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'Double standard': Former transport minister slates Nats for scrapping Auckland light rail

Bernard Orsman,
Publish Date
Tue, 16 Jan 2024, 7:01AM

'Double standard': Former transport minister slates Nats for scrapping Auckland light rail

Bernard Orsman,
Publish Date
Tue, 16 Jan 2024, 7:01AM

Former transport minister Michael Wood has lashed out at National’s decision to scrap light rail, saying it is incredibly disappointing for Auckland but not surprising. 

The Government on Sunday officially cancelled the central city to airport light rail project, which Transport Minister Simeon Brown said would have cost taxpayers $15 billion, with advice showing the price tag could balloon to $29.2b. 

“After six years and over $228 million spent on the project, not a single metre of track has been delivered and congestion has only worsened in the city,” Brown said. 

Wood, who lost his seat of Mt Roskill and was ousted from Parliament at October’s election, today accused National of double standards and cancelling investment in Auckland public transport at every opportunity. 

He acknowledged issues with light rail in Labour’s first term but said after he became Transport Minister in 2020, a huge amount of work had been done and the project was poised for construction to begin next year. 

“There is a double standard here. When there is a large roading project, like the Ōtaki to the north of Levin project, there has been pretty similar progress over the last three years... but the National Party doesn’t criticise that because they like big roading projects,” he said. 

Labour’s Transport spokesman Tani Utikere echoed Wood’s comments, saying many Aucklanders will rightly feel let down by National’s decision to scrap a project that would have benefited many communities and significantly futureproofed public transport in the country’s largest city. 

“The reality is that we need long-term transport solutions which will serve our future generations, help us achieve climate goals and ease congestion,” Utikere said. 

Wood, who had just returned to Auckland from a summer holiday when he spoke to the Herald yesterday, said he did not have the information at hand to know if the $228m cost of light rail since 2017 was correct. 

Auckland Light Rail's indicative route.Auckland Light Rail's indicative route. 

“I certainly know over the course of the project that I oversaw since 2020 the cost was substantially less than that. 

“Any significant project, whether road or rail, a lot of cost comes before construction. You have to get the experts in to design it well, you have to acquire land and that kind of thing,” he said. 

Figures released in April last year showed taxpayers were forking out $1.2m a week to keep the wheels turning on the Auckland project. 

Auckland Light Rail Ltd (ALR) was paying about $920,000 a week to two engineering companies to plan and design the central city-to-airport light rail project and a further $310,000 to its own contractors and consultants. 

Brown yesterday released a breakdown of the $228m costs of the “expensive vanity project” by Labour over six years. It included: 

  • $116.8m for the operation of ALR since its establishment in October 2022;
  • $25.6m for operations during the Establishment Unit phase (March 2021 to October 2022);
  • $18.6m for other Ministry of Transport costs;
  • $33m to purchase Kingsland’s Kiwi Bacon Building, Kingsland;
  • $34.9m for business case development by NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi.

Auckland Light Rail Ltd’s annual report for the eight months to June 30, 2023, shows it spent $76.7m, of which $67.9m went on professional services for urban, engineering, design, planning, legal and commercial work. Staff costs were $2.1m and general expenses were $5.3m. 

Chief executive Tommy Parker earned $434,000 and the seven board directors were paid $283,000. 

In October last year, ALR said it had budgeted $16m to February this year to work with its engineering partners Arup and Aurecon, to scope and cost the work to develop the next phase of the project, including the business case, how the system will be built and prepare consents. 

In the weeks leading up to last year’s election, ALR agreed to a $33m purchase of Kingsland’s Kiwi Bacon Building close to a proposed new station, bringing a stern rebuke from Brown over the timing. 

“It’s a shocker,” said Brown at the time. 

Transport Minister Simeon Brown. Photo / Alex CairnsTransport Minister Simeon Brown. Photo / Alex Cairns 

Brown said the Government’s focus is now on building a rapid transit network in Auckland and starting work on a Northwest Rapid Transit corridor, alongside other projects to deliver reduced congestion for Aucklanders. 

The Taxpayers’ Union celebrated the Government pulling the plug on light rail, saying the white elephant was estimated to cost $15,000 per household. 

“Vanity projects like this have no place, but doubly so during a cost-of-living crisis caused by irresponsible Government spending,” said policy adviser James Ross. 

Not everyone in Labour supported light rail. Shortly before he died in 2021, former Deputy Prime Minister Sir Michael Cullen criticised supporters, saying they had dismissed the enormous cost and disruption as of little consequence and arrived at the solution before adequately analysing the problem. 

“It looks like an idea whose time has passed,” he said. 

Bernard Orsman is an Auckland-based reporter who has been covering local government and transport since 1998. He joined the Herald in 1990 and worked in the parliamentary press gallery for six years. 


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