Now that the issue of a reasonable Auckland venue for the America’s Cup is settled, we Aucklanders need to settle in for robust debate on the public transport infrastructure our city needs.
Leadership is required, preferably elected and of the sort that collaboratively resolved the Cup venue issue.
We also need to uncouple the process from the Auckland Transport CCO, now much inflated as to personnel and ensconced in plush harbourside offices at the Viaduct. Far from being a publicly-benign and quietly efficient transport agency, it has become a lightning rod for public discontent and a byword for trampling the concept of public consultation.
It also has the reputation for commissioning consultants’ reports and costings which, by the addition of many additional zeros, can be counted on to herd politicians in any direction favoured by its own pundits.
In the last election hustings, the various political parties offered Aucklanders the choice of driving, catching a bus, modern trams and going by train to the city’s airport.
National wanted road and rapid buses with the possibility of light rail by 2047. Labour wanted light rail (modern trams) by 2027 and the Greens were up for modern trams by 2021. Auckland Transport and central government’s New Zealand Transport Agency wanted trams from the Wynyard Quarter up Queen Street and along Dominion Road.
At the time, Winston Peters pointed out that overseas cities had heavy rail connections between their airports, city centres and rail networks. “In Auckland, light rail would not provide enough capacity in either the medium or long term, and would be 30 per cent or worse slower than heavy rail,” he said.
The rule of thumb for public transport is that modern trams (light rail) are hop on-hop off, short distance public transport. Fast, modern and high-capacity electric trains (heavy rail) are quicker and more efficient over longer distances.
Unfortunately, light rail is still Auckland Transport’s fancy, an option it says will cost a mere $1.3 billion (though that’s fudging it, since the figure presupposes the pre-existence of light rail along Dominion Road to Otahuhu which is also light years away).
By comparison, working from an option that included double tracking the dangerous Onehunga branch line and extending rail to Mangere Bridge and the airport, the CCO said ‘heavy’ rail would run out at $2.2 billion.
As Winston Peters said rather tartly during the election process when we were publicly debating this stuff, New Zealand First did not accept that the cost of heavy rail to the airport had increased from $600 million 10 years ago to more than $2 billion, as claimed by Auckland Transport.
Besides, the current stations at Papatoetoe and Puhinui already pass within seven kilometres of the airport and almost all of the intervening distance is over farmland on which, judging by the trains that literally chuff through the Dorset countryside, the tracks would have a minimal impact.
It’s hard to fathom the rational for sending citizens and our valued visitors to and from Auckland’s airport aboard trams along the already-stressed Dominion Road.
It is hardly elegant compared with an option of open fields and various handsome views of both harbours and the Orakei Basin from a fast electric train.
A year ago, the NZTA and AT boards agreed (in happy collusion) that there would be a staged, integrated transition from bus to light rail transit from the airport to the city centre, ‘based on future demand and capacity’. They also agreed to commence route protection for the already congested corridor.
In the meantime, we are stuck with a weird shuttling of downtown travellers up to the top of Queen Street to the Airbus and the formerly adequate airport route has become, according to Auckland Transport’s trip planner, a journey of up to an hour and 20 minutes, at a cost of $18.
It’s quicker by train. The maximum wait time between train departures at Britomart is 10 minutes on peak or 20 minutes in off peak times and Waiheke travellers often take the half-hour train ride to Papatoetoe. From nearby Shirley Road bus station, buses leave for the airport every 15 minutes. Total cost $4.80 with a hop card.
About 71,000 people live in the area around the airport and Auckland Airport passengers are expected to double to 24 million a year by 2025. It is one of Auckland’s largest employment areas, with about 33,000 jobs and $3.5 billion GDP.
It seems fairly obvious that a robust, fast heavy rail link would provide more reliable journeys as well as bringing us rather neatly into the 21st century.
The easier life is for its citizens, the more productive, happy and clever Auckland will look when the world comes knocking. • Liz Waters