Transport Minister Michael Wood explains why Govt has taken track it has with Auckland rail

OPINION:

Auckland has the makings of one of the great international cities, but we all know that our historic failure to invest in high-quality rapid transit that efficiently moves large numbers of people around our growing city holds us back.

This recognition is reflected in a letter the Government received from a diverse range of stakeholders last year. A group comprised of the EMA, Heart of the City, Bike Auckland, Generation Zero and the AA wrote to us asking for a new and more open process to consider light rail.

They affirmed the importance of rapid transit for Auckland saying they were “united in the belief that Auckland desperately needs a high-quality rapid transit system” and urged us to provide key stakeholders with the opportunity to give feedback prior to binding decisions being made.

As recently as 18 months ago Matthew Hooton made largely the same point. In a column in October 2019, he basically advocated for a “light metro” style system which he argued would better meet Auckland’s growth and congestion challenges than the “streetcar model” that was previously mooted.

In fact, across the board, and across political boundaries, the response to last week’s announcement has reflected stakeholders’ views. Aucklanders know that we will choke on our own growth without significant investment in mass transit.

People have different ideas about exactly what we should deliver, they want a good and open process to consider the options, but equally they want to see some action.

This accords with my own experience as an Auckland commuter. As someone who gets the bus from the end of Dominion Rd regularly, I can see that buses are already clogging key central city corridors at peak times.

Despite more public transport investment and infrastructure, we are at risk of it taking longer for people to get to work or education in the city without the step change that light rail provides.

It’s simple physics – a full bus moves around 60 passengers at a time, compared to 300-400 in a single modern light rail unit, which can operate at greater frequencies, and without traffic holdups where grade-separated.

Light Rail also gives us a step change in emissions, providing clean and efficient public transport that will support people to leave the car at home, and integrates well with walking and cycling.

We need light rail to support growth in Mangere, Onehunga, and Mount Roskill in particular. This corridor of hundreds of thousands of people currently doesn’t have access to reliable rapid transit, and includes some of the fastest-growing areas of population and jobs in the entire country.

Our vision for Auckland is to create a vibrant, connected city that’s easier, cleaner and safer to get around – light rail will help make that happen. The city centre to Māngere line will be the spine of a rapid transit network that eventually will link with the North and North-west, allowing people to move across our region on a fully integrated transport system.

Given the above, it is critical for this city-shaping project to move forward. I want to acknowledge the process the Government undertook last term was not good. Stakeholders were right to call for a new approach with more openness. As the new Transport Minister, I’ve listened and we will involve and engage Auckland in the next phase.

We have tasked an Establishment Unit with a six-month work programme including:

• Completing an indicative business case to allow decisions to be made on mode and route, and providing cost estimates, and funding and financing options,

• Partnering with Māori to identify opportunities,

• Engaging with stakeholders and communities,

• And determining the best form for the delivery entity –either City Rail Link Limited or a new joint venture with Auckland Council.

The Establishment Unit will be a collaboration between central and local government. The Mayor and Deputy Mayor will oversee this along with myself and the Minister of Finance.

Taking this inclusive approach allows for a strong focus on engagement – which is critical to getting the best outcome for Auckland.

Strangely, Matthew Hooton criticises this process because some central government agencies advocated for a more standard corporate governance structure without community involvement.

He needs to decide whether he wants officials in Wellington determining these matters, or an Auckland-based Minister who knows the city making decisions. In the past he has strongly argued for the latter.

The Establishment Unit will be governed by an independent chair, and representatives from the Ministry of Transport, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, Waka Kotahi, iwi Māori, and a Local Board member. I also expect the Establishment Unit will set up an office and be present in the community. They will meet with stakeholders and communicate with key communities along the potential routes. In the coming weeks I will announce the appointment of the independent chair of the Unit.

Once the Government receives the advice from the Establishment Unit at the end of the year, we will make the key decisions on route, mode, and delivery entity. We will then be able to give the public more certainty on issues like cost and timeframes.

I know some would have liked me to announce a shovel-ready project last month, but I also want to be absolutely certain that the plan we move forward with is the right one. That’s why this fresh start is involving Aucklanders and doing the work alongside them.

Aucklanders know that we cannot carry on as we have, avoiding major investments and passing problems on to the next generation. Light Rail will be a true city-shaping project that gets our city moving and forms the basis for a future region-wide rapid transit network.

It’s a hard project because of its scale and complexity, but that cannot be a reason to delay again. I have set up the Establishment Unit to involve Auckland in the decision making over the next six months before we shift to a delivery phase.

I’d encourage Matthew Hooton to drop the cynicism and ad hominem, and instead join other Aucklanders in engaging constructively in a project that is central to unlocking the enormous potential of Tāmaki Makaurau.

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