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The BulletinOctober 20, 2023

Can Auckland Light Rail be saved?


National have made it clear they want it gone asap, but Wayne Brown is urging the new government to consider a slimmed-down version before pulling the plug, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A long and costly railroad to nowhere?

In April 2018 the Labour government unveiled the Auckland Transport Alignment Project – ATAP – and with it, the promise of light rail to the airport and out to Kumeu. That was before Covid delays, Phil Twyford’s departure, the decision to tear up plans for a street level service in favour of a tunnel, and a budget (for the airport leg alone) that ballooned from $3.4b in 2018 to $14.6b in 2023. Now the Auckland Light Rail saga looks to be over, with incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon confirming plans to cancel the “white elephant” of a project. Mayor Wayne Brown, a critic of the existing scheme, says abandoning the whole thing would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are far cheaper ways to deliver light rail for Auckland, he tells Newshub. Speaking to RNZ, transport commentator Matt Lowrie agrees the project can be saved – but only if the government gives up the tunnelling plan. For the cost of one mega-costly tunnel, Auckland could have three ground-level lines providing “three times the benefit – or even more so – because we’ve got an actual network we’re building, we’ve got more capacity overall”.

Where did it all go so wrong?

If, as seems likely, the project is completely goneburger, Auckland can bid farewell to light rail for decades to come, Lowrie tells RNZ, “because that project has been managed so poorly”. He expands on his criticisms in a review of Labour’s record on transport on his Greater Auckland site. By and large, it’s “been a massive disappointment”, he says, with ministers consistently failing to back up big talk with concrete results. The government put “too much trust in officials to deliver change” and then turned around and rewarded those same officials for lack of delivery. The one clear bright spot in Labour’s transport record is its support for electric vehicles through the Clean Car Discount scheme, he says. Before we leave Auckland Light Rail, an awkwardly timed bit of news via Oliver Lewis at Businessdesk (paywalled), who reports that ALR has just settled on the $33m Kiwi Bacon building on New North Road in Kingsland. On the prospect that it may almost immediately be surplus to requirements, chief executive Tommy Parker says: “Properties can be on-sold if no longer required.”

Too late to stop us now, says Wellington mayor

One transport plan the government won’t be stopping is the semi-pedestrianisation of Wellington’s Lambton Quay and Courtenay Place. The construction contract for the Golden Mile project is “literally days away”, mayor Tory Whanau tells The Spinoff’s Wellington editor, Joel MacManus. Presumed transport minister Simeon Brown “won’t be able to cancel it,” she says. “It’ll be well signed by the time they’re sworn in, as it should be.” Asked about it later by The Post’s Erin Gourley (paywalled), the mayor’s office refused to be drawn on exact timings. The pressure group opposing pedestrianisation, Guardians of the Golden Mile, says it’s outraged by Whanau’s comment, given that the council now has “no mandate whatsoever” because of the change of government. As for light rail in the capital, part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving mega-scheme, National has also indicated it wants to scrap that. But Whanau won’t be giving it up without a fight, she tells MacManus this morning. Her plan? A group excursion across the ditch. “What I’m proposing is that me, Christopher Luxon, Simeon Brown and our local MPs head over to Canberra, Brisbane or Sydney and look at their really successful projects.”

Hospitality industry looks forward to post FPA-life

Another Labour policy on the chopping block could be fair pay agreements (FPAs). They’re already law, but National has vowed to repeal it and introduce a new one reinstating 90-day employment trial periods – both promises that have been warmly welcomed by the hospitality industry. A Restaurant Association survey found that 80% of respondents were positive about what the change in government would mean for the industry, RNZ’s Bill Hickman reports. Still, they shouldn’t get ahead of themselves, barrister Mai Chen tells 1 News. Some of her clients have claimed they won’t need to engage with FPAs now – suggesting Luxon needs to be more careful with his language on the issue. “You can’t make a repeal of law by press statement, it has to go through parliament.”

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