What I’m Looking For in the Government’s Light Rail Transit Announcement

An article published yesterday by Simon Wilson in the NZ Herald (paywall) seems to suggest that the government will choose the ‘light rail tunnel’ option for the City Center to Māngere project.

In October last year Transport Minister Michael Wood said he was making a recommendation to Cabinet for a line to link Wynyard Quarter with the airport. It is called City Center to Māngere, or CC2M. The ALR Wood task force set up mid-year had offered him three options and recommended one. Cabinet made its decision in November. We are still waiting to find out what it was. It is very likely that the government has accepted the task force’s choice. It is a light rail that will travel through tunnels from Wynyard to Mt Roskill, before resurfacing to run along National Highway 20B to the airport, deviating to the town centers of Onehunga and Māngere in the process of road.

There are rumors that an official announcement could take place later this week.

I’ve written extensively on the merits of different options for the CC2M corridor over the past few months, including why tunnel light rail is a “worst of both worlds” option: having the extremely high cost of tunnel rail, but some of the limitations of an on-street system. Rather than rehashing these points, in this article I want to focus on some of the other things that I will be watching for in the upcoming announcement. Specifically:

  • What rationale does the government use for its decision.
  • How much “wiggle room” there is to further refine the design in the next step.
  • What the government says about the North-West and North-Shore rapid transit corridors.
  • Which organization will move the project forward.
  • What happens to Dominion Rd if a tunnel option is chosen

Justify your decision

The very first thing to pay attention to is how the government justifies its decision, whatever it is. In particular, if they go with the “the worst of both worlds“Tunnel light rail option, I’ll be very curious why they did it. Simon Wilson seems to suggest that a key factor could be minimizing business interruptions:

But the Cabinet has decided. The Prime Minister, presumably, wants these tunnels. Social equity, transport efficiency, climate change? Please tell me they won’t be sacrificed just to keep Dominion Rd retailers from complaining about the construction bustle. Here’s a thought: why not find better ways to help them through this turmoil?

While Auckland Light Rail (ALR) recommended the tunnel light rail option, it was clear that all three options achieved the desired objectives and offered broadly similar value for money. Even spending a few hundred million to compensate retailers is still a much cheaper option than a tunnel.

Given this, it will be a very big call to go for anything other than the cheapest option – and this huge decision will have to be very well justified.


Room for future design refinements

The next thing I’m going to look for is how much detail the government has “decided” on and how much it leaves for future work. ALR only had six months to prepare its business case and came up with a new recommended option from the previous seven years of work on the project. That means there’s probably a lot of detail to iron out, even if a major call is made on mode and route. The questions of particular interest to me are:

  • If a tunnel option is chosen, is the start and end of the tunnel clear? Could future work on the project refine it to a tunnel in downtown but above ground on Dominion Rd or will they carve in stone a tunnel all the way across the isthmus?
  • ALR’s tunnel light rail option ran under Sandringham Road, or at least close to it, but the extra distance from Dominion negated much of the time saved by going underground rather than by surface, especially once you count the time it takes to get to a subway station. The route from Sandringham Rd to the city also seems to duplicate most of what we are building the City Rail Link for. Could the route be reworked in the future?
  • What route will Onehunga and Māngere take? Unlike the subway option, the tunnel light rail only worries about disrupting Dominion Road activities during construction and is quite happy to travel above ground through Onehunga and Māngere. This means important decisions have to be made, such as whether the line will take a slow circuitous route through Māngere which loses most of the time gained through the expensive Isthmus tunnel, or whether there is still room to explore more effective options while continuing to serve these people. communities.
Tram on Bader Dr
  • I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the downtown route and station locations. Previous tunnel options in the city center had a “university” station at the top of Wyndham Street – which is about as close to most of the University of Auckland as Aotea station. Given the extremely high cost of building downtown stations (just ask the CRL), I doubt this will survive for long. It will also be interesting to see what is proposed in terms of serving the Wynyard district and what this tells us about future plans for expansion to the North Shore. I have the impression that we are being prepared for a stupid mixed road/rail port tunnel project when a road crossing is not justified and will aggravate traffic jams.

What this means for the Northwest and North Shore

My biggest concern about the tunnel light rail option is its cost – at over $10 billion in today’s value, it would be more than twice as expensive as CRL, which is currently the largest transportation project that we have tried. With inflation, this cost rises to almost $15 billion by the time it is completed, which is not much less than half of the current price. all 10-year ATAP program (which must cover all transport investments, including public transport operation, maintenance, etc.). I’ve already explained how all the light rail options have ridiculously high costs when you compare them to overseas projects, but that should push us even more towards the cheapest option.

If the government opts for tunnel light rail, I’m very concerned about what the $5 billion (approximately) in additional spending over surface light rail will mean for other major rapid transit projects across Auckland – especially towards the northwest and the north coast. It was only last year that ATAP reinforced the urgency of implementing full rapid transit (not just relatively modest bus lane upgrades) to the Northwest:

It has been 5 years since any significant work has been done on planning proper rapid transit to the northwest.

Michael Wood has been pretty good at emphasizing the importance of thinking of Auckland’s various rapid transit projects as a network, but we’ve yet to see that actually mean anything on the ground. I will be particularly interested to see what the government has to say about how the extremely slow progress of rapid transit planning and design in Auckland could be accelerated and done in a much more integrated way across different projects in the future .


Who will move the project forward?

ALR has advanced the CC2M business case with an odd mix of central government and local government decision makers on its board. One of ALR’s tasks was supposed to provide advice on who will carry out the project, but they essentially ran away from doing so – saying instead that the options should remain open for the time being.

Finding the best delivery agency for CC2M, however, is the wrong question. Ultimately, CC2M is just another part of Auckland’s rapid transit network, like North West, North Shore, Airport in Botany, City Rail Link and many other projects future. The mess that every rapid transit project has to go through to be designed, funded and built means that we actually need a proper resolution to the question of “who should do rapid transit in New Zealand?” »

In theory, this should be Waka Kotahi’s job – as rapid transit is simply the public transport version of the freeway network – but they still seem stuck in the road-building paradigm of the last century and still seem to be actively trying to delay rapid transit projects. So maybe a new national organization (Rapid Transit Aotearoa?) should take this project – and others – forward?

Either way, it’s essential that we not only know how CC2M will move forward, but also some assurance that the government is thinking about rapid transit as a whole and how we can make the projects future much simpler to advance.


What about Dominion Road?

One of the superpowers of surface light rail on Dominion Rd is that it’s not just a transportation project, but also forces us to upgrade downtown areas along the way. These town centers have been in limbo for decades as successive transportation plans for improved light rail and buses come and go.

With a tunnel light rail option, the work to improve public transport and city centers on this corridor will still exist, but now without any plan or funding. Will the government tackle this?

And if the answer is to leave it to the Council and Auckland Transport, I wonder what companies concerned about disruption will think about getting nothing now.

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