Sooo… Tunnel Tram – Greater Auckland

On Friday, the government announced its decision on the light rail.

I should start by saying that it is fantastic that the government has agreed to invest so much in public transport in Auckland. At $10.3 billion in present value, or $14.6 billion with inflation by the time it is completed, it will easily be the largest transport project ever attempted in New Zealand. That’s more than double the current largest, the $4.4 billion City Rail Link. The scale of the investment is something far beyond what I think most would have imagined possible.

So, it’s weird to feel a little let down by it all. Thinking about it over the weekend, I think it’s mainly for two reasons.

  1. That the government chose what we believe to be the ‘worst of both worlds’ option of tunnel light rail, the poor process that led to it and the huge opportunity cost it entails.
  2. Due to the scale of the investment, there are ongoing fears that this will end in the same way as the Northern Path bridge, with the government canceling it in a few months/years – or, given how long it will take to get spikes in the ground, that a future government will.

I’ll cover both of these later in the post, but first: here’s the ad itself (and you can watch it all here), which also included a bonus announcement about a future port crossing.

Overall, the government has opted for exactly the same tunnel light rail proposal as outlined in the summary released last year by the Auckland Light Rail (ALR) team.

I had wondered if they might have asked for more work to confirm if it should just be a tunnel in the city center and then a surface beyond, but they didn’t. haven’t done. Their press release states the following features of the option:

  • 24 km route with up to 18 stations or stops from the city center to Māngere and the airport, running every five minutes so people can turn up and leave.
  • Capable of carrying up to 15,000 passengers per hour at peak times, four times as many passengers as a dedicated bus lane or laneless trams.
  • Removing up to 13 car lanes or removing 12,000* cars from the road, which is a great result for local streets, communities and carbon emissions (*average of 1.2 people per car) .
  • Integrates with current train and bus hubs and City Rail Link stations and connections. The light rail can also be extended to the North Shore and the North-West without having to switch from one line to another.
  • Includes safe walking and cycling along the corridor and with connections to all stations.
  • It is estimated to bring up to 66,000 new homes by 2051 and open housing along the corridor in Mt Roskill, Onehunga and Māngere.
  • Creation of up to 97,000 new jobs by 2051.

They also posted this video of the route:

A few comments on features and maps.

Speaking of a port crossing, the announcement also said that the government is also making decisions on this.

“The government has also committed to an additional crossing of Waitematā Harbor and has advanced planning for the crossing to ensure a fully integrated transport network for Auckland. Public consultation on options for the additional Waitematā Harbor crossing will begin this year, with a preferred option selected in 2023.

“Tossing the can on the road could either prevent a second crossing from being a possibility in the future, or necessitate the reconstruction of the transport infrastructure that will be established, which would incur additional costs.

“The Northern Busway is growing at 20% per year and will run out of capacity in 10 to 15 years. New transportation options for the future are therefore needed, and planning must start now. This move alongside the City Rail Link means that we can now provide fast transit to the North as well as to the South, East and West.

It makes sense to figure out where the tunnel should go, and the government has made it clear that rapid transit will be the backbone. However, it remains unclear whether it will include lanes for general traffic, although the most recent analyzes show that a road crossing would increase congestion and undermine the city’s goals of making the downtown more traffic-oriented. the people. To his credit, Mayor Phil Goff said in his speech that another crossing would be a disaster.

Of course, there also remains the question of how (or if) people will be able to walk, cycle, scooter, ride, etc. across the harbour. We still think a combined PT and active mode bridge would be best (particularly because active modes are all about fresh air!) but that’s harder to provide if the rail is already in a tunnel.

A future town center of Māngere

A broader vision

Stepping back a bit from the specifics, I think the larger question here is how we came to be disappointed with a nearly $15 billion PT project. To me, this is partly the result of our broken business case processes that are simply not suited to answering the questions that needed to be answered.

The light rail team’s analysis has shown that connecting a wide range of places to public transit is useful: universities, Wesley, downtown Mangere, etc. thinking the way to connect them all is with a line zigzagging all over town.

To quote Dr. Ian Malcolmthey or they”were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should“.

If they had known from the start that the government would release $15 billion, what type of light rail and busway surface network, serving a large part of the region, could have been designed? And how would the benefits of this network compare to this single line project?

For example, even with the internationally high cost-per-mile surface option, the ALR team suggested that with $15 billion they could have provided + more than 15 km of surface light metro. This would also be sufficient to build the proposed NW line to Westgate, or alternatively surface light rail for Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd as well as our proposed crosstown route, with green tracks.

In other words, two good lines are better than one great line (and this proposition is not a great line to begin with).

Green slopes in Barcelona, ​​Spain (left) and Grenoble, France (right)

There is also a need for funding for projects such as the airport busway in Botany, an Upper Harbor busway and a large amount of local bus improvements – not to mention the need for rapid transit projects in other areas. other cities in New Zealand.

Interestingly, a large part of the justification for the chosen option concerns the continuity of the lines to the Côte-Nord and the Nord-Ouest. But perversely, this solution may have done the opposite of that. Previous modeling has suggested that these two lines could each end up busier than this one, and both lines will almost certainly be entirely uneven. By taking the next most ideal inner-city tunnel corridor, the proposed plan can lock these other routes into a lower capacity solution and prevent them from being able to run driverless services.

Regarding the $14.6 billion cost, it should also be noted that this is only a P50 estimate – meaning there is a 50% chance that the actual cost will eventually increase, which is very likely with the way construction costs have increased in recent years. . Any increase in costs will only increase the chances that the project will be scaled down or scrapped altogether, and potentially suck funds from other beneficial projects across the city.


Review of shows

Since the announcement, there have been been some criticism that all the concrete and steel needed will see construction emissions increase at a time we need them to go radically in the opposite direction (see graph below of Auckland’s light rail business case).

While I think that’s a fair criticism, especially since the surface option would see emissions rise much less (and we should be very skeptical of any modeling predicting use 60 years from now), in Part of this review is only possible because the ALR team did the work to actually rate the shows.

Assessing emissions is something that doesn’t tend to happen in other transportation business cases, and is therefore usually completely ignored by the media.

For example, we are now receiving daily complaints from the media that Transmission Gully is not open. Yet, I don’t think anyone is bothered by the lifetime emissions of this project, even though it should lead to increased driving, including people switching from electric trains to their cars.


As you can imagine, we’ll be getting a bit more coverage on this in the days and weeks to come, including a dive into the now released Indicative business case and some ideas we had to improve what was proposed.

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Jose P. Rogers