Light Rail by-election stoush

On the weekend, the Labour Party, as part of the Mt Roskill by-election campaign, announced their intention to fund 50% of the cost of the proposed light rail line from Wynyard to Mt Roskill via Dominion Rd, one of the routes Auckland Transport first suggested in January last year.

The government have responded with both barrels, accusing Labour of pork-barrel politics but also quite worryingly, reverting to with many of the same arguments and contempt they showed for the City Rail Link – and we know how that worked out.

The Spinoff were clearly thinking of many of the same things I was on the issue yesterday but here are a few others in no particular order.

Government already agreed improvements were needed

One of the oddest aspects of this whole debate is that the government, through the recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), have already agreed an upgrade of the road is needed. The main report says this about central access:

Access to this area is physically constrained, and there is competition for limited street-space between vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and public amenity. This means it is imperative over time to move more people in fewer vehicles. This requires a continued modal shift towards public transport, walking and cycling.

Although bus efficiency improvements can help cope with increased demand in the short term, there are limits to the extent to which such improvements can continue to provide sufficient capacity. A mass transit solution will be required in the medium term. Key criteria for determining the best long-term solution should be the ability to meet projected demand in a way that integrates with the broader strategic network, provides for and stimulates ongoing growth along these corridors and in the city centre, and delivers value for money.

In the supporting information they also say:

Based on current forecasts, we concluded that the constraints in central Auckland can be managed through bus efficiency improvements for the next 10 years. Efficiency improvements over the next decade include continuing the roll out of double decker buses, changes to bus stops, and improving the routes taken into the central city.

On that basis, we concluded that a higher capacity mode, possibly light rail, is likely to be required on the central isthmus in the medium-term (2028-2038), and subsequently extended to Auckland Airport.

So the report talks about the need to move more people to catching PT and that more buses are only short term solutions.

Perhaps the biggest problem with ATAP, and what is reflected highly in this situation is the timing. As we’ve discussed before, ATAP relies heavily on old school transport modelling, the same stuff that has regularly over estimated driving demand and well underestimated the growth in PT use. That means many of the PT projects are likely to be needed sooner than ATAP suggests and light rail down Dominion Rd is probably the most likely of the proposals to be pulled forward. This is also partially confirmed by the table below showing the two main packages assessed as part of ATAP. Light Rail is teetering between decade 1 and 2 depending on the package suggesting at the very least it will need to be near the start of decade two.

atap-major-package-differences

Rapid Buses

In his interview with Radio New Zealand yesterday morning Prime Minister John Key was trying to pour as much cold water on the project as possible. He did highlight that Mass Transit was listed in ATAP as a second decade project that could mean light rail but that the Transport Agency are also looking at bus options. The term Mass Transit as used in ATAP is deliberately ambiguous as the reality is, some members of the government and their various agencies have an almost allergic reaction to the term rail. Some believe that whatever a train can do, a bus can do too, and do it cheaper.

The reality as it’s always been. is that we’ll need a mix of modes and it depends a lot on the route. In some. cases heavy rail is needed, in others light rail will be fine but in most cases buses will do the job well.

Dominion Rd is already the busiest bus corridor outside of the Northern Busway. The issue is that just chucking more and bigger buses on Dominion Rd – and other roads on the isthmus – isn’t a long term strategy for the simple fact is that there’s only a limited capacity on city streets to be able to handle those buses plus all the rest from other parts of Auckland. According to the Central Access Plan, the business case for Light Rail, Symonds St is already over capacity and that only gets worse as more buses and demand get added over time.

Symonds St Bus Numbers

Symonds St Bus Numbers

Unless the government and their agencies address how putting more buses on an already over capacity routes, they’re just wasting everyone’s time.

“Buses use roads”

John Key also reverted to this old chestnut during his talk on Radio NZ to defend his government’s investment in so many roads. It’s a line they’ve used many times before but as with previous times it is fundamentally flawed. The issue is that buses need to be able to pick up and drop off passengers and that happens on local roads, not motorways like the government have focused on. As such you’re not going to see any AT services running through the Waterview tunnels, or on any of the widened motorways. The big exception to this is along State Highway 16 west of Pt Chev however there, the government and their agencies refused to build a busway to enable buses to work properly. The upgrades aren’t even finished and not building the busway at the same time is already looking to be a massive and costly blunder.

The real reason for the government opposition?

I’ve long wondered if the real reason the government have often been so reluctant to support rail projects is they know they’ll actually be too popular and everywhere will want one. This is a point Stephen Joyce himself raised in his opposition to the plan – which has also served to see it discussed much more than it probably would have otherwise.

To say nothing of every other electorate in Auckland looking for multi-billions in new railway lines.

It’s not just Auckland that will want them either, I can imagine Wellington, Christchurch and maybe a few other cities wanting rail investment.

Why only half Labour?

A key part of Labours policy of supporting Light Rail is that they’ll pay for half of the costs with Auckland paying the rest. This is the same as what’s now happening with the City Rail Link. Yesterday Mayor Phil Goff raises a point I’ve been meaning to write about since ATAP, why should Auckland pay half. I’ll discuss this issue in greater detail in a separate post but there are a couple of key issues I have.

First, the government’s contribution would come from either general taxes or from a reformed National Land Transport Fund. Even based on that 50:50 arrangement Auckland actually contributes about 68% of the costs because an approximately 36% of the governments contribution would also come from Auckland, as that is Auckland’s proportion of the national economy  economy. So while paying for 68% of these urban Transit project Auckland will still be contributing 36% of the cost of every State Highway everywhere else in the nation. In effect this is using transport capex funding as a kind of city penalty; a way of redistributing from Auckland rate payers to the rest of the nation.

Second and a point also raised by Phil Goff yesterday, why should Aucklanders be stumping up 50% for a national scale project. Auckland’s Strategic Road network (the motorways) are all paid for, 100% by the government. ATAP also agreed on a Strategic PT network as shown below with the Dominion Rd route clearly visible. I’d argue that the strategic PT network should for the most part be funded the same way as the strategic road network.

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

 

The project is a PPP

One aspect missing from the current conversation is that the project isn’t expected to be funded like most transport projects. It has been previously discussed that this would be built and operated as a PPP, something the government have said they want more of. While in most cases PPPs are just another name for debt, with transit systems and the right incentives it might help encourage the private operator to also boost development along the route to make the project even more successful.

Some certainty is needed

Upgrading Dominion Rd has been an on again, off again discussion for the last 20 years and upgrading it is way overdue. As the local business association pointed out yesterday, they need some certainty as to what’s happening

The Dominion Rd Business Association has today called on both the National and Labour parties to stop playing politics over the future form of mass transit along Dominion Rd, saying that businesses along the 7km iconic strip want certainty over what transport will look like over the coming years, not political posturing.

….

Mr Holmes says the uncertain future for Dominion Rd has been a constant source of worry and confusion for businesses and landlords alike, holding back any significant investment in the area.

It’s time that Mayor-elect Phil Goff, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport work constructively with political parties across the political divide to come up with a definitive answer for mass transit in Auckland.

Given the history I don’t think that’s too much to ask

 

 

Regardless of whether light rail or some other form of better buses happen on Dominion Rd in the future, as ATAP points out, some improvements are needed to happen now. The bus lanes have too many gaps, especially through the town centres, they don’t run for long enough each day and double deckers are needed.