Tens of millions of dollars spent on Auckland light rail despite no shovels in the ground

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on Auckland light rail since Labour came to power, despite there being no shovels in the ground to build it. 

Information released by Waka Kotahi-NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) shows $34.8 million has been spent since October 2017 on business cases, project management, legal costs, office space and equipment, and Ministry of Transport funding. 

And despite those tens of millions of dollars going into the project, Labour announced in March plans to start from scratch, with a new six-month consultation process launched by Transport Minister Michael Wood. 

National's transport spokesperson Michael Woodhouse says the Government has wasted almost $35 million of taxpayer money on light rail and has nothing to show for it. 

"The Government has spent millions of dollars on a project that can't even get off the drawing board. But that's just the beginning; we still don't know how much light rail will eventually end up costing, if it ever gets off the ground."

Woodhouse said it was unfair the Government introduced the Auckland Regional Fuel Tax, an extra 10 cents at the petrol pump, which Ardern in 2017 described as "crowd-sourcing' if you like" for light rail

The Transport Minister has argued the consultation process is necessary. A new 'establishment unit' will work with Māori, engage with Aucklanders, develop a business case, and provide cost estimates and financing options for light rail. 

While Wood couldn't deliver 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. 

What happened to 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. 

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. 

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 $10 billion and proposed a tunnel under Queen St and elevated sections over Mt Eden.

The proposed future light rail track in Auckland.
The proposed future light rail track in Auckland. Photo credit: Supplied

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. 

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. 

Wood has his sights set on a "linked up" transport network in Auckland with light rail as the spine to bring it all together in the future. 

Wood cannot say at this point how much light rail cost, but he said to expect a multibillion-dollar project, due to its size and significance. It already has $1.8 billion allocated to it. 

The Government will make decisions "at the end of the year".