23 Jan 2015

Mayor cool on early light rail start

7:32 pm on 23 January 2015

Auckland's mayor is unenthusiastic about an early start to a light rail network in the city, despite the council's transport agency being close to deciding whether it's a good idea.

Auckland Council's transport agency is investigating a network it believes could begin construction within a year and says it may decide within months whether it favours replacing buses with light rail on major central arterial roads.

Auckland's Mayor Len Brown launching public consultation on the city's Long Term Plan.

Auckland's Mayor Len Brown launching public consultation on the city's Long Term Plan. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

The announcement came on the day Auckland Mayor Len Brown launched seven weeks of public consultation on the most difficult ten-year budget Auckland has faced.

The key issue in that budget is whether Aucklanders will pay an extra $12 billion in new charges to build otherwise unaffordable transport projects over the next 30 years.

Much of the limelight today, however, was stolen by the council's own transport agency, when it revealed it is sizing up a possible 30km light rail network.

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Mr Brown told media invited to the launch of the ten-year budget consultation, that however compelling the case for light rail might turn out to be, it will not jump the queue.

"This has to be considered in amongst all our other priorities, so it's critical for you to breathe deeply."

Radio New Zealand understands a light rail network would cost more than $1 billion dollars.

Auckland Transport hopes to decide in two months whether it is a better option than increasingly congested bus routes. Any proposal will need the approval of Auckland councillors.

George Wood is one councillor who does not believe there is political support for a new project now, and the agency should not have surprised them.

Light Rail routes can carry three times the number of passengers as buses.

Light Rail routes can carry three times the number of passengers as buses. Photo: Auckland Transport

Two councillors sit on the transport agency's board. One is Christine Fletcher; the other, Mike Lee, says he did not see the need to give any prior warning to his political colleagues.

"I was confident the councillors were going to be briefed, in depth, at the right, which was going to be a matter of weeks after I was first briefed on it. We were asked to keep it confidential until planning was ready to go out to the council."

The confidential work on light rail is the reason for a previously unexplained halt to a long-proposed upgrade of Dominion Road as it is a possible route for the light rail.

Puketepapa Local Board chair Julie Fairey is not impressed at being briefed only this morning by the agency, but likes the light rail idea and said locals should make their views known.

"I personally at this stage am leaning towards yes. We've got more information to come, but we've got a real opportunity for the public to have input, in the long term plan consultation, which is great."

Public transport advocates support the introduction of electric-powered, high-capacity light rail in Auckland.

TransportBlog editor Matt Lowrie sees nothing wrong in the way the idea has surfaced.

"It's really interesting that Auckland Transport is coming up with its own ways of solving problems. It's coming from experts, who are saying 'What do we need?' That's a really good position to be in. Too often we see projects come up and they're vanity projects."

Some of the light rail network would serve the Roskill electorate of Labour's Auckland issues spokesperson, Phil Goff.

He backs the idea being explored, but said more needs to be known about its cost and how it will be funded.

Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter believes the Government should back light rail, but thinks the way Auckland Transport has taken the lead could jeopardise its chances.

While Auckland Transport works on the case for light rail, and how private finance might speed its arrival, Len Brown is trying to keep Aucklanders focussed on the ten-year budget debate.

The big transport question facing Aucklanders is to choose between either paying to use motorways, or paying higher rates and fuel taxes to fund projects already agreed as priorities.