See the light on the tram

As the government now appears poised to invest heavily in rapid transit in Auckland, and Wellington now also offers a large active mode and rapid transit program, it is clear that we are at a critical point along the way. to repair our cities. To make them great places to live and work, to study and play by equipping them with the vital infrastructure we know they need to thrive. Thrive and decarbonize, of course.

This moment has a great stake, which calls at the same time vision and prudence. Vision in leadership to choose to change our cities, and the intelligence and prudence to balance the broader needs of other calls on our nation’s resources, as well as the need to add the other parts of our transportation network into common rapid currently incomplete.

It would be disastrous if the tram went through the same unsuccessful process as the Northern Pathway and was canceled, because – under the often confusing assumptions made by Auckland Light Rail (ALR) in putting their advice together – there is clearly a vital and incredibly valuable project at the heart of it.

One of the main concerns with what we’ve seen so far is that the costs, especially of the surface option, are completely out of scale compared to similar international projects.

Costs have been converted to New Zealand dollars and inflated to 2021 values.

There is also the issue that ALR says the cost figures given so far have an accuracy of around -50% to + 60%. This means that the two tunnel options could potentially cost $ 23 billion to $ 26 billion.

I have walked through the history of this project several times before, and a few months ago we described in detail how we would recommend moving the tram forward, making a series of staged extensions that will ultimately allow many parts of Auckland.

Tram to many parts of Auckland

Even with the expensive ‘per km’ surface cost above, the project could be expanded to include the northwest line to Westgate and most of the cross road – for about the same price as the option of light rail on the only CC2M corridor. It would be fascinating to see how this combined network would rank in an assessment against tunnel options.

How do we get this network-driven concept off the page and implement it with nationwide membership, avoiding the fate of the Path of the North? By not pouring our entire investment into a single corridor.

The key will be to emphasize that we can (and must) gradually develop a rapid transit system. One which, along with the existing rail network and other planned rapid transit projects like the Eastern Busway, covers all major parts of Auckland.

To do this, the government must make the first step realistic – something with a cost that is in the region of comparable international projects and does not use up all the money available for decades to come.

At the same time, the government must also make it clear how this first gradual step will ultimately work towards a fantastic and ever-evolving rapid transit network for Auckland. A network that over the next decades will support and shape its growth, enable many more people to move around the city without congestion, and contribute to transformational reduction in travel and vehicle emissions.

Surely this means that the “light tunnel tram” and the “light rail” are simply oversized and too expensive to be smart first floors. A single line that cost $ 14 to $ 16 billion but could end up going over $ 20 billion is too much and too much risk for a city the size of Auckland, especially when we have so many people. other transport investment needs such as long overdue bus networks. and cycle paths.

It also means that we need to find ways to significantly reduce the cost of the LRT option – at least its first step. It seems that ALR assumes that the system chosen here must be the same as the one crossing the port. It is not the case at all. In fact, if you put a surface light rail on Queen St, you preserve an ideal underground route to cross the city perpendicular to the CRL under Wellesley St, which can in the future go all the way to the north coast and use all of it. most suitable form of rail at that time. .

In other words, the light rail here does not exclude the light rail there. “Purifying the future” does not mean making all future decisions now, it means not closing possible futures.

Indeed, sustainability can be best assured by reverting to some key features of the original AT surface light rail option from the middle of the last decade:

  • Stay in the existing Dominion Road corridor, thus avoiding having to buy and demolish so many properties – ALR suggested that 489 properties were needed for their surface option
  • Keep a faster and more efficient route through Mangere while serving downtown Mangere. This will “catch up” for the extra time it takes to surface travel along the Dominion Highway rather than being in a tunnel.
  • Examine the staging of the project, as part of a comprehensive plan to gradually develop Auckland’s rapid transit network. Very few cities build rapid transit projects over 20 km in length in one go – they usually start with a viable indoor section and then slowly expand it outwards.
  • Recognize that digging tunnels, rather than “avoiding disturbance”, involves a longer construction period on a larger scale and huge complex sites (see: CRL). No project is without disruption – but the ALR seems to have misjudged the public appetite for a massive number of trucks hauling tunnel material through our streets for many, many years.
  • Recognize that tunneling also does not provide the right kind of “disruption” for cities that add light surface rail. Not only would this leave our arteries with the traffic and bus-dominated places that they are today, but we would also miss the ever-transformed streetscapes, thriving people-centered communities around local stops, of the benefits of having public transport in the open, a mobile billboard of a better way to get around, attractive and accessible to all, including children, the elderly and visitors to our city.

Then come the delivery problems and here too there are surely opportunities for transformation. With rapid transit, cycling networks and urban transformations now happening in more parts of Auckland, Wellington and hopefully other cities as well, we will need more skills and focus in these areas both locally and nationally.

No decision has yet been made on a delivery entity for the project, with a new venture or Waka Kotahi being considered as options.

In theory, carrying out this type of project should be Waka Kotahi’s job – after all, our national transport agency should be the one that builds transport infrastructure of national significance. But with Waka Kotahi seeming to spoil everything he touches in recent years (Northern Pathway and previous iterations of the light rail come to mind, alongside huge surges in NZUP costs and slowly appalling progress on improving the security), I’m not so sure.

As Auckland and Wellington consider rapid transit, and possibly other cities eventually as well, perhaps the government should look to establish a national rapid transit delivery group that can plan and deliver a pipeline. of light rail and bus projects across the country. This could help reduce costs, speed up delivery and ensure common minimum quality standards for all systems.

We are so close to a fantastic result here, one that will change our city in a permanent and proportional way. But the government will have to avoid the pitfalls it has fallen into on transport projects in recent years.

Ultimately, the government should make it clear that surface light rail is Goldilocks’ choice (“just right”, in terms of scale, deliverability and speed at which we will see benefits. ). Then he would have to set a strict budget well under $ 9 billion and a lot more in line with international references – even if it requires some compromise on design or sequencing. It also wouldn’t hurt to insist on much better advice in the future.

If the government can do that, then work on the design details (like the location of the stations) at pace and with a lot less secrecy, then – hopefully – we’ll get a big project that will launch successfully in a few years. .

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