a contentious issue this election.

By the end of year, the first line on the Auckland Light Rail network is set to be locked in. It’s a project that has the opportunity to shape the city for the next century, argues transport minister Michael Wood.

As New Zealand’s largest city rushes towards a population of two million by the early 2030s, we can choose to invest in infrastructure to create opportunities and liveability, or we can choke on our own growth. At the heart of the matter is the need to enable more housing in places where people can easily access work, education, and recreation. Done well, this growth can be accommodated in a way that reduces congestion and carbon emissions, and improves the environment of our city. Done poorly – as we have for much of the past 60 years – it will result in urban sprawl, ever more chronic congestion, disconnected communities, and complete care dependency.

The development of an efficient, accessible and linked-up rapid transit network for Auckland is the key to getting the right outcomes.

Light rail in Auckland will unlock tens of thousands of new homes, access to employment and education, and faster connections right across the city. As a lifelong Aucklander, I’ve seen first-hand how the past failure to invest in linked-up public transport has led to the chronic congestion and frustration many people deal with today. Some readers may recall “Robbie’s Rapid Rail Plan”, Auckland mayor Dove-Myer Robinson’s proposal of an extensive rail system across the city all the way back in the early 1970s. Just imagine the kind of city Auckland would be today if in 1975 the incoming Muldoon government hadn’t squashed Mayor Robbie’s bold transport vision. Well, the opportunity is in front of us again – do we finally invest in the high-quality mass transit system our growing city needs, or do we put our heads in the sand for another 50 years?

After months of public consultation, mana whenua engagement and community outreach, the Auckland Light Rail (ALR) team has now delivered a robust business case for the first line between the city centre and Māngere. This would connect key housing, education and employment hubs between the city and airport – allowing huge numbers of people to move freely, quickly and easily. The ALR team has provided three different options for taking the project forward, which cabinet will consider before the end of the year. The options have different benefits and trade-offs, but all deliver reliable journey times, reduce transport emissions, and offer potential for large-scale housing growth and urban regeneration in places like the Māngere town centre.

As Justin Latif noted in his article on The Spinoff earlier this year, a light rail line through Māngere would be an “economic game-changer”, with widespread support from the community, businesses and city councillors. The city centre-Māngere light rail corridor could support up to 66,000 new homes, which would accommodate a quarter of Auckland’s future population growth. It would also cut travel times in half, and offer affordable and consistent service. As in other international cities, light rail services would run every five minutes, so you wouldn’t need to plan your journey and could just show up and go.

Auckland Light Rail would be a transformative project for the city, shaping Auckland’s urban form for the next century. I see this first line between the city centre and Māngere as the spine of Auckland’s public transport network, connecting in with the existing heavy rail system, new mass rapid transit systems to the south and north-west, and at Wynyard Quarter, enabling a future line to link to the North Shore. 

The project would be the largest transport project in New Zealand’s recent history. After decades of under-investment, there is no free lunch here. But let’s be clear that the cost of inaction will be much higher. Pre-Covid, congestion in Auckland alone cost approximately $1.3 billion per year, a figure that will only get worse as Auckland continues its rapid growth. If we follow a model of urban sprawl, that too will require significant infrastructure investment at the city fringes.

Delivering light rail to Auckland is a manifesto commitment of our government, and it’s a top priority for me as transport minister. The best time to invest in public transport was yesterday, the second best time is today. So let’s not waste another half century depriving Aucklanders of the high-quality, low-emissions, linked-up public transport network that they deserve.

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