Auckland light rail survives policy purge, but completed plans still two years away

Auckland light rail has survived Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' policy purge after speculation it would be axed, however, completed plans are still two years away. 

Light rail in Dublin is a glimpse of what could be for Auckland city, but it's also a dream that's seemed increasingly unlikely amid the cost of living crisis reprioritisation.

"The Prime Minister's asked all ministers to look across their portfolios," said Transport Minister Michael Wood in January.

However, on Thursday there was a change of tune from the Transport Minister who announced that light rail is going full speed ahead.

"We will support our regions, we will rebuild after Cyclone Gabrielle, but we're also going to look ahead to the future," said Wood.

The first physical work is taking place at Gribblehirst Park in Sandringham where the drilling rig will dig the first of 30 holes up to 80 metres deep across the proposed light rail route to gather geotechnical data. 

It will be the very first shovel in the ground, but it's been a long road to get to this point.

In 2017, Labour promised light rail from Auckland's CBD to the airport within a decade. However, after unsuccessful bids to build it and New Zealand First pulling the handbrake, plans were put to a stop.

But despite tens of millions of dollars spent on consultation in 2021, Labour decided to start from scratch.

Last year the Government let Auckland's Dominion Road off the hook, finally deciding on a partially-tunnelled option underground running from the CBD to Mount Roskill. And another one, above ground, following State Highway 2 to the airport.

However, Treasury warned it could reach up to $30 billion.

"This is not the time to spend $30 billion on a light rail project. This has been a debacle of a project from the beginning," said National leader Christopher Luxon.

"We don't expect it to be anywhere near that, and in fact, I expect further efficiencies as we work through the detailed design process," Wood responded.

But that detailed plan won't come until the end of next year, and how to pay for it is another issue at hand.

"We're going to work through those issues as part of the Budget process," said Wood.

The plan is to eventually link it up with the City Rail Link to create an integrated transit network.

With Auckland's population tipped to reach two million by 2030, good public transport is going to be even more of a necessity.