Long wait for Auckland light rail: Decisions to be made 'at end of the year' as new consultation begins

The long wait for light rail in Auckland continues. 

Transport Minister Michael Wood has announced a new six-month consultation process to get the project moving, and says the Government will make decisions "at the end of the year". 

"I know some would have liked me to announce a shovel-ready project today, but I also want to be absolutely certain that the plan we move forward with is the right one," Wood said on Wednesday. 

The Government has tasked an 'establishment unit' with a six-month work programme, including working with Māori, engaging with Aucklanders, developing a business case, and providing cost estimates and financing options for light rail. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged during the 2017 election campaign that Labour would build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport within a decade. 

Labour had already promised to build light rail from Auckland CBD to Mt Roskill and Ardern said at the time it would be complete in four years, but more three years have passed and light rail is nowhere to be seen. 

Transport Minister Michael Wood.
Transport Minister Michael Wood. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

While Wood wasn't able to give a 'shovel ready project', he did confirm light rail will be delivered either by City Rail Link or by a new joint venture with Auckland Council. City Rail Link is due for completion in late 2024 and costs $4.4 billion. 

"As the new Transport Minister, I've been tasked with getting the project moving and I acknowledge Aucklanders were shut out of the previous process," Wood said. 

"We've had calls for Government to involve communities and stakeholders - I've listened and this is what we'll do."

Wood said involving Auckland Council is "critical", so Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore can work with him and Finance Minister Grant Robertson to oversee the work. 

"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," Wood said. 

"We will then be able to give the public certainty on issues like cost and timeframes."

An artist's impression of light rail in Auckland.
An artist's impression of light rail in Auckland. Photo credit: Auckland Transport

Goff praised the Government's inclusion of Auckland Council and the community as key partners in the project, but emphasised it will be fully funded by central Government - not the council. 

"With the involvement of the council, Government, transport agencies, stakeholders and the community, I hope we can get this project underway sooner rather than later," Goff said. 

Wood said the Auckland light rail project is the "most significant city-shaping piece of infrastructure since the Auckland Harbour Bridge". 

National leader Judith Collins says the Government should be focusing on building a second Auckland harbour crossing, but it's not currently on the Government's agenda.   

The Government intends to build the light rail track from the city to the airport as a starting piece. It could then be extended into a full rapid transit network. 

Long wait for Auckland light rail: Decisions to be made 'at end of the year' as new consultation begins
Photo credit: Supplied

With Auckland's population set to increase by about 720,000 people to 2.4 million over the next 30 years, the new public transport system couldn't come soon enough. 

What's the hold-up?

The Government made some progress on light rail during the previous term, but the process was bogged down by long consultation processes, an unsolicited bid to build it, and New Zealand First refusing to support it. 

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) began working on a business case in 2018 for CC2M, a light rail track connecting Auckland CBD to Māngere. It was suggested the track would then be expanded north and north-west in the future. 

In April 2018, the Government received an unsolicited bid from NZ Infra, a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian investment group. It was estimated at $10bn and proposed a tunnel under Queen St and elevated sections over Mt Eden.

The unsolicited bid from NZ Infra was dismissed by NZTA. Former Transport Minister Phil Twyford criticised NZTA in 2019 for not properly assessing the proposal, and responsibility was given to Treasury and the Ministry of Transport.

In December 2019, the Secretary for Transport Peter Mersi confirmed both NZTA and NZ Infra had submitted proposals for light rail and that the Ministry of Transport would lead the process to consider them. 

The evaluation process ended without the appointment of a preferred delivery partner. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process down and it became clear Cabinet could not reach consensus.

Twyford announced in June last year Cabinet had agreed to suspend the light rail project until after the election because the Government parties "were unable to reach an agreement" - the Greens were in favour but not NZ First. 

Auckland Councillor Richard Hills told The AM Show on Wednesday without Winston Peters in the way, the Government has no excuse but to get on with fulfilling its light rail promise.